Zero Tolerance at MoMA PS1 tackles an ambitiously broad subject: the intersection between protest and art. This theme suggests curatorial questions: What criteria must a protest meet to be labeled “art”? Conversely, what level of political engagement does art need to exhibit to be deemed “protest”? Curator Klaus Biesenbach and curatorial assistant Margaret Aldredge do not seem overly concerned with clarifying these conceptual challenges. Their introductory wall text reads:
Zero Tolerance brings together works by artists from across the globe that address tensions between freedom and control. Many of the works combine elements of political demonstration and celebratory parades to create art of a charged and ambivalent nature, responding to concerns specific in place and time.
“Concerns specific in place and time” is the crux of the show’s curatorial logic; it appears that pieces must deal overtly with specific issues to be included here. What unfolds over at least seven rooms of the museum is an extremely wide range of locales, sociopolitical situations, and time periods, making for a problematic dispersal even as wall text explains the various contexts. For example, ACT UP New York’s “Silence=Death” poster from 1987 — one of few non-video works in the show — shares a room with a video of Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer-Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!,” the 2012 performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior that led to the imprisonment of three of their members. It’s hard to find a complementary artistic relationship between the two groups, although the political connection can be seen in an appeal for state recognition of non-heteronormative identities. But grouping artists together simply for their use of performance in social protest and a vaguely similar end goal destructively reduces the complexity of both.
Two rooms away, Yoko Ono’s video “Bed Peace” (1969) and poster “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas From John and Yoko” (1969) are placed near a reproduced screenprint of Joseph Beuys’s “Democracy is Merry” (1973). Again, it’s hard to see a fertile thematic continuity between these artists: Beuys was emerging from a post-WWII Germany mired in the reimagining of identity in order to escape a dark political past in which his generation was complicit. Yoko Ono and John Lennon, while perhaps conceptually similar to Beuys in their goal of integrating life and art, came from a radically different sociopolitical place. Again, the exhibition’s intellectual logic seems confused and flimsy, even as individual works are full of merit; the grouping of pieces from such different contexts creates strange clashes.
Another puzzle Zero Tolerance doesn’t adequately tackle is the potential aestheticization of violence in exhibiting protest art. Many of the pieces, including Artur Żmijewski’s 20-channel video installation “Democracies” (2009) and Igor Grubić’s “East Side Story” (2006–08), feature a seemingly endless demonstration of police brutality, sometimes with citizen accomplices. These artists have compiled such footage to make a comment on violence, clearly not to aestheticize it. But when so many similar works are grouped together, to what extent do viewers lose sensitivity to the real, physical harm being done to individuals in each video?
Arguably, Zero Tolerance’s strongest works are not based on video footage of performances or protests, but rather are entirely self-sufficient. A room is devoted to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s series Demonstration Drawings (2009), which features 200 works commissioned and collected by Tiravanija in response to protests of Thailand’s 2009 military coup. The variety of style, the delicacy of many of the drawings, the sheer number of works, and the poignant human expressions they capture make Demonstration Drawings an immersive, emotional experience.
Perhaps the best piece in the show is Halil Altindere ’s “Wonderland” (2013), a hip-hop music video featuring the Turkish group Tahribad-ı isyan as they protest the government’s destruction and subsequent gentrification of Istanbul’s Sulukule neighborhood. “Wonderland” is a reminder of how political hip-hop once was and can be, here stripped to the essentials of smart, angry lyrics and symbolic imagery.
Despite the fact that many components of Zero Tolerance could have been improved, Biesenbach and Aldredge should be commended for their ambition — itself a political move — to give voice to a wide variety of injustices, most of which have been little, if at all, ameliorated.
Zero Tolerance continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) through April 13.