Art

The Power of Protest Art, from Goya to Polke

In Soulèvements, an ahistorical exhibition of art made for and about acts of protest, works either make their political agendas self-evident or embed them in their formal properties.

Still from Chieh-Jen Chen, "The Route" (2006), 35 mm film transferred to DVD, color and black and white, silent, 16:45 (© Chieh-Jen Chen, courtesy galerie Lily Robert)
Still from Chen Chieh-jen, “The Route” (2006), 35 mm film transferred to DVD, color and black and white, silent, 16:45 (© Chen Chieh-jen, courtesy galerie Lily Robert)

PARIS — The election of the offensive and dangerous demagogue Donald Trump imbues Soulèvements (“Uprisings”) at the Jeu de Paume with topically charged significance. The curator — philosopher, and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman — asks us to consider what makes people rise up through a selection of rambunctious images that depict revolt. The result is a timely, trans-disciplinary exhibition that gathers evidence of human gestures that say “no” in intolerable moments of history that need resisting, opposing, non-normalizing, and lifting by rising up against them, transforming immobility into movement, encumbrance into energy, defeat into revolt. It is a great comfort and aid to the task of reinventing and reestablishing political hopes of collective equality and liberation.

Germaine Krull, "Jo Mihaly, danse 'Révolution'" (1925), Museum Folkwang, Essen (© Estate Germaine Krull, Folkwang Museum, Essen)
Germaine Krull, “Jo Mihaly, danse ‘Révolution'” (1925), Museum Folkwang, Essen (© Estate Germaine Krull, Folkwang Museum, Essen)

The show’s titular vertical thrust — best signaled by the raised fists in Germaine Krull’s photo “Jo Mihaly, danse ‘Révolution’” (1925) and Hiroji Kubota’s “Chicago Black Panther Rally” (1969) — may be only one of many theoretical and formal approaches to the political “no.” In fact, the upward thrust is overly privileged here. With few exceptions, forms of hierarchical lifting are placed above exuberant undercutting, denial, demarcation, sabotage, and substrate slews of lush or harsh noise. These anti-form methods of moving us beyond the limits of our logo- and ego-dependent political imaginations get short shrift here, perhaps because they are less visually obvious in that they rely on more environmentally embedded triggers and lateral self-organizing processes. But we do see such processes at work in Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray’s “Dust Breeding” (c. 1920), as reproduced in Littérature, no.5 (1923). This dusty, lateral work partially conceals, and so obscures, the clarity of the battling images that make up the dialogue in the male/female bifurcated narrative of Duchamp’s sculpture “The Large Glass” (1915–23). The naturally formed dust mask reinvents the work’s habitual reading. But Didi-Huberman, who has long explored the links between images, words, and politics (staring with his early work on photography and hysteria), is understandably focused on the logo-centric figure more than the entangled transmission of ground.

Still, in our era of image information overload, can clear dialectical images of defiant gestures inspire civil disobedience, insubordination, or beneficial creative negation? Much of the raging and revolting energy (aimed often against multiculturalism, which is bizarrely labeled as elite) has been perpetrated by the fringe alt-right uprising, an extremist movement soon to be swathed in White House power. Can oppositional, dialectical images even sketch out some of the problems that need resisting? Perhaps images made of more ground than foreground could better convey how low-investment, low-demand, low-returns policies have set the stage for xenophobic racist populism. Following Trump’s triumph, France too seems poised to tear apart institutions and enable far right fever dreams to thrive. In the coming French election, the extreme right will most likely end as a choice, as well as a return to the austerity of Thatcherism. How can historical radical images, no matter how rambunctious, have any impact considering what planetary-scale computation and the movement of people has done to regional geopolitical realities? How can historical, representational imagery shake people’s subjective sense of future expectations and cause them to demand a rejuvenation of the left, rather than a mourning of its failures or praise of its past glories?

Eduardo Gil, "Niños desaparecidos. Secunda Marcha de la Resistancia, 9–10 décembre 1982" (1982), collection of the artist (courtesy the artist, © Eduardo Gil)
Eduardo Gil, “Niños desaparecidos. Secunda Marcha de la Resistancia, 9–10 décembre 1982” (1982), collection of the artist (courtesy the artist, © Eduardo Gil)
Francisco de Goya, "Los Caprichos" (1799), collection Sylvie and Georges Helft (photo by and courtesy Jean de Calan)
Francisco de Goya, “Los Caprichos” (1799), collection Sylvie and Georges Helft (photo by and courtesy Jean de Calan)

These questions are not meant to imply that Soulèvements fails to think about images outside of the standard clichés, or that it is uninspiring. The show is definitely nurturing of left-leaning rebellious reveries and ends with a focus on the Paris Commune, the radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris for three months in 1871. In times of strife there is something comforting and seductive, almost romantic, about such revolutionary nostalgia. But this non-linear extravaganza has so many of them — all heavily laden with text — that it will test viewers’ stamina. The exhibition shows an exhaustive (perhaps excessive) range of powerful gestures of uprising across a penumbral range of still and moving images, books, political documents, and objects from the 19th century to the present by some 100 artists, filmmakers, and activists, including Francisco de Goya, Wolf Vostell, Tina Modotti, Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza, Raymond Hains, Robert Morris, Annette Messager, and Chen Chieh-jen.

Ken Hamblin, "Detroit Police Headquarters, Beaubien Street" (1971), Fifth Estate photo (Joseph A. Labadie Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)
Ken Hamblin, “Detroit Police Headquarters, Beaubien Street” (1971), Fifth Estate photo (Joseph A. Labadie Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)
Raoul Hausman, "Portrait of Herwarth Walden at Bonset, postcard sent to Théo Van Doesburg" (1921), Theo and Nelly van Doesburg Archives (photo courtesy collection RKD — Netherlands Institute for Art History; © ADAGP, Paris, 2016)
Raoul Hausman, “Portrait of Herwarth Walden at Bonset, postcard sent to Théo Van Doesburg” (1921), Theo and Nelly van Doesburg Archives (photo courtesy collection RKD — Netherlands Institute for Art History; © ADAGP, Paris, 2016)

The show is organized into vague thematic categories, such as “Elements (Unleashed)” and “Gestures (Intense),” which offer little of substance within the greater topic of images supportive of political uprisings. The hot sauce is found in certain individual works that transcend these extraneous, loose categories and go straight to the meat of the matter, even if they need to bend towards lateral concealment at times. Standouts include Ken Hamblin’s intense documentary photograph “Detroit Police Headquarters, Beaubien Street” (1971), which speaks directly to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. Jasmina Metwaly’s video diptych “Tahrir Square: Cut Skin”/ “Metro Vent” (2011), catches something of the abstract powerful swoosh of mass movement, as does Henri Michaux’s “Sans titre” (“Untitled,” 1957). Pairing Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer by Friedrich Nietzsche with Jack Goldstein’s film “A Glass of Milk” (1972) — where a fist incessantly bangs a table, spilling milk from a glass — is brilliant. Lorna Simpson’s humming film loop “Easy to Remember” (2001) was easy to enjoy, but it was difficult for me to understand why it was placed in this disturbance-centered context. Sigmar Polke’s large print-paintings “Gegen die zwei Supermächte — für eine rote Schweiz (1st version)” (1976) and “To Versailles, to Versailles” (1988), Robert Filliou’s cheeky Fluxus box, “Optimistic Box no. 1” (1968), and Federico García Lorca’s lovely, flowing drawing “Mierda” (“Shit,” 1934) — the latter of which is paired with Raoul Hausmann’s crazed Dada postcard piece, “Portrait of Herwarth Walden at Bonset” (1921) — fit right in to the insurgence theme and are all outstanding.

Sigmar Polke, "Gegen die zwei Supermächte — für eine rote Schweiz (1st version)" (1976), Ludwig Forum für internationale Kunst, Aachen (© The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ADAGP, Paris, 2016)
Sigmar Polke, “Gegen die zwei Supermächte — für eine rote Schweiz (1st version)” (1976), Ludwig Forum für internationale Kunst, Aachen (© The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne / ADAGP, Paris, 2016)

Maria Kourkouta’s still-cam video “Idomeni, March 14th, 2016 Greco-Macedonian Border” (2016), where we watch migrant families marching in the mud with their possessions on their backs, is absolutely heartbreaking. On the other hand, Hugo Aveta’s free flowing dreamy green video animation, “Basic Rhythms: Subversion of the Soul” (2014), uplifts with its enthralling click-drone soundtrack. Radical Peruvian artist and iconography researcher Jesús Ruiz Durand contributes the fuzzy blurred image “Untitled, Peru” (1972), which gets it right, too. This woolly work comments on the ambiguities of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform movement (1969–73), an uprising that remains in contention, as does the left-wing military dictatorship (1968–75) of Juan Velasco Alvarado, who carried out the severe program of land expropriation. After resulting worker-managed cooperatives began to falter, and the country returned to civilian rule in the 1980s, members of the leftist elite distributed the land among themselves. In the mid-1990s, neoliberal policies undid what was left of the leftist reforms. While this uprising caused enormous upheaval and disappointment, supposedly leaving the Peruvian economy in ruins, it broke up the unjust and oppressive hacienda system.

Félix Vallotton, "La Charge" (1893), Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, gift of Adèle and Georges Besson in 1963, on long-term loan to the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon (© Centre Pompidou / MNAM; photo by Pierre Guenat, Besançon, Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie)
Félix Vallotton, “La Charge” (1893), Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, gift of Adèle and Georges Besson in 1963, on long-term loan to the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon (© Centre Pompidou / MNAM; photo by Pierre Guenat, Besançon, Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie)

Aside from the context of linear history provided by particular works, with Soulèvements — as with Jean-Hubert Martin’s Carambolages exhibition — we are no longer in the coherent plot of the teleological, but in laissez-faire land. The same problem persists: the stupidity of inoperative fascination. Visual semblance — as when photographs of young men throwing rocks in different years and locations are set side by side — stresses superficial resemblance and misses more profound and specific conditions concerning the dark insidiousness of their distinctive devastations. Quick and easy visual connections may thrill the eye, but they also threaten critical understandings of historical specificity. Thus, nothing smashes or breaches notions of institutional, racial, and gender decorum. Sure, unexpected cross-seeds are sown that might push back against collective amnesia and inertia. But I struggle to see how these zippy connections offer ideas for uprising (or undercutting) resistances in a time of deflation, xenophobia, and divide-and-rule politics. Most of these image connections suggest the globalization fallacy of image equality. Few suggest or propose a political orientation that goes beyond the world as we already know it — because to do so would mean an unclear picture.

Annette Messager, "Les Piques" (1992), collection of the artist (courtesy Annette Messager and Marian Goodman Gallery; © ADAGP, Paris, 2016)
Annette Messager, “Les Piques” (1992), collection of the artist (courtesy Annette Messager and Marian Goodman Gallery; © ADAGP, Paris, 2016)
Art and Language, "Shouting Men" (1975, detail), MACBA Collection, MACBA Consortium, long-term loan of Philippe Méaille (photo by Àngela Gallego, © Art and Language)
Art and Language, “Shouting Men” (1975, detail), MACBA Collection, MACBA Consortium, long-term loan of Philippe Méaille (photo by Àngela Gallego, © Art and Language)

Didi-Huberman has published more than 30 books about theories of the image, exploring examples that range from the Renaissance to contemporary art, and baring the influence of German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg. His conceptually heavy image theory at work here is that temporally related or relatable gestures of social, political, and cultural uprising act as easily recognizable inscriptions across the breath of human cultures. If that was his only goal, it works, and the result is that it inspires and supports values of resolution and action for those with tolerant but now angry eyes. Soulèvements thrillingly documents political gestures of resistance in the past that bring to mind an array of possible political responses to current anti-globalization power shifts to the far right. But historical images don’t go far enough in supporting what needs to emerge — something, in my mind, that resembles Bernie Sanders’s proposed construction of a new political assemblage (our assemblage). Trump’s terrible taste invites new image-ideas that push back against the golden, glittering aesthetic of his branding. It is a misfortune that not more of the works in Soulèvements demand of us to look deeper to where the problems stem — and where we heal our hurt.

Hélio Oiticica and Leandro Katz, "Parangolé — Encuentros de Pamplona, 1972" (1972), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (photo by Archives Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; © Projeto Hélio Oiticica; © Leandro Katz)
Hélio Oiticica and Leandro Katz, “Parangolé — Encuentros de Pamplona, 1972” (1972), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (photo by Archives Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; © Projeto Hélio Oiticica; © Leandro Katz)

Soulèvements continues at the Jeu de Paume (1 Place de la Concorde, 8th arrondissement, Paris, Prance) through January 15, 2017.

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