LISBON — There is a massive survey of video art from the last 10 years at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). Titled Tensão & Conflito (Tension & Conflict), it focuses on the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, and is challenging not only in its content, but in how it demands a viewer’s sustained attention.
“We know from statistics that have been published recently, that people now tend to spend even less than one minute in front of an artwork,” said the museum’s director and exhibition curator, Pedro Gadanho, in a telephone interview with Hyperallergic. “And therefore video becomes much more challenging, because people are not used to the fact that, rather than just glimpsing at a work, they have to be there for five, six, seven, 10 minutes. For us it was a very interesting challenge to question that aspect, but I think it has been successful, because when I go around the exhibition, I see people sitting, paying attention, and really following the narrative. Because, at the same time, we know that video deploys a language that is much more common for people to relate to.”
There is a certain push-and-pull that happens when I am before a video in a museum — let alone in an entire exhibition of video — as I gauge whether I will have the patience to stay through the end. But with the videos here, this hesitation was even more fraught, as each of them presents some kind of overt conflict, crisis, or chaotic scene. To pull away wouldn’t feel right; the content demands not only patience, but emotional presence.
Some works document literal, real-world acts of political resistance, such as “Today, I am just a butterfly sending you a sentence” (2016) by Portuguese artist Patricia Almeida. The seven-minute video dissects and contextualizes footage of activist Josephine Witt’s demonstration against the European Central Bank in April of 2015, wherein she jumped on a table in front of President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, and shouted, “End the ECB dictatorship!” and threw a handful of confetti (that she likened to butterflies), before being arrested. Another, “This Lemon Tastes of Apple” (2011), captures the direct involvement of Iraqi artist Hiwa K in a march on the last day before the two-month ban of protests against the Kurdish Regional Government that occurred in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Hiwa K is documented moving through the protest march, playing on a harmonica, but the situation devolves into conflict around him, as tear gas is introduced to the crowd. The lemons referred to in the title are a means used by protesters to protect themselves from the tear gas, the smell of which is reminiscent of apples.
Other videos take a more abstract approach. Three works by Italian artist Federico Solmi, collectively titled Chinese Democracy and the Last Day on Earth Video Trilogy (2011–2014), present a loose narrative and surrealist whirl of political symbolism in a jarring mono-channel animation. Cartoonish dictators and bloodless politicians move through landscapes of corporate logos and flag motifs. There is little sense of specificity, and yet the characters and scenarios feel disturbingly identifiable and common — political machinations have become as predictable, impersonal, and codified as ballroom dance.
Amidst all the blunt symbolism, perhaps the most subtle work on display is “Veridis Quo” (2016), by French artist Lola Gonzàlez. The 15-minute piece is like a short film, featuring a group of young people in a seaside house in Brittany. The group runs weapons drills, and practices target shooting while blindfolded, before gathering for an evening meal. The next morning, the majority of the group appears to be afflicted with blindness, which cues them to take up arms and be led to the sea by the two members of the group that retained their sight.
Works like Gonzàlez’s point to the notion that crisis is not just a set of external circumstances, but one of psychological or existential proportions.
“If you ask younger artists, you’ll certainly notice how it’s been so hard for younger generations to actually get their place in society,” said Gadanho. “I think that is obviously a consequence of the crisis.” Just as the effects of trauma may long outlast the conditions that gave rise to it, one wonders if the collective disillusionment of an entire generation of artists and citizens is something that can be shrugged off with a mere economic upturn. There is a sense of the walls closing in on the exhibition, each video a window into a world that has little to offer in the way of positive ideation. There is tension and conflict aplenty, but little in the way of solution.
The show certainly presents perspectives on a global scale, including 22 artists from North, Central, and South America, Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. “Casus Belli” (2010) by Greek artist Yorgos Zois films an endless line of people waiting to engage in different forms of consumption — grocery store, nightclub, and ATM (a direct reference to a cash crisis in Greece that limited people to withdrawing €20 per day for necessities) — until the order of the line is disrupted by food running out. “Casus belli” is a Latin expression for “an act that justifies war,” and the conflict in the line creates a domino fall into chaos, underscoring the impact of austerity measures. In a sense, each video reveals another part of the world struggling for air in the atmosphere of late capitalism.
The work in Tensions & Conflict is a lot to take in. Some of the videos run close to the two-hour mark, and it is simply unimaginable that any viewer, no matter how interested or determined, is going to be able to absorb this much material. As much as we are used to seeing videos, we almost never watch them standing up while holding our coats in a semi-darkened room, or sitting on a cube with no back, or by starting them two-thirds of the way through and watching in a disordered loop. It is not just MAAT, but museums in general, that are overdue in developing new strategies to bring video art to an audience.
A visitor could pick and choose a handful of pieces in the exhibition, and still have an extremely satisfying experience, but it seems unlikely to me that anyone has the capacity to truly take in this much visual content in one try (or even a few). There are flashes of real fascination and joy, and even brushes with the sublime, but there is also a lot of direct and abstract representation of stress and problems without much hope of transcendence. It is clearly not the intention of Tension & Conflict to present the world through rose-colored glasses, but I left the exhibition with a similar sense of overwhelmed exhaustion as I do when I listen to too much news on the radio. Ultimately, too much video art has the same enervating effect, for me, as too much television of any kind: I find myself more compelled to take a nap than take to the streets.
Tensão & Conflito (Tension & Conflict) continues at the Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Technologia (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, MAAT) (Av. Brasília, 1300-598, Lisbon) through March 19. MAAT provided support for some of the author’s travel expenses.