PRAGUE — Walking into the Welcome to Hard Times Exhibition at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, visitors may well hesitate, concerned they have stumbled into the staff gym. There are rows of treadmills and cross trainers. Large mirrors are lined up alongside flat-screen TVs and posters barking motivational messages.
It is the lockers that offer the first knowing wink. Baggage can be squeezed into pigeonholes labeled “feigned tolerance” and “suppressed anger.” And then there’s the next hint that we’re not at the local fitness studio: the looming sculpture of a naked, disdainful man with an oversized head by the entranceway.
This interactive installation — conceived by Erik Kessels and containing work by Elinor Milchan, Antuan Rodriguez, and Viktor Frešo — has a point to make. The point — spelled out in the introductory text in combative tone — is that we are too apathetic and spend too much time worrying about ourselves. We need to disconnect from our apps and instead work up a sweat over the challenges facing the world.
Admonished, we are sent off to explore with no clear route. The black, white, and red color scheme and large boxing ring call to mind Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Jarring chords from the blaring news programs echo from the TVs. Hackles up.
Dominating the space is Elinor Milchan’s video installation My Love Answer Me (2018), in which visitors on treadmills face passerby and surveillance footage of scenes just before high-profile terrorist attacks; the largest screen is filled with the runners from the 2013 Boston Marathon. With our feet moving and heart rate quickening, we become viscerally aware of our bodies while viewing portraits of humanity. The wall panel precedes the death tolls from all the included attacks with a quote from Yuval Noah Hari:
In terrorism fear is the main story, and there is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.
Milchan wants us to question our role as participants, through our creation and consumption of fear-mongering media, in this theater of war. Songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel’s score, seeping into our ears through headphones, and narration by Gill Hicks, a survivor of the 2005 London terrorist attack, elevates the installation from thought-provoking to emotionally affecting. It inspires a personal reflection on what it means to see someone, along with the dangers of casting someone as “the other.”
The theme of division is pursued throughout the gym, from the “them” and “us” boxing gloves to the tower of plastic water bottles bearing the names of waterborne diseases, the latter alluding to those who have access to clean water and the have-nots. Graphics on the large climbing wall detail manmade barriers around the world. The first listed is the US–Mexico border wall.
It seems inevitable in an exhibition that addresses vanity, anxiety, and disgust with people unlike oneself that Donald Trump would crop up sooner or later. In Antuan Rodriguez’s installation Left or Right (2008–ongoing, curated by Marisa Caicholo), Trump’s enraged face is suspended on a punching bag, alongside images of other political leaders, including Putin and Kim Jong-un. The accompanying text encourages visitors to take back power and direct their frustration against the strong men that seek to manipulate our fear. Rodriguez jokes, in an interview for DOX, it is Trump who receives most of the punches. His misshapen bag appears to bear this out.
Confronted by rows of smug faces, it is tempting to land a blow, although visitors familiar with Bushman, Baumeister, and Stack’s research, which warns against the self-perpetuating nature of anger and aggressive behavior, may find themselves recoiling. In an exhibition that presents us with a myriad of complex problems around the world, smacking a picture of Bashar al-Assad in the mouth may all be a little too neat and, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Upstairs, Viktor Frešo’s rows of “Niemand” sculptures (2015) — smaller versions of the statue near the entrance — oversee the action in the gym with a mixture of contempt, arrogance, and bewilderment. Their enlarged heads and vulnerable, naked bodies recall fetuses and bring to mind the idea of the Infant Monarch: a dangerous image of power unfettered by maturity. And that brings us back to Trump.
So, following a session at the Hard Times gym, have we been nudged from our self-regarding insularity and inaction? It is questionable. What the exhibition does best is to capture the overwhelming and disconcerting nature of the world’s problems. There are so many things to consider; it is hard to know where to begin, where to expend energy. The fitness instructor’s command, at the exhibition’s start — which tells us to take individual responsibility, buck up, and get on with it — may be one of the things making us withdraw, put our heads down, and pound out our anxieties on the treadmill.
Welcome to Hard Times continues at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art (Poupětova 1, Prague 7) through February 4.