I tell you what a real VIP is
A face that never was nor will be kissed
In putting together this exhibition, I started with a title and a number of artists whose work I was interested in, and whose approach to art in general I felt was challenging and provocative within the field and more broadly. One of the methodologies has been to present these different approaches in proximity and then see what emerges. Throughout the essay, I rarely make pronouncements about the artists as a group, but I am prepared to do that a little now. When I write of complicity, I understand that I am in a sense talking about power, and how artists relate themselves to it. There is a politics to acknowledging that one is positioned in a world of implication, and this acknowledgment can produce surprising intimacies and routes to understanding. When Yael Bartana folds into her project the proud voice of a man whose defense of Israeli militarism and exceptionalism is manifestly opposed to the positions she has developed in her work, she is creating a kind of threshold. We can listen to him, and understand his positions; even as he has taken a step into her structure, one has a sense of possibility. Some years ago, at an opening in LA, Danh Vo was approached by an old white American man who invited him to visit his home. Vo gladly did so. There he found a trove of materials from the man’s time working for the Rand Corporation in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including many voyeuristic and eroticized photographs of young Vietnamese men. I think there is something significant about this moment in time, where rather than decry the colonial and sexual politics of the man, Vo befriended him. He exhibited the photographs almost as if they were portraits of the youth in Vietnam that he never actually had. He became the subject of this erotic gaze, and also duplicated it, creating a call and response with the author and the subjects of the images, one that acknowledged the implicit power dynamics but also sidestepped the dead-end binaries that attended them.1
I am often surprised within the art world—which is, after all, such an open space—by the degree to which people simplify complex ideas based on ideological assumptions that they do not question. I don’t want to relitigate battles that have been fought over the past thirty to forty years in art, but I do think it significant that there is such a resurgence of interest in art from the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, particularly work associated with identity politics. There was a sense toward the end of that period, which many people associate with the aftermath of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, that people got tired of the subject position battles. There was a backlash as artists, critics, and institutions grew weary of defending their privilege and more or less decided that the whole identity politics thing was over.
Attendant with that has been a simplification of the art of the time, as if somehow it was lacking in formal or material complexity, and was merely artists stating self-essentializing positions as a way to make space for marginalized positions within an art world that had hitherto excluded them. And yet, of course, much of the art of that era continues to inform and enrich the present. While I am not suggesting that the artists in this exhibition represent Identity Politics 2.0 (as if identity politics ever ended, for that matter; it is everywhere, all the time, de facto, and we are all participants), they do represent artists who are unafraid to engage the world in broad and ambitious ways, and who deploy their identity, or at least a conscious acknowledgment of its existence, within the work. What feels different to me is that they all reconsider notions of loyalty to a group away from identification based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and toward some less codified organization of alliances. This happens most overtly in Bartana’s JRMiP (Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland) that welcomes, in effect, anyone who in theorist Julia Kristeva’s famous formulation feels like “strangers to ourselves.” But it’s also there in Hito Steyerl, who pits the organized oasis of the gated community, with its silhouettes aimlessly enjoying a purgatory of leisure time, against the dancing pixels of the wide-open desert who disarm US helicopters and fly away with drones. It’s there with Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who uses a productive animism to commune with the object of the graph, decoupling it from its utilitarian function in the service of the narrow profit-based metrics of ArtFacts, and setting up a subjective model for engagement with the world through selective and strategic over-identifications with the object of one’s oppression. Nástio Mosquito’s “army of the individuals” is about a shifting contextual range of allegiances, a receptivity and openness to alliance, and—dare I say it—a relativistic embrace of community formed around elusive but contagious moments of participation and intimacy. Even Bjarne Melgaard’s gay separatist terrorist group is less about a trenchant ideological position than it is about presenting, through excess, the redundancy of mainstream notions of intimacy, collectivity, and behavior. When Liam Gillick asks the visitor to his exhibition at Venice, “How are you going to behave?” it’s as if he is throwing down the gauntlet, saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about you … if you are willing.” He has in that moment, to my mind at least, laid himself bare, and what you make of it is partially dependent on your capacity for empathy or generosity. The you that he addresses personalizes the interaction, turns the visitor from an identification with a group—here possibly the art world cognoscenti drifting in an opinion-fueled haze from one pavilion to another—to an engagement with their own individual subjectivity and agency. Gillick’s question could be echoed by Mosquito’s “What are you going to do with your education, become part of a structure or build a structure?”
An acknowledgment of one’s complicity and ability to display a self-awareness in relation to the structures one navigates, of course, is not in itself a panacea for forging an optimistic path into the future. But it also can’t be ignored as a position. It certainly proceeds with a greater integrity and sense of possibility than work that assumes that language and culture and the artist, for that matter, are transparent carriers of meaning—imagine, for example, an exhibition that is titled 9 Artists because there are nine artists in it. I like to think that everything is more complicated and then simpler than it initially appears. From the point of view of subjectivity and representation, we are entering an age of ever-increasing surveillance—with chilling effects on individual expression and the nurturing of difference, but also of access to multiple competing and elucidatory sources of information. It’s a moment of opportunity, of increasingly distributed and enigmatically enacted democratic impulses. It feels like a pivot point in global history, where everything is both possible and impossible.
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1 The photographs by anthropologist Joseph M. Carrier were first exhibited in Vo’s exhibition Good Life at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, in 2007. They were accompanied by other items from Carrier’s archive, including a letter, a business card, and a camera (see plate 15 in this catalogue). The photographs and camera were displayed in elegant spot-lit vitrines surrounded by gold flock wallpaper. The press release accompanying the exhibition was written by Carrier and told how he had come to meet Vo in LA: “I immediately felt attracted to him and knew that I wanted to have some kind of close relationship.” And indeed, Vo and Carrier developed a friendship in subsequent years. See Kirsty Bell, “Danh Vo,” Frieze Journal (September 2007), accessed August 1,2013.