March 9- April 21, Smak Mellon, Brooklyn, NY
92 Plymouth Street @ Washington
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Curated by Nina Horisaki-Christens
Opening reception, March 9, 5-8pm
Anida Yoeu Ali and Mary Jane Villamor, Corey Escoto, Elana Mann, MTL, Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong in collaboration with the Acting the Words is Enacting the World collective, Michala Paludan, Sreshta Rit Premnath, Christine Rebet, Dread Scott, and Mary Simpson
In the relationship between aesthetics and politics, there is always a risk of falling into the gap between the personal and the communal. Art, and by extension aesthetics, is often discussed as a highly personal, radically individualized form of expression while politics is, by necessity, a force of society that seeks solutions to shared interests. But perhaps this contradiction has been overstated, as it is generally accepted that any art, regardless of its intentions, necessarily takes a political stance by either conforming to or protesting against established systems of power and value. So if the political is necessarily unavoidable, what is the role of an aesthetic that consciously allies itself with the resistance to hegemonic powers? What does it look like, how does it operate, and who is a part of it? The Hollow Center takes such questions as its impetus, featuring recent works by artists that seek both an historical account of and a future potential for a potent aesthetics of resistance.
The communal is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme in this show, but with the added caveat that it is a specifically decentralized, non-hierarchical communal structure to which these artists look time and again. In The Square and Monuments to an Unfinished Revolution Christine Rebet considers the social and aesthetic lessons of the Arab Spring. With The Square taking its inspiration from Samuel Beckett’s ballet “Quad” and Monuments to an Unfinished Revolution looking to improvisational armaments devised by the revolutionaries in the Middle-Eastern uprisings, these works consider the potential forms and unexpected alliances between the domestic and public spheres that are nurtured by a decentralized, communal movement. MTL, a collaboration that joins research, aesthetics and activism, seeks the space of inclusion, imagining a revolution that is open to all. Considering and analyzing who speaks on behalf of someone and why through a series of posters, interventions into public space, and video communiqués, MTL’s interest lies in exploring what it means to represent the will of the people and how a movement can rise above rhetoric to consider the real social and cultural experience of being human. Similarly, Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong, collaborating with a group of nine young people in a two-week workshop, formed the Acting the Words is Enacting the World collective. Based on a series of discussions about economics, politics, and personal agency, the group produced sculpture, text, performances, and images representative of the participants’ discoveries. Included in this show are the performances, inspired by techniques adapted from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, and posters developed from the young people’s own commentary during the workshop discussions. The project stands as both an experiment in radical pedagogy, and as an expression of communal thought that still retains a personal voice.
At the other end of the spectrum are works that explore the explicitly personal voices of dissent. Anida Yoeu Ali and Mary Jane Villamor’s In Transience used the language of the dispossessed – the marker and cardboard sign so readily associated with the homeless – to voice their own personal grievances with their situations within society. Equating creative and economic woes, political and personal concerns, and exploring the visibility of these voices of dissent through the extremely public but also invisible space of the panhandler, their 8-hour durational performance in public space sought to provoke in the passerby a reconsideration of their assumptions regarding need and provision, public and private, agency and visibility. Looking away from the urban environment, Corey Escoto’s Lost Generations takes the scenery of the highway as its inspiration. Combining the space of reflection opened up by roadside imagery’s unusual sense of both immediacy and distance with the practice in rural areas of placing idiosyncratic messages espousing one’s personal social or political views where one’s property meets the highway, Escoto’s oversized reflective tape banner poetically expresses his hopes for the social and political future. Through this public declaration, Escoto seeks to forge empathetic connections that can overcome the alienation of the urban environment and the current socio-politico-economic system.
Taking on the iconography of protest more directly, Elana Mann’s IBD (Improvised Balloon Device) takes its inspiration from uses of black balloons and mourning attire in political protest. As Luis Camnitzer writes of one such event in 1969, protesters holding these black balloons “created a spectacle that could only be appreciated from outside the rally…[the audience] would, hopefully, be watching the demonstration on the news at home.” Implicitly recognizing the power of iconography over participation in such demonstrations, and drawing on the aesthetic similarity between these black balloons and bubbling oil, Mann creates a new, lonesome image that equates oil, isolation, and death, questioning the entire economic system of values that places oil at the heart of our economic engine. Delving deeper into the history of protest, Dread Scott’s painting series Revolutionary Archive draws on vintage photographs from the arc of communist revolution: the Paris Commune, the October Revolution and the Chinese Revolution. Focusing on the importance of the exchange of ideas to revolutionary transformation, Scott paints over parts of the original image, graphically highlighting and obscuring methods of communication, and aestheticizing the archival image in an effort to awaken viewers to messages about the form and methodology of communal action contained within the dusty archive. Similarly, Sreshta Rit Premnath’s Zero Knot explores the ambiguity of public images – specifically those of the monument. Equating the monument with the mathematical Zero Knot (a knot that can only in the end take the form of a circle no matter how apparently complex), Premnath writes, “the monument can be seen as a cipher, simultaneously absent and present. After all, the word monument is derived from the word monere, “to remind,” already containing within it the fear of forgetting.” Through sculptures that resemble signs bearing images that deconstruct the monument, and an overturned bust concealed in a blue tarp, Premnath’s work explores the potential for subversion and recontextualization contained within the public iconography of authority, pointing to the political symbol’s contingency, situated as it is within time and space.
At the core of The Hollow Center, however, is an interest in the mutual dependency of the political and the aesthetic realms. Michala Paludan’s Revy, an exploration of the history and iconography of the Revolutionært Teater, focuses on a sketch, “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” produced for the Danish Communist Party’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death. Exploring the relationship between a marginal political party and an ostensibly avant-garde artistic group, Paludan articulates the co-dependency of theatrics and politics on the form and structure of artistic expression. In a series of new works including painting, banners, and video, Mary Simpson deconstructs verbal and aesthetic gestures. Drawing from Eastern European and Russian visual sources including medieval era satirical political posters, Simpson analyzes the inherent contradictions embodied by these gestural attempts. She seeks the moments in which the attempt to highlight, in itself, obscures the image. In exposing the fractures in these representations, she points to the cultural assumptions that allow a system of communication to function, but also provide the point of entry for strategies of resistance.
The Hollow Center is more of a reflection on how art can and has interfaced with politics than a primer on the way forward. At the same time, the works on display, in their articulations of the potentials and pitfalls of the relationship between aesthetics and the politics, do point toward the capacity of art to re-orient our understanding of the social and political, and, by extension, the necessity of developing a sophisticated aesthetic approach to any political movement. An appreciation of the contingency of iconography, an infiltration of the public sphere by the domestic and the marginalized, a space for both the personal voice and a communal sense of solidarity, as well as a mutual dependency between aesthetic and political aims surface as guiding concepts posited by these projects. They are positioned neither as a purely individual nor a strictly communal approach; instead we find that it is only through the carving and emptying out of the centralized power structures, freeing space for unexpected alliances, that a new way forward can be imagined. So it is that the aesthetics of resistance must cling to this ideal of the hollow center.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and with generous support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Smack Mellon’s Members. Smack Mellon’s programs are also made possible with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and New York City Council Member Stephen Levin, and with generous support from Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, Jerome Foundation, The Robert Lehman Foundation, The Greenwich Collection Ltd, Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation Inc., 2012 JPMorgan Chase Regrant Program administered by Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC), and Foundation for Contemporary Arts.Space for Smack Mellon’s programs is generously provided by the Walentas family and Two Trees Management.