A utopic multilogue (in the age of absence)
“The loftiest work [of art] will always be, as in the Greek tragedians, Melville, Tolstoy, or Molière, the works that maintains an equilibrium between reality and men’s rejection of that reality, each forcing the other upward in a ceaseless overflowing, characteristic of life itself at its most joyous and heart-rending extremes.”
Albert Camus – Create Dangerously, 1957
A year or so ago, when the project of “Ride into the Sun” was starting to take shape through conversations between my fellow curators and the artists, we were oblivious to what was about to happen in 2020. One would have been excused for associating the ride into the sun with the topical ending of a “western” movie, a joyous moment after all the villains had been returned to justice. The innocence of that scene, needless to say, is long gone after all the tragic events that this past year has brought about. Many conversations between all of us were focused on how we could still make a meaningful project with all the restrictions, limitations, personal and collective tragedies that the pandemic brought about. We were forced to stir away from our initial project, art works took a different shape, concepts were re-discussed in the light of a changed world, we all had to abandon our familiar ways of working and planning, even doubting to be able to realize the project all together.
A year ago, an introductory text to this biennial might have had the rhetoric we are all too used to when encountering an exhibition, discussing the intricate philosophical ties between utopia, capitalism and proto-fascist ideologies currently spreading rapidly throughout the whole world. And while certainly there is still a reason to open up these discussions in the light of the works on display, I feel it is necessary to start discussing about this biennial from the day to day conversations we engaged with throughout these past few months. I am allowing myself to open this text with this personal note not just because I think the extraordinary circumstances call for it, but also because I find a subtle but illuminating connection between this and one of the main criticism of utopias emerging from our dialogues.
In Albert Camus’ famous speech given at Upsala University in 1957 and later transcribed into the essay “Create dangerously”, the Algerian-French philosopher discusses the delicate balance an artist has to find between individual freedom and political/social responsibility Not surprisingly given his political believes, he ultimately exhorts the artist to create works engaging with civil society not through the “roaring voice” and fury of history but with a sound as delicate as the flapping of a dove’s wings. Camus is clearly aware of the struggle this entails for the artist and renders this very convincingly and emotionally in his speech.
A similar tightrope walk between a fascination towards dreams and aspirations on the one side and reality on the other is also key to the profound criticism moved towards Utopias by the narrative developed throughout the exhibition. From the 1921 Albona Republic (Labinska Republika) to the socialist dreams of united Yugoslavia, passing through the dark period characterized by the Fascist ideology of Mussolini in the 1930s that profoundly shaped, not just as a society but also physically the territory “Ride into the Sun” is inhabiting, with the creation of towns such as Pozzo Littorio (today’s Labin) and of course Raša, this is without a doubt the perfect location to stage such a reflection. To curate a biennial today is, most of all, creating an occasion for a democratic dialogue between contrasting readings of themes filtered through the emotions, sensitivities and poetic language deployed by the artists. A method and process that, in itself, is a criticism of a way of thinking, the one based on utopias, that is almost by default aimed at ridding the world from the complexity, imperfections and multiplicities that form the very essence of our environment, that give us the richness in thought diversity and natural varieties we cannot do without for ours and others species to survive on earth. The discussions had over the past year or so with all the artists on the other hand, have highlighted how, the dream of a perfect world is something intrinsically human at least with an understanding of what this is from a western, capitalist, monotheistic perspective. The tendency to imagine utopias in a certain way is without a doubt interlinked with our understanding of our position within the natural environment, or rather our separation from it. Certainly this builds also on our natural predatory instinct, fueled by the ever-present capitalist ideology western societies have relied upon to justify the monopoly of violence on which all our modern states build on to enforce “law and order” and consequent nationalist agendas.
As through the words of Giorgio Agamben in “The Open” what emerged in many of the works and the discussions with the artists leading up to them is a sense that much of this can be linked back to a missing clear positioning of our being human within (or outside) nature:
The anthropological machine of humanism is an ironic apparatus that verifies the absence of a nature proper to Homo, holding him suspended between a celestial and a terrestrial nature, between animal and human—and, thus, his being always less and more than himself.
Two works more than others in the exhibition allow us to elaborate further on this premise. In Nikolas Ventourakis’ “Why do several things happen to the land when I Just click once” produced especially for the occasion, and which we can only hope will mark the starting point of a longer engagement of the artist with the subject, the act of terraforming, of shaping the land around us to serve our needs is at the center of the discussion. Not only is this a reference to the absolutist ideology that allowed a swamp area to be turned into a fully functioning city for over 2.000 people in Raša, but also to the contemporary trend to develop virtual realities in which “we” can live out our dreams of autonomous control of the world. The second body of works, physically juxtaposed to Ventourakis’, is that of Bert Theis (1953-2016) whose entire oeuvre can be viewed as an exploration of utopias. In the case of the Aggloville series of which we are honored to have two examples never displayed before in this form (M’ambo – Munich and Tirana Pa Makina (Tirana), the Luxembourgian artist moves a fervent critique to real estate based capitalism as a form of inexorable consumption of territories and natural environment as well as a tool to separate us into classes. By envisioning a world in which plants take over public space and creating a space of exception for buildings and monuments, he convincingly links our modern understanding of urbanism into the real of an ideological construction serving said capitalist drive.
The same force, in the paintings and drawings of Rupali Patil, turns natural landscapes into dystopic visions denouncing the dream of commodifying resources such as water for the sake of profit (“I echoed thousand time after you Agnes, If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes”). Are we truly condemned to a world in which our insatiable greed will ultimately substitute the richness of nature? In Patil’s large scale works the answer to this question seems sadly but convincingly positive, leaving us little hope for another future, perhaps in a last attempt to exhort us to act against these tendencies. A call to struggle and action echoed by Prabhakar Pachpute through his fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, born out of a career-long commitment to the research of miners and agricultural workers’ struggle that spans all continents. With the series developed for the 3rd Industrial Art Biennial titled “The underground nest over the dune” Pachpute brings us into a world of creatures with human features entangled with tools and other symbolic elements associated with the violent transformation of our landscapes are set in bleak landscapes that deliver us a sense of loss and unease. A striking condemnation of our destruction of nature it also acts as a cry for resistance. Let us not forget Camus words though, how do we reconcile the position of the artist, also in a vacuum between autonomy and reality if we consider these thematic? Theo Prodromidis’ new short film “Children of the Sun – Acting” explores exactly this conflict. Through a deeply personal account of a year of engagement with various environmental movements in Greece appears to suggest that in we cannot represent political struggles unless we put ourselves on the line, unless we accept and come to terms with the grittiness, hardship but also empathy and human warmth these entail.
It is through another artist’s reflection however that the entanglement between environment, capitalism and another key critique towards utopias becomes even more convincing, “A Collection of Occurrences in Terrestrial Sequences” by Gülsah Mursaloglu brings to the discussion the element of time. Almost entirely missing from any utopia the passing of time and the process of decay of elements connected to it, at the heart of biological processes is poetically visualised by the artist through the use of potatoes and elements derived from it. Owning its success as a source of nourishment to its durability, the tuber has recently been discovered by “green capitalists” for the possibility it offers to create bio-degradable plastic.
The environment, and our control over it, certainly is at the center of many utopias historically, and certainly the current large-scale destruction of it makes of this a theme we can hardly avoid in any discussion. However, with Christopher Cozier’s work “When you miss me – I gone. Jasper’s night and day-dreams” consisting of a large scale drawing and a zine re-elaborating the themes unfolded in the drawing we are faced with a much more subtle yet not less problematic aspect of utopias. By defining one thought superior to another, even in the most noble occasion, there is an acceptance and justification of violence for those not complying to it. By recalling cultural and historical elements Cozier constructs a beautifully woven non-linear narrative on the dangers and consequences of that violence. The gesture of creating a zine is also a clear statement by the artist in favor of a democratic world in which ideas are freely circulated, a counter-argument if you will against the violence just described. It is not by chance that this work is exhibited on the outside walls of what once was the Uljanik shipyard in Pula as the same structures in international capitalism that caused manual labor jobs to disappear from the west in favor of cheaper workforce in the global south. A shift in production systems which has left many scars in the social structure of our societies today which Jeanno Gaussi’s “The last cigar” wants to place at the center stage for a last dance. And what better place than an old officer’s club literally meters away from the shipyards? Once a symbol of wealth and power for the fleet stationed in the city, the building now stands as a fitting reminders of glorious times passed. In collaboration with local painter Cvetko Isic, the production of portraits of former Uljanik workers is however not only a gesture in search for social justice but also a reminder about all the unpaid emotional labor we are doing daily which is fueling exactly that economic structure that brought to the closure of the shipyards.
I want to conclude these considerations with reference to two further works which have been inspiring me throughout these last months as a starting point rather than an arrival. Stefania Strouza’s Medea 212 (Perpetual Silence Prevails in the Empty Space of Capital) is another chapter in her long chase for the myth of Medea and the questions it raises in regards to the definition of otherness, femininity and thus elements breaking away from the norm. What more striking anti utopic then than a geological body embodying the feminine holding a deadly destructive power over earth. Medea 212, an asteroid discovered in the late 1800s by an Austrian astronomer in Pula becomes the object on which the artist projects all her questions about modernity and the attached construction of nature as otherness.
The conclusion cannot be but for a work that against all odds foresees the presence and engagement of the public and a genuine process as fundamental part of the work itself. Ana Kuzmanic’s “This is not a box” is an intervention in the public library in Labin, more specifically in the children’s section. Through the presentation of children literature that moves away from the canon, she attempts to undermine the very essence of the ideas of superiority of certain thoughts we discussed throughout this text and the past few months. Certainly to imagine such project in times of covid19 seems in itself a utopic project, however we all felt it was important to maintain this as well as all other projects in a sign of resilience.
To conclude by going back to Camus’ initial quote, the staging of this 3rd Industrial Art Biennial has more than other projects in the past given us all an occasion to face the “most joyous and heart-rending extremes” in human thoughts and interactions. While certainly not wanting to claim a space among the Greek tragedians, Tolstoy and Molier, we hope that the discourses we managed to bring together in “Ride into the sun” will be an inspiration at least for a long evening of chats between friends in one of the many local bars here in Istria.
“Where everything seems so ugly
When you’re sitting at home in self pity
Remember, you’re just one more person
Who’s living there”
Ride into the Sun – The velvet underground
Christian Oxenius (2020)
Christian Oxenius is a German-Italian author, curator and researcher