Political / Minimal
Kunstwerke, Berlin, Germany
Despite its solipsistic claims, classical minimalism has always evoked something outside of itself. Eva Hesse saw the floors of the gas chambers in Carl Andre’s works, for example, while Tony Smith talked about his sculptures as silent aggressors in hostile lands. In ‘Political/Minimal’ at the Kunstwerke, curator Klaus Biesenbach seeks to survey a recent tendency that adds another dimension to the reduced formal language of minimal art. Comprising 32 works, the exhibition presents the minimal form as being mined with political content that is, under closer inspection, often - though not always - revealed in a shocking twist. Works like Teresa Margolles’ Entierro/Burial (1999), in which the familiar form of a concrete cube lures in the visitor, while the accompanying wall-text shatters expectations by exposing the object’s true nature - the concrete cube encloses the corpse of a prematurely born baby.
Similarly, Seth Price’s Untitled Multiple, 2004 (2004), a shiny stack of black DVDs, changes its face once one finds out that the discs store footage depicting a series of executions of hostages being executed. Likeminded approaches can be found in the works of Terence Koh, Adel Abdessemed, Mona Hatoum, and Damian Hirst, all of whom are included in the show. As a strategy, the twist can have a very powerful effect, but in ‘Political / Minimal’ it is an overused formula, the effect of which is weakened with each reiteration. The individual works disappear within the curatorial premise and lose the impact they may have had elsewhere.
The more captivating pieces here succeed less because of the juxtaposition of abstract form and political content and more because of their subtle approach. Less outspoken and direct, these works creep into consciousness by managing to capture an essence of political consequence.
Tino Sehgal’s Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000) is performed by an actor who seems to be crawling in pain, disturbing one’s visit by silently agitating over an unknown cause. Reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s studio explorations, the body on the floor is assessing not only its physical situation within the exhibition space but its existence in general. Without any outspoken political references the work manages to convey a tone that acutely matches current political sentiments. The political content of the work is not so much stressed as transmitted through images of absurdity and despair. Similarly, in Francis Alÿs’ video, Paradox of Praxis (1997), the absurdity and unreasonable nature of the action portrayed mirrors our frustration with the administration of the everyday. In his tongue-in-cheek spin on the tale of Sisyphus Alÿs painfully pushes a big block of ice down the streets of Mexico City, the heat and the friction causing the ice to melt to the size of an ice cube that he can kick it in front of him until all that is left is a puddle of water. Also striking are the oil tanks by the xurban_collective: like dying bodies of prehistoric animals they lay on the floor of the exhibition space, rusting giants from a different time. These custom-built containers were taken from trucks used to smuggle oil across the border between Turkey and Iraq. Now useless, they can be found decaying along the sides of the motorways.
What the exhibition ends up proving is that, even without straightforwardly literal imagery, minimal forms have always been engaged with the political. Nevertheless, the strongest political statements are often the works that avoid clear articulation, choosing to employ subtlety, vagueness and ambiguity in favour of the choreographed response.
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