The provocateur, in recent months, has become a figure of real political valence. At least for the moment, it is no longer possible to assert that reactionary acts have neutral or no political value. The Charlie Hebdo shooting in January, whatever one’s politics, confirmed the (positive or negative) potential of images. Released on the day of the massacre, Soumission (Submission), the latest novel by French author Michel Houellebecq, presents a satirical version of the future of Europe whose actual – if extreme-seeming – prognoses lined up eerily with the events in Paris. Amid questions about the future of European unity, politics and absurdism have been triangulated by a third term, fear, the politicization of which was the theme of the intelligent, focused and confrontational group show, ‘The Alien Within: A Living Laboratory of Western Society’, inspired by the work of the German provocateur Christoph Schlingensief.
Schlingensief’s critical art was presented as raw material and – for the other exhibited artists – served as a historical analogy for the founding of the EU during his lifetime in the 1990s and 2000s. The show displayed a remarkable, enlarged still taken from public TV documentation of one of Schlingensief’s actions, CHANCE 2000 – Baden im Wolfgangsee (Bathing in Lake Wolfgang, 1988). The image shows a small throng of bathers at Austria’s Wolfgangsee, to which Schlingensief – under the aegis of his political party, CHANCE 2000 – invited Germany’s four million unemployed to bathe in the lake, with the hopes of raising the water level enough to flood the grounds of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s neighbouring holiday home. The still shows a man in the lake turned away from the swimming crowd, photographing the cameraman – a stark (if somewhat romantic) image of defiance that underscores the resistant value of documentation, as well as framing the relationship such defiance has to the current politics of the crowd.
While a monitor played jubilant footage of that action, other documentation of CHANCE 2000’s activities played in the Konsthall’s main space. But it was Schlingensief’s Animatograph – Icelandic Edition, Destroy Thingveller (2005) that formed the physical and conceptual core of the exhibition. Animatograph is a labyrinthine construction comprising multiple rooms and a swerving, spinning series of multimedia stages, projections and seating areas. The phantasmagoric work recalls a funfair ride and is a kind of imploded, dislocated meta-stage, filled with countless micro-rooms, consumer objects, rotting perishables, Parsifalian imagery and graffiti, amid shouts of doubt about post-Maastricht European unity. The work existed in several iterations but this ‘Icelandic’ edition mines Scandinavian mythology and iconography (fish, islands) in a kind of ‘primal encounter’ with the senses. It still has shock value, although the political import of such ‘shock’ was best articulated via the exhibition’s other works. Most provocatively, the independent theatre group Institutet temporarily ‘exhibited’ (voluntarily and with payment) two Roma panhandlers within a small room in the Konsthall, an act that generated a flurry of media attention in Sweden about the ethics of exhibiting an already contentious Scandinavian theme. (In some areas, begging – done mostly by immigrants – is illegal.) In the space that once hosted the two buskers, the artists displayed the growing archive of news articles about the work.
Curator Diana Baldon conceived of this exhibition as a ‘think tank’. It grouped sociologist Saskia Sassen – who has gained a reputation in recent years for her work concerning the dire situations of immigration and marginality in new global economies – with a handful of artists whose forms of incitement function as a conceptual mirroring: attempting to re-stage the staging of fear that occurs in the political arena. (Such fearmongering has indisputable effects for immigrants, for example, for whom Malmö is a key immigration point in Northern Europe). It is lamentable – though also proof of the ‘living’ significance of such an exhibition – that Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was unable to construct a work in situ, as planned, due to her detainment in Cuba following her performance #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand) in December 2014. Ongoing documentation of the Bruguera case was presented here, calling as much attention to political events as any artwork. Such legal and media controversies confirm the political power of art, while casting due light on the precarious political landscape in Europe and beyond. Crucially, they also foreground the art world’s complacency in ignoring these themes. As an attack on such complacency, and by incorporating elements of its own sensationalism and the ripple effects when art tackles issues of political economy and physical geo-detainment, the exhibition proved its own worth. Tragically, Sassen’s talk at the Konsthall – a lecture titled ‘Architectures of Membership: Immigrants and Citizens in the Global City’ (followed by a performance by the group The Errorists) – was punctuated on 14 February by news of yet more terrorist shootings in nearby Copenhagen that afternoon, which occurred at a public event there called ‘Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression’, at an arts centre not dissimilar to the Konsthall. The alien within, indeed.