BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Reviews | 17 OCT 13
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Issue 158

Anguish & Enthusiasm

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Reviews | 17 OCT 13

Liubov Popova, Maquette for the City of the Future, 1921, framed photograph, 14 × 21 cm, installation view

We live, as the apocryphal Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. With ongoing reverberations from 2010’s ‘Arab Spring’ and Occupy, the indignados and unrest from the suburbs of Stockholm and across Brazil, we find ourselves in an era of incessant protest and activism. So what comes next? ‘Anguish and Enthusiasm’ took its name from a chapter in Russian writer Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945), which describes the period between the 1917 revolution and the foundation of the USSR. The question of the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘What Do You Do With Your Revolution Once You’ve Got It’, remained unanswered, but was approached with various documentary forms, all of which acknowledge that any attempt at answer can only be a fiction. ‘Anguish and Enthusiasm’ featured a dozen artists and filmmakers over three floors, with almost six hours of moving-image works, not including the ambitious accompanying screening programme.

Co-curated by the Cornerhouse’s programme director Sarah Perks and Irish artist Declan Clarke, ‘Anguish and Enthusiasm’ was part historical corrective and part cautionary tale. It bounced from instances of upheaval from the past two centuries to examinations of post-communist governments, skipping through the UK, Angola, China, Germany, France, Cuba and Russia. Rather than simply making the obvious point that revolutionary ideals are dissipated after any sort of change, the exhibition benefited from trying to locate how these ideals mutate and continue to disseminate, not always beneficially. Jun Yang’s short video Paris Syndrome (2007–8) made the point bluntly but effectively, placing a young Chinese couple in a range of bizarre and sterile empty city sets, as they stare blankly into the distance. It could be a clothing ad set in Miami or Los Angeles or anywhere, though it was actually filmed in a series of new housing developments in the Guangzhou region – a Hollywood fantasy in the world’s largest ‘Communist’ regime. At times, though, the exhibition’s broad focus was overreaching: a small portrait, Jeann-Marie (c. 1888), by Berthe Morisot is used as an example of how, according to the exhibition booklet, ‘whether intentionally or otherwise, the Impressionists helped to reclaim the [Paris] city centre for the bourgeoisie and eradicate the legacy of the [1871] Commune from the city.’
But sweeping overstatements were tempered by uncertainty. From the outset, ‘Anguish and Enthusiasm’ felt like a series of abandoned stage sets, as we wandered into the ordered remnants of Sarah Pierce’s Gag (2013). Wads of tape, paper and other debris from installing an exhibition were arranged in spot-lit piles on low plinths. Easels displayed photographs documenting the show itself being installed. Next door, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s short film Ça va ça va on continue (It is OK, it is OK, We Go On, 2012–13) pits a Portuguese academic, apparently researching Angolan theatre, against his country’s colonial heritage. ‘You turn acts of resistance into spectacle,’ one student chides, a self-conscious, performed retrospection that permeated ‘Anguish and Enthusiasm’.

This made the use of voice-over in five of the exhibition’s six video works all the more noticeable. History is not simply written by the victors – here it was laid out as a series of documents that could be shaped depending on the narrator. Andreas Bunte’s pair of films Unterdruck (Low Pressure) and Kunstliche Diamanten (Artificial Diamonds, both 2013) document attempts in former East Germany to replicate extreme conditions – such as a secret, high-altitude training centre for athletes – but in this light became an elegy to the aspirations of the DDR. Michelangelo Antonioni’s epic film Chung Kuo, Cina (1972) was shown in a space set up like a classroom, facing off with a wall of Little Red Books and propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution. It’s a slow, honest portrait by a foreigner, in which the director asks street sweepers to pose for the camera as he narrates the difficulties in making the film between overbearing guides and untrusting subjects. The film was banned by its own commissioners, the Chinese government.

Despite this unravelling revisionism, ‘Anguish and Enthusiasm’ dwelled on the major changes, presided over by the ghosts of Paris 1871, Saint Petersburg 1917, China 1949 and Berlin 1989. Alluding to the hidden stories of those ‘successful’ shifts and revolutions, the larger – and admittedly, impossible to capture – spectre raised is of those unknown, failed or suppressed. In the aftermath of events currently unfolding, what comes next might well depend on the stories we end up telling ourselves.

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic who lives in London, UK.