BY Holger Kube Ventura in Reviews | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

The Beast and the Sovereign

Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany

BY Holger Kube Ventura in Reviews | 10 MAR 16

Edgar Endress, aus / from Acts of Knowledge, 2014-2015, courtesy: Edgar Endress

The Beast and the Sovereign – wasn’t that the show with the censorship scandal?  That’s how this exhibition, which premiered at the MACBA in Barcelona in March 2015 in a slightly different form and with a slightly different title, became known – but only after outcry against then-director Bartomeu Marí’s planned exclusion of a potentially  controversial work of art by Ines Doujak depicting a burlesque ménage à trois between the former Spanish king Juan Carlos I, the Bolivian union leader Barrios de Chúngara, and a German shepherd. Not only did Marí have to rescind his proscription; he ultimately had to step down. This was what the inter-national coverage focused on – far more than the themes and aim of this highly interesting exhibition. 

Its title derives from a seminar by Jacques Derrida, for whom the beast and the sovereign were two opposing political figures that each existed outside the law: the beast because it doesn’t know the law, and the sovereign because he or she can suspend it. Accordingly, the four curators – Hans D. Christ, Iris Dressler, Paul B. Preciado and Valentin Roma – are concerned with ideological polarities: autonomy and rule, God and the state, the institution and the individual – and the resulting power relationships thereof. In Stuttgart, presented over approximately 12,000 square feet of exhibition space, are 25 artistic positions that ‘question and repudiate the sovereign’s concepts and powers,’ according to the press text. That sounds like  a sweepingly general statement – which it  is. The exhibition’s thematic range is huge, and it’s only clear up to a point why it’s been subdivided into four areas – the utilization of the holy, the mechanics of the economy, the norms of becoming a subject, and the transformation of institutions. 

In any case, a relatively large number of the works attempt to address constructions of otherness and foreignness as well as emancipatory counterproposals. Peggy Buth’s The Archive of the Missionaries (2013)  presents 19th-century ethnological photographs collected by the Museum of World Cultures in Frankfurt in a systematic layout that underscores Western norms held by  the explorers of the time. Directly opposite, Hicham Benohoud’s 25-part photo series  La salle de classe (2000–02) demonstrates an exercise in difference: while some of the school’s students assumed strange poses for the camera, the rest of the Moroccan class was instructed not to take this as an occasion for reacting to deviant behavior or appearance. Identifying and rejecting norms of  the individual and the social order were aims  of several works: from video manifestos on androgyny (Aldo Lee/Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, 2005) to the language of the autistic (Wu Tsang, The Shape of a Right Statement, 2008) to Ulrike Ottinger’s film Freak Orlando (1981), which was, however, only presented in the form of a sketchbook. Ghasem Hajizadeh’s bizarre portrait paintings were made around 1990 and envision gay marriage and queer subculture in Iran (e.g. Wedding, 1991, 1992). On the other hand,  the posthumously collected oeuvre of Turkish artist Masist Gül – presented as an archive with drawings, documents, photographs  and magazines – tells of private notions far outside of public assimilation to society  that are clearly not always emancipatory, but can also be expressed in misogynistic pornography. 

The works collected in the section  ‘Modern Institutions: Crisis, criticism, dissolution, redefinition’ are essentially documentary in nature. These include the wall-sized text panels and images on cultural politics in Barcelona (Daniel G. Andújar/Itziar González, Barcelona Consortium, 2015), Russian neo-totalitarianism (Yelena Vorobyeva/Viktor Vorobyev, Neototalitarianism, 2015), and alternative economies worldwide, from Bitcoin to the cow trade (Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Archive of Alternative Currencies. An Archive and a Manifesto, 2013). Photo series feature the occupation of a skyscraper in Caracas by resident cooperatives (Ángela Bonadies/Juan José Olavarría, La torre de David, 2010–15), the demolition and rebuilding of Berlin’s Palast der Republik (Eiko Grimberg, Rückschaufehler, 2011), and the politicization  of a river delta in Catalonia (Jorge Ribalta, Eel Story. Delta Notebook, 2005–14). In  his video Chicago Boys (1983), Juan Downey shows how American economists plunged Chile into crisis as a test run for their neoliberal economic policies, while Stefanos Tsivopoulos, who filmed the hall of the Greek Parliament in 2012 – at the time completely abandoned for over five weeks between two national elections – succeeds in portraying the sovereign in the form of a power vacuum. For Derrida, the figure of the beast is not merely an opponent of the sovereign, but is also always a part of him, and it’s perhaps precisely this that most clearly gets to  the heart of the work that unleashed the censorship scandal in Barcelona: Doujak’s much-discussed sculpture Not Dressed for Conquering / HC 04Transport (from 2010).  

On the other hand, trainers of orcas on drugs (in Jan Peter Hammer’s video Tilikum, 2013–15), burnt backs in a hall of mirrors (in Damir Ocˇko’s video The Third Degree, 2015), drawing tools as objects of desire (in Geumhyung Jeong’s video Munbangu, 2011) – these would be the keywords to the works that left the deepest impact on me. The  brief list of themes brought together in this exhibition already demonstrates the degree of productive resonance it offered, and in doing so finally established more of an associative idea of Derrida’s thought construct than an argued thesis. In The Beast and the Sovereign, no single work is mandatory or irreplaceable, but it’s in exactly this disparity that they make sense together. 

Translated by Andrea Scrima