BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 07 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

The Collective Unconsciousness

Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 07 JUN 02

A feeling of subliminal anxiety prevailed in 'The Collective Unconsciousness'.

For her inaugural exhibition Heike Munder, the new director of the Migros Museum, focused less on hopes and desires than on fears that were linked to individual experience but also representative of a more general feeling of unease within contemporary society. In the first room of the show a large mural, Die Eisläuferin (The Ice Skater, 2002), by Kerstin Kartscher, set the tone. Amid a vast landscape of mountains and ravines sketched out in a maze of fine graphic lines, a female figure was portrayed ascending to the sky. A vision of the ecstasy of death, drawing heavily on the iconography of the assumption of the Virgin Mary, the image also echoed Albrecht Dürer's Die Apokalypse (The Apocalypse, 1497-8), six woodcuts depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation, which were displayed in the next room. While transforming a religious motif into a personal language, Kartscher preserved its emotional edge, which sends shivers down the spine of anyone who had a Catholic education.

In front of the mural was installed one of the design group Absalon's legendary living units, Cellule No. 2 (habitable) (1992-3). Part Minimalist sculpture, part trailer home, this clean white architectural construction includes a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. The unit, however, is both a perfect shelter for a single person and a Modernist tomb. The personal visions of escape and death of Absalon and Kartscher were thus confronted with the spectral presence of social conflict. Throughout the space the sound of Mathilde ter Heijne's installation 1, 2, 3, ... 10, wie niet weg is, is gezien (1, 2, 3, ... Coming Ready or Not, 1999) was audible. From a series of portable radios assembled on a low platform, fragments of political speeches could be heard. At irregular intervals the voices of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and anonymous speakers from the Romanian or Algerian revolutions rose in isolation or dissonant chorus, testifying in ghostly fashion to the persistence of unresolved struggles: a challenge to the belief that politics can pacify.

A succession of dark rooms with projections followed. Veli Granö's video My Baby Was Taken to Sirius (2001) staged the traumatic monologue of a woman explaining in a delirium of romantic transfiguration the death of her unborn child as a case of alien abduction. In Anna Jermolaewa's video 3 Überlebensversuche (3 Survival Attempts, 2001) a group of egg-shaped Russian babushka dolls is displayed on a tray. As the tray starts shaking with increasing force, the dolls begin to rock and roll over until they push each other over its edge - a simple but powerful allegory of the social upheaval that took place after the introduction of capitalism in the states of the former Soviet Union. Social anxieties were also explored in Katy Sander's installation Shadows (2002), which comprised slides of human silhouettes that were projected together with quotations from market research questionnaires such as 'What makes you happy? How often do you do it? What did you buy last?' The piece subjected the viewer to the paranoiac aspect of consumer culture, the pressure of constant interrogation and the classification of target groups.

In the final exhibition space, alongside works by Henrik Olesen, Annelise Coste and Katharina Jahnke, Fabrice Gygi presented his installation Bureau de Vote (Polling Booth, 2001). The piece included a polling booth complete with rubber curtain, a frame of steel tubes, a ballot box made from glass and two crowd barriers, which looked more like a slaughterhouse or an S&M workshop than a polling station. The work is a cynical comment on the fallibility of voting, with an obvious sidelong glance at the most recent American presidential elections.

Stepping out of the dark projection rooms into the light of the gallery felt like the moment when you leave the cinema and the magic evaporates. In terms of their emotional impact, installations in sober white cubes have a tough time competing with the sensual immediacy of video projections. Yet, although the tension of the show slackened in some parts, the exhibition as a whole succeeded in making its point with convincing vigour, leaving no doubt that a general sense of impending catastrophe was only momentarily suspended by the short-lived optimism of the 1990s.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.