Five years on from the financial crisis, the creaking global economic system continues to weigh down on us. As economies stall and governments struggle for solutions, the effects of capitalism’s inherent chaos are clearly visible. Or, as Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd – the curators of this busy, engaging and, at times, overly didactic exhibition – put it: ‘We are in a situation where both the impact of capital’s rule and the desire for exiting its deadlock define our lives.’
While it was Europe’s current economic crisis that provided the urgency for ‘ECONOMY’, Dimitrakaki and Lloyd’s jumping-off point was actually the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. The work featured was all made from the early 1990s onwards – a period of collapsing political certainties, economic migration and (we now realize) increasingly speculative, smoke-and-mirrors global capitalism. The curators argue that, as the world economy has changed, so too has contemporary art; documentary modes have become more prevalent, as has the practice of artists placing themselves at the centre of their work.
Presented across two venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow, ‘ECONOMY’ featured 25 artists working predominantly in film and photography, with an additional programme of view-on-request videos at Stills and a website inviting dialogue, debate and the uploading of images that ‘resonate’ with the project’s themes. Perhaps in recognition of the monolithic, all-encompassing nature of the show’s subject (note those capital letters), seven categories were appended to the title: ‘Work, Sex, Life, Enclosures, Crisis, Spectres, Exodus.’
At Stills, Kai Kaljo’s 1997 video Loser acted as a witty but unsettling metaphor for the ‘freedoms’ of post-Communist Eastern Europe. ‘I am an Estonian artist,’ she states, with a mischievous smile, her words followed by canned laughter. ‘I am 37 years old and still live with my mother.’ Next to this tone-setting piece, which captures in its 84 seconds the weary resignation of the economic outsider, was Tracey Emin, gathering a cascade of hard cash to her crotch in I’ve got it all (2000). The distance between winner and loser was obvious, yet more telling were the similarities: female artists placing themselves centre stage as they address notions of success and economic value. Nearby, the blank-faced, slick-suited bankers in Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London (2008) – pictured at the beginning of the financial crisis – looked disconnected and distant; in Andreas Gursky’s Chicago, Board of Trade II (1999), sweaty, frantic commodity traders were making big-money deals. The maleness of these images was not lost; the curators had a clear point to make about the gender balance of economic power, and the majority of the work featured in the show was by women.
At CCA, Andrea Fraser’s infamous Untitled [Documentation] (2003–06) documents the artist’s sexual encounter with a male collector in a New York hotel. Although firmly rooted in the exchanges and relationships of the art world, here Fraser’s piece served to emphasize the way lines have been blurred – between the economic, the personal and the sexual. Tanja Ostojic, meanwhile, didn’t so much blur as take a hammer to such distinctions. In Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000–05), a large photograph of the naked artist, head and body shaved, announces her quest. A journey from Serbia to Germany unfolds via emails from men who are keen to be of assistance, a video of the artist’s first meeting with her future husband and enlarged copies of that all-important document.
Economic migration was also at the heart of La ruine du regard (The Ruin of the Gaze, 2010) by Finnish artist Anu Pennanen. This five-channel video installation is set in and around Les Halles, Paris, a vast shopping complex and transport interchange built in the 1980s. It consists of a beautifully shot series of fleeting character sketches, jumping between screens as the players pass aimlessly through a no-man’s land of high-street brands, circulating the soulless environment like blood flowing reluctantly through the body economic. It was one of the most visually and emotionally engaging investigations in ‘ECONOMY’, a show that offered a densely rewarding look at the attempts of artists to make sense of and subvert a new order where so much that was solid has melted into air.