The second edition of the Van Abbemuseum’s exhibition series ‘Positions’ presents four significant bodies of work by artists interested in the relationship between art, art history and current political events. Chief curator Annie Fletcher has invited Anna Boghiguian, Chia-Wei Hsu, Nástio Mosquito and Sarah Pierce to present their investigations into techniques of storytelling and forms of testimony. The conversation among them does not emerge from a shared concern; instead, it represents individual instances of upheaval, revolution and trauma from multiple perspectives.
‘Positions #2’ opens with a dimly lit room featuring Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau (2015), one of two films by Taiwanese artist Hsu. The film reassesses the forgotten histories of veterans of the Chinese civil war (1927–50) who fled to a tiny village on the Thai-Burmese border and ended up working for the CIA against the communists. Using the ruins of the former CIA office as a stage, masked Thai puppeteers re-create an ancient myth, narrated by a priest who temporarily worked as a CIA spy. The story serves as an allegory of the men’s loss of identity and their recurring entanglement in the intrigues of global politics.
Pierce’s Gag (2015) recuperates the debris from the museum’s previous exhibition to create what looks like an exploded, three-dimensional El Lissitzky design. Evoking deconstruction and reconstruction, and bridging disparate art-historical references, Pierce displays an eclectic sense of history. As its title suggests, the work explores the ability of artists to voice the political – or not – through the use of the tableaux a display strategy employed by revolutionary Russian artists like Lissitzky, but also by artist Alice Milligan, whose radical yet overlooked tableaux vivants played a significant role in the Irish Revival of the early 20th century. The proximity of aesthetics and history is equally at hand in Meaning of Greatness (2006) and Intelligence of the Measured Hand (2011), in which Pierce investigates concepts of mastery and originality through the work of Eva Hesse and Joseph Beuys respectively. Pierce’s meticulous re-creation of Hesse’s Untitled (Rope Piece) (1970) hangs from the ceiling, along with archival material from the Kent State University shootings of 1970 and student drawings by Pierce’s mother, who worked around the same time as Hesse. The work enacts a kind of forensic examination of the cultural and political conditions that define and frame an artist’s practice.
Four enormous rooms painted in shades of bright yellow and pink are dedicated to the work of Cairo-born Boghiguian – by far the most enthralling position in this exhibition. Poetry permeates Boghiguian’s work, which is the fruit of her constant wanderlust. Firmly resisting white-cube conditions, the work demands display formats that reinforce its tactile, earthly nature. Although The Salt Traders (2015) recently premiered at the Istanbul Biennial in the form of a large installation, ‘Positions’ focuses on the extraordinary series of coloured drawings that traces the history of salt in political liaisons, as a vital mineral and even as the source of revolution. A new installation, inspired by a failed bombing attempt in Paris in 1995, acquires added poignancy in light of recent events in the city.
The exhibition’s timeliness is rendered even more palpable by two disquieting installations by Angolian musician, performer and artist Nástio Mosquito. Ser Humano (Human Being, 2015) is a compilation of found footage showing black bodies pushing at the fences of undisclosed borders, overlaid with a dark, pulsating soundtrack, and political lyrics projected onto the floor. Mosquito attempts to revive the written word, which he feels has become increasingly devoid of meaning. Language, for sure, remains a powerful artistic tool, resurfacing throughout this exhibition as an historical corrective or the repository of lost memories. Despite the absence of an overarching theme, ‘Positions’ dwells on the shifts and collisions that continually affect us, delivering unorthodox stories as alternative histories.