Propaganda for Reality is a far-reaching exhibition title. It’s also a citation that reaches back in time, to when Oswald Wiener decreed in 1969 that he wanted to ban art, since art only ever corroborates what already is. Grandstanding positions like his were all the rage back then. This exhibition in Leverkusen, with its titular quote from Wiener, showed a rather lukewarm array of works dating from the 1960s to today that touched on the relationship between art and reality in various ways, albeit without any real precision.
A few pieces in the show stood out. Maps by artist’s group Art & Language, for example, demonstrated that a map’s depiction of a landscape (the image) and the landscape itself (reality) is merely conventional, and that a perceptual similarity between the two will establish itself even in cases of extreme dissimilarity. Upon first glance, one of the maps didn’t appear to depict anything at all. Eventually 36 square miles of the Pacific Ocean became visible, if only because the legend named them as such (Map of Thirty-Six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean West of Oahu, 1967–90). Similarly, Map to Not Indicate (1967–90), also by Art & Language, did not show 48 of the 50 states that make up the USA on a nearly empty piece of paper. In contrast, Map of Itself (1967–90) succeeded in resembling itself in a certain way despite the ‘identity in difference’ postulated in the title. By this self-referencing the work offered additional insight into the relationship between image and referent: an image without this sort of ‘iconic’ difference (Gottfried Boehm) cannot be an image.
As a whole, however, the exhibition lacked any unifying concept. It never becomes clear whether the show was about image theory or demands on art to retain its autonomy vis-à-vis reality; about a critique of media or about images that question their status as representations. Wiener’s comment on the fight surrounding art’s autonomy only became virulent in one work in the exhibition: Francis Alÿs’ Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) from 1997. By pushing a block of ice around Mexico City for hours until it melted away, the artist sought to escape the social obligation to always act toward a concrete end.
Otherwise, the exhibition abounded with works that asked of their mediums – particularly photography – whether they represent reality or simply make it visible; if they produce or reproduce reality. But these works also lacked unity; is there a chronology of such theses? What’s the status, today, of this discussion? The works in question were better viewed individually. Marcel Broodthaers’ Un voyage en mer du nord (A Voyage to the North Sea, 1973) explored the specificities of painting, photography and film, while remaining irreducible to any one aspect. Projected on colour slides were 80 full and detail-views of a painted seascape. The reproduced materiality of canvas and colour lead to a desire for the painting itself beyond the photographs. But then something autonomous and opaque in the painting distinguished itself from the (relatively) referential, transparent medium of photography. The extremely detailed reproductions of colour and canvas, combined with the fragmentation and reassembly of the paintings into a film-like series of images leads to an unexpected narrative drama that nearly transcended the specificity of such media.
In contrast, works like the numerous contributions by Cieslik and Schenk amounted to little more than illustrated riddles. Their alternating depictions of buildings and vases recalled high-end product photography and Becher-school architectural photography – either way, they came across as too flawless. The set of digitally produced (not digitally manipulated) ‘photographs’ does raise interesting questions about the documentary character of photography, but either the images themselves or the exhibition as a whole could have done more to respond to them.
Finally, even before Omer Fast’s video installation Talk Show (2009), the viewer will find herself somewhat fatigued. In Fast’s work, a series of talk show hosts and their guests tell and retell a dramatic story of love and war so many times that it becomes unrecognizable. The line between reporting and inventing blurs in the piece, but there are cracks in the narrative body of the work. The more absurd the story becomes, the more frequently the storytellers fall out of character. At these moments, a spontaneous gesture or a sudden giggle allows an excess of reality to slip into the scene. In the end, Fast’s work does suggest an answer to Wiener’s critique of art: an art work can integrate reality to such an extent that reality comes to exceed it. The work can enclose reality so as to break itself open.
Translated by Jesse Coburn