A video monitor at the entrance of the group exhibition ‘In These Great Times’ showed the curator, François Piron, standing at a workbench in the partially installed show and redacting lines from the exhibition’s brochure. The video was one of artist Victor Boullet’s contributions to the show; its raison d’être was another – the snippets of text Piron is censoring from the brochure with his black pen are from a published email exchange between Boullet and Piron on the subject of artistic and family legacies, as well as a discussion of Boullet’s complex and multi-layered installation for the show, The Harrow, The Sparrow, The Sorrow (2014).
At first Boullet’s video seemed incidental, but it transpired to be a fitting addition to this exhibition, which placed language centre stage, in a somewhat elliptical homage to the under-recognized and eminently outspoken Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, whose eponymous 1914 essay gave the show its title. Kraus is perhaps best known for his almost entirely self-authored, self-edited and self-published journal Die Fackel (The Torch, 1899–1936), in which he railed against the feebleness and corruption of the contemporary press, as well as the moral hypocrisies and looming political threats of his times. A noted aphorist, who relished citing from newspapers as much as devising his own German-language gems, Kraus inaugurated Die Fackel with the following dictum: ‘My business is to pin down the Age between quotation marks.’
Kraus’s fighting spirit may have hovered over the conception of ‘In These Great Times’ but it didn’t haunt the halls of works in Kunstnernes Hus. Those seeking an exhibition ‘about’ Kraus – akin to Piron’s much-hailed ‘Locus Solus’ devoted to French author Raymond Roussel (at the Reina Sofia, Madrid, in 2011–12) – would have been surprised. Instead of tracing influences of a writerly aesthetic on a generation of artists, as he did with Roussel, Piron seemed to want to test the aphoristic method as a curatorial strategy. There was no overarching ‘theme’ to be teased out of the diverse selection of young and well-established artists and works (dating from the 1970s to the present), but language was playfully, acerbically, critically, poetically and revealingly omnipresent – both in the exhibition and in the negotiations between the artists, institutions and the curator revealed in the brochure.
In the main exhibition space, Kristine Kemp’s lean text series (‘Currency’, 2014), printed on paper headed with ‘In dieser grossen Zeit’ (the original German title of Kraus’s essay), faced off with Mladen Stilinović’s exuberant wall installation Exploitation of the Dead (1984–90), a visual collage of suprematist and constructivist-style art works, photographs and faux cakes and pastries, which cohered into an alternately serious and slapstick vision of history and ideology. Kemp was the only artist to cite Kraus directly: one of the phrases in the 1914 essay is ‘Expect no words from me.’ Kemp opened her series with this phrase, thus displacing her own authorship.
Speech acts and issues of public address were highlighted in Jenny Holzer’s colourful grid of 10 Inflammatory Essays (1979–82), posters shouting out confrontational phrases in her signature uppercase, which papered one wall of the lobby, and in Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2 (1986–90) sitting on the welcome desk and the bar. Piper used to hand the cards out as a form of non-vocal resistance to everyday racism and social injustice: Card #1 begins: ‘Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark.’ Though very much a product of their times and places, the ongoing poignancy of these works was striking. Same goes for Per-Oskar Leu’s beautiful sound piece An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Who Follow in Our Wake, 2014), based on Bertolt Brecht’s letter to the future, written in the 1930s when the playwright was in exile in Denmark. Leu’s work was audible throughout the exhibition, but was theatrically installed in the dark auditorium, the speakers accompanied by a single spotlight on the floor in front of a mirror teleprompter. Taken aphoristically, or as citations to be ‘read’ alongside each other, these voices came together as a powerful chorus of discontent with our own ‘great times’.