De Appel Arts Centre recently moved to an 18th-century canal building with an eclectic history. Originally the residence of a tobacco manufacturer that in the 1960s became an underground music venue and a new age meditation centre, the renovated location gives ample space to de Appel’s comprehensive library, archive and exhibitions. The first show in their new home, ‘Topsy Turvy’, invited visitors into a world loosely resembling a carnival. While carnival is usually understood as a riotous pre-Lent celebration, the word covers a broad spectrum of public festivities. The works in the exhibition featured fanciful backdrops, wild performances, aberrant celebrations and comic inversions of conventionality. Drawing on references from carnival’s medieval origins to its contemporary expressions, the exhibition tended to lean heavily on literal themes, eclipsing its underlining aim of activating the political potential of Mikhail Bahktin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’.
In Bahktin’s Rabelais and His World (1965) and Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984), he characterized carnival rituals as temporary respites from a hegemonic system, reversing prescribed values in playful jest. Director Ann Demeester’s opening text for ‘Topsy Turvy’ expresses a hope of harnessing carnival’s capacity for transformative change towards a ‘new, progressive order’. The inclusion of David Lloyd’s pen and ink drawings from V for Vendetta (1982–5), Alan Moore’s graphic novel about an anarchist revolutionary who employs a violent campaign against a fascist government, was the exhibition’s overt reference to the juncture between political gestures and theatrical devices. A portrait of V, who bears a Guy Fawkes mask, evokes the appropriation of the symbol by political protest groups including the hactivist group Anonymous and the Occupy movements.
This theme of subversive political participation echoed across Matthew Barney and Arto Lindsay’s De Lama Lamina (2004) and Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolé (1992) – both of which are performances documented on film. Barney and Lindsay’s deforestation-truck-turned-carnival-float and Oiticica’s colourfully layered cape worn by Rio de Janeiro’s Manguiera samba school recalled the promise of carnival to generate a collective mass that inhabits the roles of both spectator and actor. But these indexical and mediated works also highlighted the show’s limitations of affording participation and collectivity to its audience. Melanie Bonajo’s Genital Panic/On Cosmic Cosmetics (2012) was an attempt to correct this condition. For this piece, Bonajo re-enacted Valie Export’s iconic pose from her 1969 performance Action Pants: Genital Panic, in which she sits wearing crotchless pants, a leather jacket and a machine-gun. In a press conference and performance within the exhibition, Bonajo had the participants wear torn pants that similarly exposed their genital areas, covered by a fluorescent wig as pubic hair.
Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s video Horizontal (1997) avoided the obvious expressions of carnival, yet managed to convey its sensorial experiences. In a series of nearly indecipherable images, men dressed as women fall and roll across both television monitors in a dizzying loop, absorbing the viewer in their confounding, continuous movement of tumbling bodies. Works by Melanie Gilligan and Alberto de Michele created a world that was familiar yet eerily inverted. Self-Capital (2009), Gilligan’s fictional drama of the economic crisis personified, uses the human body to convey the dysfunctional and ailing state of the global economy. De Michele’s four-part video installation, Quienlo vive, quien lo goza – La Mascara de la Maladad (Who Lives, Enjoys – The Mask of Evil, 2012), reveals the contradictory life of a Colombian mercenary hiding in Aruba. Starting with a silhouette of a man against a sky at sunset, moving further into the installation immersed you deeper into its narrative.The man remains hidden from view while the details of his criminal life are interspersed with his longing to return to Colombia and his appreciation for art. These works represented the more sombre notes that are inherent in disorder and disruption.
Nevertheless, ‘Topsy Turvy’ maintained a lively and celebratory spirit, but the resulting feeling was the same one I experienced with the dissolution of Occupy Wall Street – a longing to transcend the brevity of carnival to manifest Utopian visions. While the show seemed powerless to animate carnival to its political potential, its success lay in its provocation. As an inauguration of de Appel’s new space, the topic of carnival, with its potential to instigate new futures, was an appropriate one.