The contrast could hardly be starker between the upper and ground floors of the Löwenbräu-Areal in Zurich. On the upper is the Luma Foundation’s Prix Pictet exhibition. The 12 finalists for this ‘global award for photography and sustainability’ reveal long-known harrowing facts bluntly and self-evidently: in Africa, elephants are being hunted and people mutilated; sea levels are rising; the world is choking on plastic waste; the Chinese are plastering their country with hypercapitalist architecture; refugees are drowning. A concerned, uneasy visitor might vow to dispose of their waste properly and to donate to charity. On the other hand all this misery still generates aesthetically pleasing technically impressive images that can be put in nice frames and contemplated with no strings attached on a guilt-free afternoon.
On the ground floor, at Hauser & Wirth, is an exhibition of recent and new work by Wilhelm Sasnal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Polish painter, graphic artist and filmmaker oscillated between Communism and consumerism, pop and academia, and became a star of the Polish art scene with his laconic and subtly critical works. As with the Prix Pictet exhibition he, too, often focuses on world events that have caused hardship or foretell danger. Whereas many of the Prix Pictet entrants take a documentary, allegorical or didactic approach, Sasnal deliberately keeps his subject matter at an ambivalent distance. Instead of representation, documentation and communication Sasnal works in hints, vagueness and gaps. In his austere, aloof style, his small- and medium-format paintings show a pile of tyres (Untitled, 2016), or two men strung up by invisible nooses (Untitled, 2015), or a dark figure on a frozen coastline (Killing an Arab 1, 2016). In the two-channel film installation Killing an Arab (2015), which contains excerpts from Sasnal’s still-unreleased film project The Sun, The Sun Blinded Me, a white man gratuitously bludgeons a black man lying on a beach.
Sasnal is concerned less with ‘the reality out there’ than with examining the media artefacts that have come to constitute our primary source of such experiences. Most of these paintings are based on Googled or found images; the titles of several works, and that of the show, refers to The Cure’s song Killing an Arab (1978) which in turn is based on Albert Camus’ novel L’Étranger (1942) with its description of the disturbingly unmotivated murder of an Arab by a Frenchman. All the while, of course, Sasnal is addressing the reporting on the current refugee crisis – a subject he began dealing with as early as 2013. Perhaps the most striking work in the show is an unassuming oil painting titled Palm Bay (2013): abstracted and stylized, it shows an inflatable dinghy carrying two dozen cowering figures, rendered in loose brushstrokes.
While the African refugees in the Prix Pictet show look the viewer straight in the eye, Sasnal offers no opportunity for pseudo-identification, for compassionate pity, or for dressing misery up in a glossy aesthetic. Where others might claim to shed light, he instead creates an enigma. As Theodor Adorno put it writing in his 1970 Aesthetic Theory: ‘The enigmaticalness of artworks remains bound up with history.’
In a recent interview, Sasnal stated: ‘I don’t think you can change the world with a painting.’ He distinguishes between a citizen with an interest in politics who might articulate a clear, critical position, and his far more delicate role as an artist. The two are linked, but ultimately incommensurable. For Sasnal, art is not an extension of politics, but an intermediate zone where politics can be dealt with beyond the reach of pragmatic and moral imperatives. It’s precisely this precarious, fragile social role of art that he highlights.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell