2. Monumental Bling
Published: 24.09.2013
in the series Modernist Revisitations
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It feels like a million new shows have just opened in Chelsea for the new season, and several of them chime perfectly with my theme for this blog: the retrospectivity of contemporary art, particularly the current fascination/obsession with Modernist art, architecture and design. In this post I’m going to focus on David Maljkovic at Metro Pictures, but also The Propeller Group at Lombard Fried; there are other shows too, but I’m going to save them for next week’s blog.

As is well known, David Maljkovic is a Croatian artist who graduated from the Rijksakademie in 2004. Much of his work circles around the overlooked and neglected relics of post-war Yugoslav modernism, most memorably the socialist monument by Vojin Bakić at Petrova Gora Memorial Park in central Croatia; it’s a crazy, futuristic silvery building—a kind of socialist Frank Gehry—erected in 1968, and dedicated to the partisans and their role in Yugoslavia’s resistance movement during World War Two. Maljkovic’s subsequent work has included a video about Vjenceslav Richter (a founding member of EXAT-51, a group of experimental Croatian artists and architects working in the early 1950s) as well as more recent forms of futurist imagination, such as the Peugeot research lab for car design in Sochaux, France.

Maljkovic’s new show, I have to confess, is much more formal (and less interesting) than his previous work, but it has many of the same strategies of revisitation and repurposing that characterize his project as a whole. I’m not sure the whole exhibition is worth describing in full, so I’ll just discuss one work. The main gallery contains an expansive white plinth, on top of which is a white projection screen showing a series of brief, looped animations based on cartoons from a Croatian architecture magazine in the early 1960s.

David Maljkovic, Afterform, 2013, HD Video, plinth, tripod projection screen, HD projector, stereo speakers, 8 x 312 x 192 inches (plinth); installation view; © Metro Pictures

One loop shows two men sitting around a table looking at a maquette of a city, the buildings represented by modernist slabs; one man clutches his head in consternation, as if unable to decide how best to arrange the city. Another loop shows a waiter holding a tray carrying a wobbly Modernist high-rise. The cartoons are clearly a satirical comment on Modernist architecture and urban planning, but it’s hard to fathom Maljkovic’s position in relation to them. He described his use of them to me as a ‘post-comment’, but they seem more like the artistic equivalent of re-tweeting or re-blogging.

David Maljkovic, film still from Afterform, 2013, HD Video, plinth, tripod projection screen, HD projector, stereo speakers; © Metro Pictures

In Maljkovic’s previous work, the relationship to Modernism was somewhat easier to parse. His low-tech futuristic video trilogy Scenes for a New Heritage (2004) took as its starting point the aforementioned monument at Petrova Gora: the structure’s undulating silvery otherworldliness becomes the central focus of a future community who communicate in an alien language. The first installment shows a group of young people setting out in a silver foil-covered car on 25 May (Tito’s birthday) in 2045, in order to work out what the edifice is about. They speak a strange parping language (apparently related to a form of Croatian folksong) and debate the monument’s long-forgotten meaning. It signifies nothing to them, just as their strange dialect is alien to us. The artist seems to present a visionary form of socialist Modernism as impenetrable to subsequent generations—the stuff of folk tale and speculation. Unlike Christian Philipp Müller (discussed in last week’s blog), Maljkovic is less interested in critiquing Modernism than in attempting to empty out this particular monument’s loaded historical connotations in order to grant it a hypothetical new function as sculpture.

David Maljkovic, film still from Scenes for a New Heritage, 2004

Two streets away on 21st Street, a show by The Propeller Group invites comparison to Maljkovic, if only for the superficial reason that both artists return to the socialist past. Of course, we’re dealing with vastly different socialisms here (as well as types of artistic practice)—ex-Yugoslavia’s history of non-aligned socialism, transitioning to EU neoliberalism in the 2000s, versus Vietnam’s single-party Communist rule since the 1970s.

Based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, The Propeller Group made their name with a video installation showing an advertising agency trying to rebrand Communism (Television Commercial for Communism, 2011). The current show in New York continues this theme, but this time they’ve gone for Lenin imagery. On one side of the gallery are photographs showing a gold plated pendant of Lenin’s head (about the size of a grapefruit), slung around the neck of the monumental Lenin statue in Volgograd, Russia. Titled Monumental Bling, it’s a clear nod to hip hop culture (and maybe the recent fiasco over Jay-Z recording his new video in nearby Pace Gallery).

The Propeller Group, Monumental Bling: Lenin East Berlin on Lenin Volgograd 2, 2013 (archival pigment print, 40 x 30 inches) ©Lombard Freid Gallery

On the other side of the gallery is a series of unframed Lenin portraits, taken from former Communist party headquarters across the USSR, in the characteristic brown palette of that era. But Lenin doesn’t look quite himself…. because each one has been altered to resemble Leonardo di Caprio, based on his different film roles (from Django and Gatsby to Inception and Titanic). The message is more or less the same as Monumental Bling: Communism goes Hollywood. Is this mash-up a suggested program or a dystopian vision? I don’t think we’re even supposed to ask. It reminds me of Sots Art in Russia in the 1970s, and Political Pop in China in the 1990s—think of Wang Guanyi’s paintings that superimpose Western brand names on the imagery of the Cultural Revolution. But at least Chairman Mao and Coca-Cola are comparably iconic. Why Lenin and Di Caprio? Why not Che Guevara and Kate Winslet? Or Trotsky and Brad Pitt?

The Propeller Group, Lenin as Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, 2013 (oil and embroidery on canvas, 31.5 x 24.41 inches) ©Lombard Freid Gallery

Ultimately, The Propeller Group’s eclecticism is a continuation of 1970s and 80s postmodernism, i.e. the promiscuous citation of previous works of art and architecture, emptied of their meaning and associations to become interchangeable signifiers. It’s a totally different model of citation to that of David Maljkovic, whose thoughtful (if slippery) forms of anachronic production seem more typical of contemporary art’s relationship to the Modernist past.

At the moment there are basically two positions on whether or not contemporary art’s interest in Modernist art, architecture and design is mired in nostalgia, or whether it has something new to say. The first position is best represented by critic and curator Dieter Roelstraete, who criticizes what he calls the artist as ‘amateur archaeologist’, obsessed with historicization. He suggests that artists in the West are nostalgic for the ideological clarity of the Cold War era—just as artists from the former East are, but for different reasons (presumably because they are living through its aftermath). In his view, the purported critical claims and impact of the current ‘historiographic turn’ in art are undermined by its ‘inability to grasp or even look at the present, much less to excavate the future.’1Roelstraete doesn’t specify what, but these reasons clearly concern a connection a lived experience of socialism. Roelstraete, ‘The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art’, e-flux magazine no.4, March 2009. Roelstraete’s critique is acerbic and troubling, so I was surprised to learn that he is organizing an exhibition on this very subject at MCA Chicago, due to open in November this year.

The defenders of this tendency are probably best represented by Canadian art historian Christine Ross, who argues that artists strive to ‘potentialize’ Modernist remains ‘as forms of resistance to and redeployment of modern life’.2Ross, The Past is the Present, It's the Future Too: The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art, 2012, p.40. She focuses on a somewhat predictable line-up of artists (Stan Douglas and Tacita Dean, but also Mark Lewis and Melik Ohanian)—all of whom have made works that reflect on Modernism, but could hardly be said to mobilize this towards a new vision of the future. Indeed, some of these artists (pre-eminently Dean) are known for the devastatingly elegiac tenor of their works.

Maljkovic himself has said that his work is an ‘attempt to create new platforms on the ruins of existing grounds’.3Modernologies exhibition catalogue, 2009, p.18. If the previous generation tried to ‘kill the father’, his own generation (he was born in 1973) wants to ‘talk to the father’, to create links across generations. I can see this dialogue at work in Scenes for a New Heritage, where a retro-futurist aesthetic kaleidoscopes several temporalities, but manages to look utterly strange and fresh. But much of his output is redolent with a more archival sensibility (all those 16mm projectors), and I’m not always convinced that his collages, slides, and digital/analogue slippages are ultimately as interesting as the objects and histories that form their starting point.

Ultimately, Maljkovic’s agenda is not—pace Roelstraete—primarily historical (even though, as he admits, his work might not be necessary in a country where cultural history is fully valorized); nor is it—pace Ross—at all social or political in orientation (there is no implicit commentary on the 1989 transition, nor on the Balkan Wars that ravaged this region soon after). Instead, the driving motivation is above all formal, in the sense of questioning the meaning of forms once their ideological connotations have been removed and set aside. If this position is post-historical, then it seems perfectly fitting for our current historical period, characterized as it is by the suspension of new visions and horizons, but with a yearning anticipation for what might come next, even while we lack any clear sense of what this might be.

4 comment(s)
Peter Burleigh
Posted 29.09.2013 at 07:26

Photographic thinking can maybe resolve some of the tension between the juxtaposed planes of art-world exhibition and lived experience. First, a brief review of one of the originary anecdotes from the (pre-)history of photography:

In the history of the inception photography, specifically prior to its materialization as image, there was already a virtual “there-has-been”: Henry Talbot’s now infamous frustration at his inadequate sketching skills in 1833 and reflected on a posteriori in The Pencil of Nature of 1844 (as though he could make a photograph of his experience at the lakeside) are one instance of the impending rise of the compression of time-space trajectories and their crystallization as a number of specific photographic technologies. Talbot could already envisage what he wished his representation of the view at Lake Como to be like, yet “found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.”
He was unable to achieve the operation through craft, but could imagine technique as a solution: “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!”. He thus exchanged the role of artist for technician who would merely supervise an encoding of what was into what would be: the photograph itself. Arching to our time now, we can understand that the semiotics of the photographic image—representing the conditions of perception—create an abrupt break in the elastic flow of time, such that in any futures that unfold after a photographic event a that-had-been appears always already present. Thus, compressing past, present and future into one neat spatialized package of a slice of time. This is both how and why photography is a virtual medium that attacks history. But it is also as a philosophical tool, a way to unravel the relations we have with the past, with representations of the past, with negotiations with the past.

What photography highlights for us now in a super-hybrid world is that we cannot easily reflect on the perturbations of modernity. We are still in the modern age, just a different constellation of those practices that engage with dys/utopic visions of a future from back then which is different from ours now. I suggested last week, that photography does not represent now as such, but just makes images, and this I think is what is going on in Maljkovic’s film...the amateur construction of a future that looks back is as much about the ways in which now is made visible as about how a reflection on relics of history (made pertinently meaningful or not) are a mechanism to deal with products of Modernism, indeed to deal with modernity. Maljkovic does photography but in film: that is, he makes the present a precondition for picturing the past in the future. This he does with self-conscious amateur values introduced through a “homemade“ foil covered car winding its way into a retrospective future.

Yesterday, at the opening of cyan, yellow, and violette, Kunst Raum Riehen I was struck by a video work with a very different thematising of time: Tobias Spichtig’s Iconographic Meltdown (Iceberg) (2012). A 14 minute loop of a slow circulation around an estranged iceberg, real or simulated. The frame of reference with which we orient ourselves are the shifting horizon, and the slowly unfurling contours of the brilliant silvery white spiked iceberg, in the middle of the video Rihana’s “Stay” gives us more of a narrative direction. The slow meltdown, the constantly rippling sea, and the slow so slow twist of point of view eschew the capturing of a moment. For any moment that might linger in the uncannily just not quite stationary camera quite literally melts away. Isn’t this what really happens in the protraction of the flows of space and time in photography. An apparent freezing of event, an intervention in time/space flows. A single and singular contingent actualization.

Photography, then, is a kind of tool to negotiate between the historicising on the one hand and experiencing time in the now, on the other. Reflections on Modernist content and form, of the kind that Claire Bishop experiences in Chelsea, are from this perspective photographical in that they seem to reproduce the conditions of perception to such a degree that they do not merely stand for the object—a re-engagement with Modernism—they become that thing. In other words, like a photograph of your own mother becoming her—“here’s my mum,” a show reading or reacting to, or even reiterating Modernism becomes that Modernism, too.

Joe Scanlan
Posted 30.09.2013 at 01:29

Let's take your premise as true, Peter, that these artists working with or reiterating Modernism are, through metonymic convenience, becoming Modernism. The question remains: why?
I'm not sure such decisions are nostalgic for Modernism per se, but for the clarity of vision and purpose and permanence that was its modus operandi. So if artists are becoming Modernism by working with its subject matter, I think it is out of anxiety and a concomitant need/desire to demarcate and collapse how far the Last Great Clear Moment was in relation to their own weak and muddled condition.
I haven't seen the Maljkovic show yet, but it does seem to want to take Modernism down a peg or two by "proving" that there were skeptics and buffoons in the midst of the era. And indeed their were. But it also suggests to me that we still, perhaps, haven't solved a question Reyner Banham posed in 1955, in the apogee of the era:
"This [the modern automobile's designed obsolescence) is a situation with which no pre-industrial aesthetic ever had to cope; even Plato's side-swipe at the ceramic trade in the Philebus falls a long way short of our current interpretative needs . . . But we are still making do with Plato because in aesthetics, as in most other things, we still have no formulated intellectual attitudes for living in a throwaway economy. We eagerly consume noise ephemeridae . . . yet we insist on aesthetic and moral standards hitched to permanency, durability, perennity."
I think Maljkovic, and many artists working with Modernism, are not performing archaeology on its philosophies and styles so much as on their representation of what looks to have been an intoxicating atmosphere of confidence and certainty.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 01.10.2013 at 01:19

Ok that complexifies it a bit.

What I am basically trying to say is this: Modernism as a historical response to a society shaped by production of new, life-changing materials, in a society propelled both to and by wars, where centralised factory production collapsed traditionally contiguous ways of life was a brave-new-aesthetic that centralized artists as an avant-garde (their response to Plato actually giving that episteme more leverage). Society’s fixation on new materials that had emerged in the gestation period of Modernity, was responded to by Modernist art in and with material.

Such is the Deleuzian beef against photography: not only does the photograph disrupt the elasticity of time with emblems that appear as traces not maps, but the very virtual÷actual interface is sold off as a cheap possibility that is the real. Fortunately for us and photography, too, a swath of work that could be triangulated by Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980), Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) and Barbara Kruger’s paste ups (1986-1995) reinvested the real from possibility to potential, thus refolding the virtual and actual in the construction/destruction of phantasy/fantasy worlds of signification. Plainly making D—— wrong in his malefaction against photography as “consigned to the dreary world of the signifier.”* I think he happened to dislike photography, yet rather liked cinema and painting—overlooking the photogenics of both C & P!

So in a photoGENIC discourse, I might ask: Is a reflective gaze enquiring about the modes of modernity and its particular obsession with form relevant, or is it a kind of getting way with super hybridity?
An age that functions through virtual evolution will need its artists to respond in a zeit-angemessed (adequate) media. So language it would seem, being a virtual entity, fits our sense of being-now-ness a lot better than heavy material that we’re alienated by. Yet a challenging hybridity that crosses language with material is offered in Venice by Bedwyr Williams’ The Starry Messenger: stuff is retuned to the domain of the virtual through the recounting of a kind of diary of terrazzo—it’s image, whimsy, and language—affective and virtual. Similarly, Danh Vo’s work with velvet at the Arsenale, though materially bound, is nonetheless essentially photogenic: heavy cloth walls of a colonial-era Catholic church from Vietnam on which areas covered by icons, books, paintings and photographs having remained unexposed to centuries of sunlight bear the mark of an absence of photochemical reaction. Absence makes visible traces of chemistry, of time, of exposure as signs of the virtuality of photography.

*Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1980) A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum. 129.

Claire Bishop
Posted 02.10.2013 at 15:51

Joe, I totally agree—the nostalgia is not for pure (‘socialist’) Modernism but for the sense of purpose and clarity of vision that accompanied its forms. Today, for the average person in what used to be called the first world, the future is no longer equated with a hopeful modern vision of progress (if indeed it ever were), but a seething pit of anxiety about short-term work contracts, unaffordable healthcare, and a lifetime of debt repayments (mortgages, student loans, credit cards). To an extent, aesthetic uncertainty is part and parcel of this greater precarity—hence the comforts of returning to a time when forms were the vehicle of ideological convictions, attached to a party position one could gladly subscribe to.
And of course, as Peter notes, there is the Internet. But rather than seeing photographic imagery as a way to ‘become Modern’, I think we’re dealing with a reaction formation: faced with the availability of all and every past aesthetic in the form of a .jpg on screen, the archival allure of the past, in all its haptic materiality, is relentlessly exaggerated. So I’m not sure that the ‘photographic’ quality of Danh Vo’s work is as important in this context as the question of index and aura that attaches itself to his materials.

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