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Sitting on the steps of Greek democracy – reflections on an excursion

February 19th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

Antonis Pittas – Landart (2012)

Saturday was the last day of a three day excursion with students from the University of Hildesheim, concluding the seminar ‘The Art of Describing Art’ that I taught together with Julia Heuser this winter semester. We ended visiting Annet Gelink Gallery, where artist Antonis Pittas (part of the Chasing Rainbows exhibition on until 23-2) was finishing his last ‘performative’ public writing of the word ‘implementation’ on a rectangular slate of marble that has the same dimensions as one step of the stair leading up to the Greece parliament. As it goes with these excursions everyone was exhausted at the end of the three days, so when Antonis invited us to sit on the sculpture, everybody immediately obliged! One of the students noted with a sense of irony that the steps of the Greece parliament was now ‘occupied’ by German students. The observation was more than just a funny comment. It was a precise historical image of where we were: resting on the steps of Greek democracy, while trying to figure out where we are, how we got there and where we can go from here.

In the last days we had looked at modern and contemporary classics from Lissitzky to Kabakov, from Cézanne to Mike Kelley and with our eyes and bodies confronted the battlefield of aesthetics in the American-European 20th century. In a sense we had followed the simultaneous move inward and outward that marked this creative and destructive century. For it was in the depths of the human subject, in the movement of the eyes, the innate sensibilities of the bodies, in the unconscious, that during 20th century the workings of the world – both natural and social – were discovered, which offered the foundation for utopian designs to reshape the world. As Benjamin stated in his famous essay on ‘art in the age of technological reproducibility’ commenting on the complex spatial organisation of modernity (the moving in- and outwards): ‘the modern masses have a desire to come closer to things’, to ‘absorb’ the world in their being, to overcome the distance of reflection, to counter alienation, to let the aura of the work of art whither and decay into a new substance, a new subject, who would approach the world no longer as a Cartesian Mind, but as a complex weaving of body and mind. In the three days we were such a mass of bodies that tried to absorb modernity – perhaps to get beyond it.

Looking at Lissitzky

We discovered this looking at Lissitzky in the Lissitzky-Kabakov exhibition ‘Utopia and Reality’ (still in the Van Abbemuseum until 28-4-2013). We followed with our eyes how the Prouns of this Russian avant-garde artist were not offering the mind an image that it could read as a story, but that it juxtaposed complex and contradicting shapes that activated eye and mind at the same time, producing a flux between imagined three dimensional space and physical shapes on the canvas. The picture addressed a ‘new man’, who would learn to think through doing; a man who would overcome the body-mind split through a new type of dynamic unity between form and content that marked constructivist graphic, architectonic and artistic design. This was the aesthetic utopianism that accompanied the Russian revolution at the dawn of the century. Looking then at the work of Kabakov after this we saw the clumsy and everyday man who struggled with the impossible demands of this clinical, mechanical constructivist dream that had turned into terror as quickly as the French Revolution did. Approaching human beings no longer as spiritual machines as Lissitzky, Kabakov introduced human beings as filled with stories and dreams, trapped in an everydayness that in no way reflects the exalted rhetoric and dream-like images that the Soviets made of their earthly, socialist paradise.

Attentive Audience

After experiencing this confrontation between the two Russian giants, students the following day gave presentations to the Van Abbe-staff that focused on the website. Talking today about the ‘art of describing art’ requires talking as well about where these descriptions will be made public and here the Internet still poses many questions. By making proposals for the Van Abbe-collection-website, the students gave their views and ideas and were offered generous, but also critical feedback by Daniel Neugebauer (head of marketing, mediation and fund raising) and Christiane Berndes (curator and head of collection). It was a nice moment of exchange not only between the people involved, but also between the world of the university and the museum and as such another good experience in the now already three-year old structural collaboration between the Van Abbemuseum and the University of Hildesheim. During the days we also visited Onomatopee, MU and Piet-Hein Eek, which made the exchange not limited to the two institutions, but also made it an encounter with Eindhoven in a broader sense. (And, for those who also read the earlier blog-entry on this seminar, another high-point of course was the physical encounter with the Buste de Femme, from Picasso that had made the trip to Palestine and was subject to an assignment in the first part of the class.)

The last day we visited Amsterdam and went first to the Stedelijk Museum, who generously welcomed us by giving us free entrance. Walking through the quite majestic presentation of the collection of the Stedelijk, the story that had been presented to us in the first days through the iconic figures of Lissitzky and Kabakov now unfolded in its many different manifestations through the traditional narrative of Western art of the 20th century. In the end the visit became a kind of crash-course in Greenbergian aesthetics looking first at Cézanne, then Mondriaan and then Newman. Of course, there are many reasons to critique this modernist tradition, but when studying art within Europe it is difficult to ignore this history. Also, since it belongs to a much broader and more general history of exchange between art and society and the role aesthetics plays in politics it is impossible to ignore this episode in an art history curriculum or to consider it in only negative terms. And, as an added advantage, it proofed a good exercise before entering the absurd, humorous and terrifying world of Mike Kelley, whose work still seems very much connected to the aesthetics of the modernist period preceding his work and is legible as critique only from within this tradition.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov – Let’s Go Girls (1995)

And then, after all this looking and walking, we ended up sitting on the steps of the Greek parliament in Annet Gelink Gallery. In our discussion Antonis Pittas openly admitted his strong affinity with the modernist sensibilities of the Minimal and Conceptual artists.  Like Kelley, he still has one foot in the old world of modernism. However, as he explained, what he does is ‘unforgivable’ to those Minimal and Conceptual artist’s whose aesthetics he borrows. Closer to Lissitzky than to Kabakov, these artists also worked in an anti-anecdotal way and wanted to produce works which would, in the formula of Donald Judd, be ‘specific-objects’ that told of nothing but themselves. Antonis in contrast, takes as the measurements for his Judd-like slate of marble the real historical staircase in Athens. On it he writes with graphite a quote by Christine Lagarde (director of the IMF) ‘implementation’, which refers to the implementation of the hard austerity measures to get grip on public spending and reduce the deficit. But the work reflects the contemporary moment in many other ways. When Antonis visited Athens some time ago he noticed that everywhere marble stones had been smashed on pavements or from buildings to to throw at the police. The marble that was considered the strongest and noblest material with which to build the city that is the historical birthplace of democracy, today serves as a weapon for common people to fight a system that they no longer understand and see only as an enemy. The current situation gives wings to the proto-fascist movement Golden Dawn that is scarily popular. And even if it seems unlikely that they will follow a military trajectory similar to National Socialism, the fact that such open fascist sensibility can manifest itself again in Europe in synchronicity with an enormous economic crisis is cause for deep concern.

on the steps of Greek democracy

It makes me wonder what the meaning of ‘describing art’ could be in such a tense political moment. I don’t have a clear answer to this. But thinking about it I’m reminded of the way in which the French philosopher Jacques Rancière describes how there is an aesthetic component to (democratic) politics, because it requires ‘recognition’ before any change, any decision, is possible. First we have to see the danger, we have to see our neighbour (strange and close) and recognize the fears and dreams of one another, to discuss possible solutions. It is the dream of democracy perhaps, extremely fragile and maybe more a vision than a reality, but what else do we have other than this vision? Even if it is no solution, the work of Antonis makes us see, and writing about it allows us to share what we see and as such allows us – perhaps – to see a little more. It may sound simple, but seeing is not simple, neither is talking about it. Seeing and saying are a crucial part of the human ecology and a world that doesn’t care for them constantly is exposed to the risk of forgetting the difference between fact and fiction, between what is there in front of our eyes and what we intellectually know. The artist, the art historian, the art critic, the art mediator, the curator they all belong to a delicate economy that provides a platform where we can exercise the skill of seeing and saying. Of course, this alone will not solve our social or political problems, but I do believe that it is part of the solution. So, sitting on the steps of Greek parliament we rested from three days of hard work to gather strength, strength that I’m afraid we might need more than we would like in the days to come.

*Thanks to my colleague Nick Aikens for reading over the text

**Photos from excursion-participant Paula Rathjen

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