25 January 2011

Over the Counter exhibition: Budapest

Today's post will be about an exhibition I saw in Budapest. The name in Hungarian is "A Pult Mögött: A posztszocialista gazdaság jelenségei a kortárs művészetben", which is translated as "Over the Counter: The Phenomenon of Post-Socialist Economy in Contemporary Art". It was shown at the Műcsarnok Kunsthalle, which is on Heroes Square right across from the Szépműveszeti Múzuem, from June-September in 2010.

The exhibit is featured on the Műcsarnok website. You can read the full description of the exhibit on the website, which I highly suggest. I will be focusing on a few pieces in the exhibit that I found compelling. The Műcsarnok is an exhibition space, even though the outside suggests it's a museum, and it's incredibly spacious, with vaulted ceilings and large doorways. It's a blank canvas that provides a perfect spot for the collection because the pieces in the exhibit are larger than life and there were quite a few videos, which I had not expected. I waited all summer to find someone to come with me, but I ended up going alone and for a limited amount of time. I was there for two hours, but I could have easily wandered around for four. My little guidebook was covered in notes scribbled as I walked through and took note of artists I particularly liked.

To give an idea of the breadth of work presented, it represented a solid chunk of CEE, had a wide range of mediums, including, video, overhead projector, installations, car doors, mixed media mural, and photographs. I was surprised by the work there because it wasn't what I was expecting. I expected more of a museum exhibit, clearly fooled by the outside of the building. Once I switched my mindset, I was enamored. I am highlighting two works that I enjoyed by von Wedemeyer and Cantor.

(all Wedemeyer film stills courtesy of db art mag)
I really enjoyed Clemens von Wedemeyer's "Die Probe" or "The Rehearsal" (2008). It's a video that I unfortunately could not find for viewing. I did find a selection of film stills to aid my assessment. It would also help to read db art mag's article on Wedemeyer and this video in particular. The magazine will do a far more eloquent job of making this point, but the video is a "behind the scenes" look at the political process. The article linked above says, "[he] is interested in spaces concealed in the blind spots of everyday life and media attention". That perfectly describes what "Die Probe" conveys; the video chronicles what happens backstage before and after a politician's speech, which the media does not portray. Even the moments when the media rushes to get its soundbites from the elected official, the omniscient presence of the camera suggests the arbitrary nature of the media's presence, especially since most of the video documents the absence of it.

What's even more interesting is that the video is on loop and in such a way that it's not entirely clear if the end is really the end. It shows a manufactured entity being presented to the media as a savior for a failing country, though the real man behind the messianic image admits that the system does not allow for reform. Even if you break the four wall and realize that the scenes are acted and not real, it still makes the point that the circus of politics is a stage. The film does that within the medium, but without only reinforces the idea more. Wedemeyer's use of media's medium (video) to act out scenes that the media does not record points to the complete lack of it altogether, causing him to create it. Wedemeyer did not grow up in the socialist half of Germany, but his work does apply strongly to the transitional period in post-socialist states. It makes sense why his work was included without being explicitly from or related to CEE.

The next work is Mircea Cantor's "Double Headed Matches" (2002-3). I watched it and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the Romanian artist's piece, though I inherently liked it. There was a display case of a box of double-headed matches and then a video playing behind it, documenting the process that made them. As I did research for this post, I dug through the press release PDF file available on his website, which had an excellent review of the work on the last page. The one thing to keep in mind is that 20,000 boxes of matches were made for this project and matches are typically not made by hand. These are the two pieces of background information that really put the whole piece together for me. Cantor hired a factory to produce these matches, which have no exchange value, and document the process. The review I read stated that the project "short circuited" the system. First, he put a stop to the factory's usual work and made a special request, a bulk one at that. In addition to creating matches of no real value, he had factory workers move away from their machine babysitting posts and craft the matches since the machines are not equipped to make the matches. Then he documents the way its done, which, like Wedemeyer's use of an omniscient camera, exposes a normally unseen process. This gives a sample of his video, as well as 6 other works of his.

For myself, I thought about Marx. His writings deal with the alienation of man from his work and the tedium of factory work. The double headed matches play on this by creating work of no value, which not only alienates workers from their work (they don't make it for themselves), but from the purpose of their work. They're not making it for any reason other than Cantor requesting it. They are completely removed from the purpose of these matches. The process is captured on film, a further removal from reality, and is done for the sake of the camera. However, the matches also suggest a thriftiness (using both sides) or possible injury (both sides burn and scorch a finger), both of which could be taken indirectly as references to the system Marx inspired that ultimately failed to back up its promises. The matches promise thrift, but hint at danger.

But it's not all about Marx. I wouldn't reduce the work to commentary on Communism and Marxist writings because it also has meaning in the contemporary world. Creating these matches is not an economical process; it's creating art. The diametric opposition of craft and efficiency is blatant. The video shows a large group of women who could not have made more than a thousand matches within the duration of the video, which is even edited for time. They created 20,000 and they were all hand dipped. Perhaps it's hinting at the manufacturing of art (something Warhol exploited) and an interview in the press release file confirms Cantor's distaste for the consumerist culture of art. He said, "We all criticize the culture of consumption, but we are all obsessed with the "what's your next project" mantra." There's no one way to look at the work because the meaning can fit into so many interpretations. His work extends beyond the obvious post-socialist dialogue and pulls many aspects together in one piece.

(images courtesy of mirceacantor.ro)

Please check out these artists! They continue to produce excellent work and they should receive support for their innovative and creative interpretations of the world we live in. Check in tomorrow for another post on art.