The Way Things Run, Part II: Cargo
El Anatsui , Alighiero Boetti, Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), Moyra Davey, Edith Dekyndt, Igor Hosnedl , David Lamelas , Christian Kosmas Mayer , Paulo Nazareth, Jala Wahid
June 8–July 7, 2018
Opening: Friday June 8, 6–11pm
Co-curated by Justin Polera and Jeppe Ugelvig
Cargo, the second iteration of The Way Things Run, sets out to explore the ways in which artists narrate complex migratory histories in and through the commodity form. The commodity—understood as any kind of object, material, or experience that exists in a logic of exchange—is the most common cultural form in our global capitalist society. The artists in this exhibition propose the commodity as a kind of material palimpsest, a container of social and political histories of movement of both people and things. From the extraction of raw materials in specific geographic locales, to the production and distribution of consumer objects in a market economy, the life of the commodity is always a story of labor, power, control, money, affect, and care, existing in an eternal process of erasure and re-coding, of opacity and invisibility.
The exhibition begins with El Anatsui’s multiple Diaspora (2012), which digitally re-prints one of the artist’s famous cloth-like sculptures made from repurposed scrap metal from African dump sites. Exploiting this material to produce breathtaking sculptural forms, Anatsui examines the role of consumer debris within a globalizing African continent, and by naming the work Diaspora, connects issues of consumption with those of identity-formation. Global consumer culture is, of course, a result of a diasporic world; formed by colonial and postcolonial histories of displacement, forced and self-initiated migration, cultural nomadism, trade, and leisure travel. The contradictions of these concurrent local- and globalisms manifest most vividly in the production and circulation of commodities, but rarely in ways that are directly legible on their surface.
As commodities are produced, bought, or gifted, they acquire social, cultural, and physical values to individuals and to communities; values that may be transformed or forgotten as these objects are passed on, lost, thrown away, or re-sold. Several works in the exhibition speculate the basic process of commodity signification: David Lamelas’s 1972 film installation Conflict of Meaning (Film Script) speaks to the shifting media semiotics of consumer goods by juxtaposing film and photography alongside each other, while Igor Hosnedl’s repeated use of Ancient Greek icons and motifs in his paintings serves as a way to comment upon their popular use particularly in early computer games, and later, graphic design.
The work of art is one type of commodity where the arbitrary dynamic of valorization—between material debris, personal souvenir, and speculative luxury commodity—becomes crystal clear. In Edith Dekyndt’s sculpture Don’t they (2017), human hair sourced from Brazil is suspended in a ponytail from the ceiling. A historical symbol of femininity, this bodily material has in recent decades become a highly desired consumer object circulating between different consumer markets around the globe. In Copperheads (2018), Moyra Davey reflects upon the abstraction of value in a commodity society by photographing one of its lowest material denominators: the one-cent coin. Arranging 150 close-up photographs of American one-cent coins (showing the profile of President Abraham Lincoln) in a tight grid, the physical properties of the one-cent coins are highlighted—some nicked, scarred, gouged, tarnished, and partially oxidized. Davey began taking pictures of money after the crash of the U.S. stock market in the early 1990s when the virtualization of capital was becoming increasingly apparent.
The series of chocolate sculptures by Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, or CATPC) extends the paradoxes of valorization into the context of art. Produced by Emery Mohamba & Mbuku Kimpala, two workers from a Belgian-owned chocolate plantation in Lusanga, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, these sculptures use as raw material the very commodity (raw chocolate) they produce as laborers—thus enhancing the demand of their own product on a micro-scale. In collaboration with Dutch artist Renzo Martens, founder of the Institute for Human Activity, their clay molds are 3D scanned and reproduced in Belgian chocolate, only to be exhibited and sold on the international art market as luxury commodities. This subversive and ethically questionable gesture suspends rules of socioeconomic mobility in a globalizing world, essentially transforming these industrial laborers into middle-class Western artists.
Mobility and non-mobility across borders is a central question in the work of Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994). Engaging the changing geopolitics of his time, Boetti collected articles from the Italian newspaper La Stampa from 1967 until 1971, in the time between the Six Day War in the Sinai Peninsula and the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan. In the series of copper engraving plates, the Italian Arte Povera artist isolates the cartographic outlines of shifting occupied territories around the world as shown in the maps reproduced in the newspaper—only here, their context and explanation stripped away.
Bodies appear in abstract and fragmented renderings in the sculptural works of Jala Wahid, as lumpen parts or homeless biomorphic objects. Working in wax and casting, she points to the material compound of crude oil, an abundant resource and commodity in her native Kurdistan. By featuring visible flesh and bullet wounds, her sculptures furthermore speak to a history of violence inscribed in the human form, while the title, Embalmed in Crude Oil, Self-Ammunition (2018), suggests psychical resistance through materials and objects. In untitled (from Genocide in América series) (2015), Paulo Nazareth memorializes the most violent form of commodification—that of humans—by staging self-portraits with posters that mark the presence of murdered slaves in his native Brazil.
While the global trading of commodities is generally understood as a positive instigator for human migration, movement across borders is increasingly prohibited today. At the current intersection of economic neoliberalism and social neo-protectionism, certain bodies and materials are encouraged to move freely, while the movement of others are strictly controlled or wholly illegalized. The exhibition ends with the monumental installation The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival (2017) by German artist Christian Kosmas Mayer, presented for the first time in Germany. The work tells the story of the African-American athlete who won gold at the High Jump competition in the 1936 Nazi Olympic Games in Berlin—a victory that was met with discrimination and delegitimization by both the German and U.S. Heads of States (Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt respectively). Before dying of pneumonia on a US navy ship in 1946, he planted a small oak seedling—a species heavily abused by the Nazis as a symbol for nationalist hegemony—that was given to all gold medalists during the winning ceremony as a state sponsored gesture for the eyes of the world. His oak remained in the yard of his parents’ house in a suburb of present-day Koreatown in Los Angeles where Mayer found it nearly eighty years later. There, it had grown into an impressive oak, long tended for by a Mexican family who immigrated to California in the 1970s to find work. With the help of a plant physiologist, Mayer created small in-vitro offsprings from the oak in a Pasadena laboratory as a way to continue the narrative of Johnson’s legacy. Ironically, these tree shoots were refused entry to Europe due to the risk of introducing a tree disease rampant in California, and were thus brought there unofficially. This perplexing case speaks to the way in which discrimination continues to manifest materially, that is, through materials and their circulation; but also to how strategies of survival and resistance may recurrently regenerate and manifest across history, time, and place.
Text by Jeppe Ugelvig
Image: Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, We Who Are Here And You Who Have Come by Emery Mohamba & Mbuku Kimpala, 2015. Courtesy the artists & KOW, Berlin.
The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival (2017) is maintained and cared for by L40-Kunstverein am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz e.V., nourished on nutrient agar and presently hosted by PS120. This work is kindly supported by The Plant Biotechnology Unit at the Department of Biotechnology, Universität für Bodenkultur Wien.
Special thanks to Margit Laimer and Veronika Hanzer