"Antagonisms": Museu D'Art Contemporani De Barcelona

By Meyer, James | Artforum International, November 2001 | Go to article overview

"Antagonisms": Museu D'Art Contemporani De Barcelona


Meyer, James, Artforum International


Politica1 art has received a bashing of late. Explicit forms of critique have been scarcely present in recent exhibitions; the Whitney Biennial of 1993 may have been the last major show in this country of demonstrably political art. Its do-gooder tone and simple conception of identity politics aside, the multicultural" Biennial was far more memorable than the revanchist surveys that followed in its wake. Yet the charges of "political correctness" hurled at that show by critics of right-wing affiliation or archaic sensibility ultimately had an effect; so too did a certain boredom with critical thinking, an exhaustion with always being asked to read and think and question the status quo. Factor in a marketplace tired of critique and a loss of engaged criticism, and you have the widespread misconception of political art as a "style" whose time has come and gone. Indeed, it would seem that the very notion of the political in art is in crisis. It is unclear how such an art would be defined, what its c urrent techniques are, and how it could reassert its relevance in a context that professes indifference to critique itself.

What are the forms of political art at present? Is criticality still viable in an art world inured to critique? These are some of the questions raised by "Antagonisms." They are good questions, and one can only applaud the efforts of curators Jose Lebrero Stals and Manuel Borja-Villel for having raised them. The show, an ambitious survey spanning the '60s to the present, was structured as a sequence of "case studies" in loose chronological order, each represented by a single work, or in some cases several works, exhibited in a single gallery. Some of the "cases" were categories of style ("Minimalism" and "Arte Povera" are the inventions of art critics) while others (Situationism, the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie) defined a specific geographical-historical context. Other galleries were devoted to a particular technique used over several decades, sometimes in quite different locales ("Information"; "Service"). In short, the exhibition showed quite convincingly that the integration of politics and art necessarily va ries in form as it responds to context and audience. Not all "political" art (however this category is defined) looks the same. On the contrary, in order to convey its message it must be infinitely adaptable.

Inevitably, some "cases" were more convincing than others. Hans Haacke's Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time System, 1971 ("Information"), a rigorous documentation of a Lower East Side and Harlem real estate monopoly, comprising photographs, maps, and a bewildering array of financial detail, remains, thirty years later, the outstanding exemplar of art as a mode of research and documentation. The gallery devoted to activist art included generous displays of posters by ACT UP, the Guerilla Girls, Think Again, and the German graphic artist Klaus Staeck, whose work addresses such issues as nuclear energy and global warming through compelling graphic means. …

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