Although they engage with different manifestations of the past and the discourses that produced them, the works in the exhibition interrogate the very positions they seek to occupy as art objects, excavating and re-inscribing symbols and codes, engendering further narratives about narratives. Embedded in these historical folds, however, are repressions and erasures around meetings of aesthetic and political acts, where the artist in effect has option to "betray" his or her object of inquiry, pervert or undermine its ostensible origins and authenticity, in an effort to rethink it. Histories – both personal and collective – are interrogated, inscribed with a sense of occlusion at the centre, and then presented as a disassembled formation of yet another evanescent moment in time. By reimagining histories of protest in linguistic and visual form, the artists engender ways of rethinking the past through a double détournement, a repetition or redistribution of the already recoded, without returning it to an originary "Primal Scene" in time or space.
The Archives (World Peace) (2008), is a suite of framed vintage protest posters from the 1960s and 1970s by Nina Beier and Marie Lund. Each poster is folded in half, concealing its content. However, some traces do seep through, creating evidence of past acts and desires that are seen here as elegiac messages from an altogether different time and place. Installed horizontally in a line based on the level of their folds, the individual works, though of slightly differing scale, become a blank horizon suggesting a communal ground, an archive-crypt that mourns the past against nostalgia, waiting for the next time ...another time and another place to be activated.
The collective Claire Fontaine presents a selection from its series Brickbats (2007): sculptures made from ordinary bricks individually wrapped in copies of book covers and secured by elastic bands. A "brickbat" is both a brick used as weapon and a term of blunt verbal criticism. By collapsing the two meanings, Claire Fontaine invokes the street battles of revolutions past with a brutal condemnation of the poverty of collective thought, where the history of and need for revolutionary acts and desires are rendered virtually impotent by the weight of the culture industry and the politics of consensus.
The subtitle of Luca Frei’s "Everything was to be done. All the adventures are still there." (2007) – a citation from writer and artist Kodwo Eshun – is a rallying call, an invitation to intellectual and aesthetic experimentation superimposed upon a bleak black-and-white image of Place Beaubourg in Paris, the site of the Centre Pompidou before the museum was built. The photograph depicts the area when it was still a vast car park, already severed from its historic past, from above. Frei’s work is charged with a melancholy suggested by a temporal slippage between image and text: It affirms and condemns the bald optimism and ideological values of this cultural centre dialectically both as an idea and as a reality.
In the Near Future, London (2008), is a three-part slide projection by Sharon Hayes that investigates the history of political demonstration, the way it is expressed and the forms those expressions take – their verbal and visual appearance. Part of an ongoing series of performances, produced in New York, Vienna, Warsaw, and, most recently, London, the work employs national histories and languages to assess the political power of acts of dissent in historical counterpoint. Hayes performs these actions alone and in silence with hand-written placards that reiterate familiar slogans of manifestations from past actions. By inserting ideologically charged references into the present, the artist radically displaces and ambiguously reactivates collective memories of civil and social antagonisms that persist today.
For more than 40 years, Sturtevant has rigorously and unwaveringly explored the possibilities of thought through object making. By "repeating" works by other artists such as Duchamp, Warhol and Stella, she does not simply appropriate or copy, produce likenesses or simulacra, but rather produces something more than the original to dissect its very integrity, undermining elemental categories of objecthood and the visual altogether. She asks what discursive formations allow art to be and what does it mean to see something for the very first time again? Beuys. La Rivoluzione siamo noi (1988) is an image of the artist posed, dressed, and situated as the artist Joseph Beuys himself was in his work of 1972. Here Sturtevant asks us to think about what her repeat of "the revolution starts with us" suggests about Beuys’ own practice, which equates art and social politics, and how discourses on thought, difference, and the body might disrupt it, only to better understand it.
Cerith Wyn Evans’ The Return of the Return of the Return of the Durruti Column (2008) is like a mirror that only reflects itself, a finite feedback loop that reuses an already reused image. The title refers to a double appropriation of the anarchist unit from the Spanish Civil War, the Durruti Column, by the Situationist International in a 1967 anonymous poster – a re-inscribed American cowboy comic strip – further re-inscribed by Wyn Evans. The work, a silkscreen on board, is made from phosphorescent paint, making it illegible in the light and luminous in the dark and, suggesting not only the transitory nature of concatenations of art and revolution, but also the dangers of misrecognising history as spectacle.
With a special contribution by Rosemarie Trockel
Kunsthalle Zürich thanks: Präsidialdepartement der Stadt Zürich, Luma Stiftung, Point d’ironie, agnès b.