Modernist Revisitations | Claire Bishop | Tuesday, 24.09.2013

Monumental Bling

It feels like a million new shows have just opened in Chelsea for the new season, and several of them chime perfectly with my theme for this blog: the retrospectivity of contemporary art, particularly the current fascination/obsession with Modernist art, architecture and design. In this post I’m going to focus on David Maljkovic at Metro Pictures, but also The Propeller Group at Lombard Fried; there are other shows too, but I’m going to save them for next week’s blog.
As is well known, David Maljkovic is a Croatian artist who graduated from the Rijksakademie in 2004. Much of his work circles around the overlooked and neglected relics of post-war Yugoslav modernism, most memorably the socialist monument by Vojin Bakić at Petrova Gora Memorial Park in central Croatia; it’s a crazy, futuristic silvery building—a kind of socialist Frank Gehry—erected in 1968, and dedicated to the partisans and their role in Yugoslavia’s resistance movement during World War Two. Maljkovic’s subsequent work has included a video about Vjenceslav Richter (a founding member of EXAT-51, a group of experimental Croatian artists and architects working in the early 1950s) as well as more recent forms of futurist imagination, such as the Peugeot research lab for car design in Sochaux, France.
Maljkovic’s new show, I have to confess, is much more formal (and less interesting) than his previous work, but it has many of the same strategies of revisitation and repurposing that characterize his project as a whole. I’m not sure the whole exhibition is worth describing in full, so I’ll just discuss one work. The main gallery contains an expansive white plinth, on top of which is a white projection screen showing a series of brief, looped animations based on cartoons from a Croatian architecture magazine in the early 1960s.
David Maljkovic, Afterform, 2013, HD Video, plinth, tripod projection screen, HD projector, stereo speakers, 8 x 312 x 192 inches (plinth); installation view; © Metro Pictures
One loop shows two men sitting around a table looking at a maquette of a city, the buildings represented by modernist slabs; one man clutches his head in consternation, as if unable to decide how best to arrange the city. Another loop shows a waiter holding a tray carrying a wobbly Modernist high-rise. The cartoons are clearly a satirical comment on Modernist architecture and urban planning, but it’s hard to fathom Maljkovic’s position in relation to them. He described his use of them to me as a ‘post-comment’, but they seem more like the artistic equivalent of re-tweeting or re-blogging.
David Maljkovic, film still from Afterform, 2013, HD Video, plinth, tripod projection screen, HD projector, stereo speakers; © Metro Pictures
In Maljkovic’s previous work, the relationship to Modernism was somewhat easier to parse. His low-tech futuristic video trilogy Scenes for a New Heritage (2004) took as its starting point the aforementioned monument at Petrova Gora: the structure’s undulating silvery otherworldliness becomes the central focus of a future community who communicate in an alien language. The first installment shows a group of young people setting out in a silver foil-covered car on 25 May (Tito’s birthday) in 2045, in order to work out what the edifice is about. They speak a strange parping language (apparently related to a form of Croatian folksong) and debate the monument’s long-forgotten meaning. It signifies nothing to them, just as their strange dialect is alien to us. The artist seems to present a visionary form of socialist Modernism as impenetrable to subsequent generations—the stuff of folk tale and speculation. Unlike Christian Philipp Müller (discussed in last week’s blog), Maljkovic is less interested in critiquing Modernism than in attempting to empty out this particular monument’s loaded historical connotations in order to grant it a hypothetical new function as sculpture.
David Maljkovic, film still from Scenes for a New Heritage, 2004
Two streets away on 21st Street, a show by The Propeller Group invites comparison to Maljkovic, if only for the superficial reason that both artists return to the socialist past. Of course, we’re dealing with vastly different socialisms here (as well as types of artistic practice)—ex-Yugoslavia’s history of non-aligned socialism, transitioning to EU neoliberalism in the 2000s, versus Vietnam’s single-party Communist rule since the 1970s.
Based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, The Propeller Group made their name with a video installation showing an advertising agency trying to rebrand Communism (Television Commercial for Communism, 2011). The current show in New York continues this theme, but this time they’ve gone for Lenin imagery. On one side of the gallery are photographs showing a gold plated pendant of Lenin’s head (about the size of a grapefruit), slung around the neck of the monumental Lenin statue in Volgograd, Russia. Titled Monumental Bling, it’s a clear nod to hip hop culture (and maybe the recent fiasco over Jay-Z recording his new video in nearby Pace Gallery).
The Propeller Group, Monumental Bling: Lenin East Berlin on Lenin Volgograd 2, 2013 (archival pigment print, 40 x 30 inches) ©Lombard Freid Gallery
On the other side of the gallery is a series of unframed Lenin portraits, taken from former Communist party headquarters across the USSR, in the characteristic brown palette of that era. But Lenin doesn’t look quite himself…. because each one has been altered to resemble Leonardo di Caprio, based on his different film roles (from Django and Gatsby to Inception and Titanic). The message is more or less the same as Monumental Bling: Communism goes Hollywood. Is this mash-up a suggested program or a dystopian vision? I don’t think we’re even supposed to ask. It reminds me of Sots Art in Russia in the 1970s, and Political Pop in China in the 1990s—think of Wang Guanyi’s paintings that superimpose Western brand names on the imagery of the Cultural Revolution. But at least Chairman Mao and Coca-Cola are comparably iconic. Why Lenin and Di Caprio? Why not Che Guevara and Kate Winslet? Or Trotsky and Brad Pitt?
The Propeller Group, Lenin as Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, 2013 (oil and embroidery on canvas, 31.5 x 24.41 inches) ©Lombard Freid Gallery
Ultimately, The Propeller Group’s eclecticism is a continuation of 1970s and 80s postmodernism, i.e. the promiscuous citation of previous works of art and architecture, emptied of their meaning and associations to become interchangeable signifiers. It’s a totally different model of citation to that of David Maljkovic, whose thoughtful (if slippery) forms of anachronic production seem more typical of contemporary art’s relationship to the Modernist past.
At the moment there are basically two positions on whether or not contemporary art’s interest in Modernist art, architecture and design is mired in nostalgia, or whether it has something new to say. The first position is best represented by critic and curator Dieter Roelstraete, who criticizes what he calls the artist as ‘amateur archaeologist’, obsessed with historicization. He suggests that artists in the West are nostalgic for the ideological clarity of the Cold War era—just as artists from the former East are, but for different reasons (presumably because they are living through its aftermath). In his view, the purported critical claims and impact of the current ‘historiographic turn’ in art are undermined by its ‘inability to grasp or even look at the present, much less to excavate the future.’1Roelstraete doesn’t specify what, but these reasons clearly concern a connection a lived experience of socialism. Roelstraete, ‘The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art’, e-flux magazine no.4, March 2009. Roelstraete’s critique is acerbic and troubling, so I was surprised to learn that he is organizing an exhibition on this very subject at MCA Chicago, due to open in November this year.
The defenders of this tendency are probably best represented by Canadian art historian Christine Ross, who argues that artists strive to ‘potentialize’ Modernist remains ‘as forms of resistance to and redeployment of modern life’.2Ross, The Past is the Present, It's the Future Too: The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art, 2012, p.40. She focuses on a somewhat predictable line-up of artists (Stan Douglas and Tacita Dean, but also Mark Lewis and Melik Ohanian)—all of whom have made works that reflect on Modernism, but could hardly be said to mobilize this towards a new vision of the future. Indeed, some of these artists (pre-eminently Dean) are known for the devastatingly elegiac tenor of their works.
Maljkovic himself has said that his work is an ‘attempt to create new platforms on the ruins of existing grounds’.3Modernologies exhibition catalogue, 2009, p.18. If the previous generation tried to ‘kill the father’, his own generation (he was born in 1973) wants to ‘talk to the father’, to create links across generations. I can see this dialogue at work in Scenes for a New Heritage, where a retro-futurist aesthetic kaleidoscopes several temporalities, but manages to look utterly strange and fresh. But much of his output is redolent with a more archival sensibility (all those 16mm projectors), and I’m not always convinced that his collages, slides, and digital/analogue slippages are ultimately as interesting as the objects and histories that form their starting point.
Ultimately, Maljkovic’s agenda is not—pace Roelstraete—primarily historical (even though, as he admits, his work might not be necessary in a country where cultural history is fully valorized); nor is it—pace Ross—at all social or political in orientation (there is no implicit commentary on the 1989 transition, nor on the Balkan Wars that ravaged this region soon after). Instead, the driving motivation is above all formal, in the sense of questioning the meaning of forms once their ideological connotations have been removed and set aside. If this position is post-historical, then it seems perfectly fitting for our current historical period, characterized as it is by the suspension of new visions and horizons, but with a yearning anticipation for what might come next, even while we lack any clear sense of what this might be.