N°93 We all laughed at Christopher Columbus
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22 July - 4 September 2006
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There is a fine, but clear difference between an artistic reconstruction of an historical event made in order to question, or reconsider social attitudes of interpretation; and an artistic interpretation of a past event created to explore newly applied layers of meaning that effect its reading today. The former considers the truthfulness of historical representation, the problematic dialectic between collective memory and factual source, and more often than not it is a personal quest instigated by artists in order to understand an important moment in their own relative history. It is also a topic that has of late been applied more and more often curatorially to explore a distinct artistic practice that focuses on the reconstruction of historical events to explore their past and current significance – from re-enactments to documentary videos. The difference in the angle of the latter approach, that of artistic interpretation of an historical event, is that the artists’ relationship with the referenced moment is based on a pure infatuation with a specific happening. This interest is nurtured through research and intrigue and results in a work that is an individual, artistic interpretation developed from a subjective point of view.
Such an approach can be a one off-affair, a fascination with a particular moment in time that the artist cannot let lie. When after having worked through every facet and detail of it for themselves they choose to produce a work of art that is then several layers removed from the original factual source – for example Ola Pehrson’s personal version of the documentary Hunt for the Unabomber. Alternatively, the approach described becomes a repetitive strategy, whereby the artist selects a series of partially related incidents in history as starting points for artistic examination – as in Florian Wüst’s practice, through which he researches one seminal happening after another that have had some impact on American and German history. The list incorporates, amongst others, the matter of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the so-called Spiegel-Affäre in 1962. In each of his final interpretations he uses a similar system of working that adopts video or audio, wall drawings and installation, so linking his selected subject matters via the aesthetic of his own oeuvre and thus in a new area of classification and at a new moment in time.
‘We All Laughed at Christopher Columbus’ explores these more buoyant investigations of the past. Composed as an installation that tries to remain as open in plan as possible, the exhibition forms a journey between the works, where each event explored by the artists can be viewed by the audience individually, while at the same time considered as part of a conversation. Although the subjects are not related, or consequentially linked in history in any acknowledged way, they do suggest points of allusion by way of similar artistic approaches and attitudes. Additionally the significance of each of the events is already determined in collective, internationally distributed history, but without disregarding this underlying significance the artists manage to shift their interpretations to a current platform that is about how the work of art is read autonomously in the here and now, more so than how it relates to the past it references. This is most evident in the way the selected artists embrace the fictive within incident, without being compromised by feelings of responsibility to accuracy, thus leaving space for the audience to interpret their own response to each work and construe hypothetical, historical associations.
The statement ‘We all laughed at Christopher Columbus’, adopted and adapted by RUNO LAGOMARSINO became the linchpin for this exhibition. By changing the personal pronoun of the sentence from third to first person Lagomarsino plays with the assumed responsibility of the quote and flirts with the fact that it was always a fictional statement anyway. Like an accidental slip of the tongue the text appears as a projection on a tiny billboard that takes center stage while the other works in the exhibition revolve around it.
A visual stepping stone links AMALIA PICA’s film To Everybody That Waves, which shows an event organized in the harbour of Amsterdam of people waving farewell to those boarding an old sailing ship. In a similar way to Lagomarsino, Pica describes a fake collective memory that stems not from the literal historical event – in this case mass migration from this harbour to the Americas – but from the many fictive responses reproduced by film, media and our imaginations. By taking advantage of the presence of an old ship, asking those in its vicinity to participate on the spot and using an old black and white film format, Pica layers together different fictional associations with no true accuracy to historical fact, to produce a personal interpretation of how we might imagine such a scene now.
Reflecting on the limitations of historical description JEREMIAH DAY's project on the reconstruction of monuments in Washington DC sets an interesting precedent for the reconsideration of what memorials mean in our current society. His installation of photographs, text and sculptural elements take as their reference the renovation of major memorials and monuments in Washington DC during the summer and autumn of 2004. He proposes that this process of reconstruction is no coincidence but a symbolic re-organisation, initiated to parallel the USA’s shift in political discourse. On each of the photographs Day has handwritten notes suggesting his claims of propaganda that offer a fragmented form of storytelling.
Similarly OLA PEHRSON’s remake of the documentary Hunt for the Unabomber provokes the limitations of historical description via this particular television and cinema format. The work comprises a series of stills from the original film that Pehrson modelled in clay, junk, thread and polystyrene. These handmade recreations were then put back together and filmed again to form a new documentary, just slightly less connected to reality than the original. Certain references are shownup as having always been fake – i.e. a specific airplane in the story, becomes any airplane in the original documentary and again yet another airplane in Pehrson’s interpretation. Another abstraction found in the original documentary is the lack of physical participation by character Ted’s brother, where his inclusion is represented by a holiday photo possibly taken on vacation in Mexico. In Pehrson’s reconstruction a remake of this image merely pushes the pretence of the brother’s involvement one step further.
FLORIAN WÜST's installations deal with the ambivalent relationship between subject and state. This relationship is constantly changing under the productive pressures of renegotiation and reassessment. Nonetheless, and as also explored by Day, the defining power of the state tends to treat signs, images and language as malleable material even where they refer to concrete historical events and conditions. Under these conditions discourse is likely to turn into doctrine. The installation Protecting freedom until there is no freedom left (2004) uses J. Robert Oppenheimer as the historical lens through which past and present histories are artistically examined. By concentrating on the form of communication of the actors and the subjective approach of those involved Wüst lifts the discussion out of an abstract political context and presents a series of personal characterisations.
Whereas in Wüst’s work, actors are brought in to render an interpretation of the Oppenheimer story, in RODERICK BUCHANAN’s video History Painting real soldiers present a current interpretation of their predecessors of two hundred years ago. Filmed in Wellington, Tamil Nadu (India) and Catterick, North Yorkshire during the summer of 2004, the film projection features newly passed-out soldiers from the Madras Regiment in Tamil Nadu and their counterparts in the Scottish Infantry Division. In 1803, the predecessors of these young men fought alongside each other at the Battle of Assaye. Both regiments still carry the Assaye colours, featuring an elephant, and the victory at Assaye is central to their respective sense of honour and identity. Although Buchanan’s new work has its roots in a particular historical moment, its reach is more contemporary and more complex in ambition.