By Clare Butcher
Below is an introduction for an upcoming show I’m working on at the Aarhus Art Building in Denmark, The Good Old Days. It showcases the work of four artists from my own generation and while that’s perhaps not the most original way to build a show, for me, it’s revealed some urgent matters for contemporary practice, which seeks a relevant political action based on situated, re-constituting of recent history.
Lara Baladi, Lucia Nimcova, Nandipha Mtambo and Agnieszka Polska
6 February to 17 March 2010
Day by day
The Who wrote a song in 1965 that entered Rock ‘n’ Roll history and influenced the development of Punk Rock in the UK. My Generation is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: as it names and gives voice to the young, mobile, irreverent g-g-g-generation of Western Europe and the United States.
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
In the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic the phrase “Rock ‘n’ Roll” had been banned by cultural censorship boards. A savvy theatre group called Semafor wrote a song in which they used the words ‘Rok co rok se divíme, jak rok co rok se měníme’: ‘Year by year, we are surprised how, year by year, we are changing ourselves’. The phrase is not about Rock ‘n’ Roll at all, and yet through the obvious phonetic similarity, the performers were able to encrypt a political message.
Semafore’s irreverent example is only one of the many drawn upon by the four artists in this exhibition: Lara Baladi, Nandipha Mntambo, Lucia Nimcova and Agnieszka Polska. Despite their disparate geographies and political contexts, these artists are bounded by a generational shift: the era after Rock ‘n’ Roll, the time between walls and wars, a period of repressing, then recollecting and sometimes reclaiming. Yes, history often repeats itself, but I’m talking about my generation.
The ‘Good Old Days’ being an overly familiar phrase, is only possible to use here within quotation marks. In this case it comes from Homi Bhabha’s seminal, The Location of Culture where these words delineate the hazy horizon behind us, of a past imagined, in relation to a group of women miners in Britain who took part in the miners’ strike of 1984-5. Bhabha cites this example to illustrate that any movement to change is always complex, surprising even, in its trajectory and outcomes. The relational nature of any political position, and I use “political” in the broadest sense of everyday living, means that because of its interconnectedness, the way change happens could so easily be something else – what Bhabha calls the ‘au dela – here and there, on all sides, hither and thither, back and forth’ (‘Year by year, we are surprised how, year by year, we are changing ourselves’). It is this eccentric contingency that binds together the work of these four artists. By using what could be called analogue or traditional material within a contemporary frame, they foreground what constitutes the background, and the instability of pasts and past-futures, as they become the present.
Lara Baladi’s Diary of the Future is a deeply personal presentation embedded within the age-old domestic Middle-Eastern practice of coffee-ground reading. The photographic and sonic components of the project diarise the period of the artists’ father’s illness, and when seen from a certain standpoint, the ensemble creates a kind of stained glass in which one element should always be read in relation to another. Together with the destinies spoken by the coffee-ground reader (which may be one thing today and something else tomorrow), the work intimates the always-already otherwise tangle of both the present and what comes next.
This logic, with its instability and complicity, is shared in the work of Lucia Nimcova. Combining found footage from “hidden films” created by Slovak directors during a period of intense censorship in the former Czechoslovakia, the artist pieces together moments of slippage, of Double Coding, to create a hybrid film of ‘partial objects’, leftovers and shards which complicate the politically acceptable codes of the communist story of her region.
Copying and pasting as historical interruption is performed by Agnieszka Polska whose manipulated archival images and animations resist the symbolic when it comes to issues of mediation and representation. By replicating certain moments in Modernist art history in an alternate or arbitrary setting, Polska foregrounds the possibility of difference and the poetry that comes with distance. She catches the run-on sentence of art history, mid-breath and says, ‘no, this is not so, we can imagine something else within which your imagined structure looks arbitrary and oppressive.’
In Ukungenisa Nandipha Mntambo physically places herself within the received tradition of Portuguese bullfighting. The word “Ukungenisa” suggests a ‘taking in’ or ‘to accept into’ – it’s even used when a widow remarries. As the artist embodies the role of the matador in an abandoned Mozambican stadium, she closes a gap of colonial, geographic and gendered distance, marrying the choreography of both the fighter and the noble bull.
As each artist reaches through time and place to circumscribe their intuitions, their rememberings, their politics over history’s traces, their works simultaneously propel us forward to think about ‘What now?’ and ‘What next?’ in our own generation. There is no return to the ‘Good Old Days’ and yet the intimate urgency which these artistic projects take up performs the ‘sundering and splitting’, the copying and pasting, and the recomposing of relevant forms of solidarity which call us to look for the ‘joins’ and year by year, surprise ourselves by how we are changing.
Homi Bhabha: The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994.
Ibid, p. 28
Ibid, p. 2
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minneapolis Press: Minnesota, 1983, p. 42.
Anthony Elliott and Stephen Frosh quoted in Brenda Cooper: A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture and Language, University of Kwazulu-Natal Press, 2008, p. 5.
Homi Bhabha, 1994, p. 28