I hate to sound boorish, but I don’t always enjoy seeing the words “intellectually rich” attached to shows about conceptual art. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for challenging work, but I am not consistently interested in reading a press release to understand the art I’m looking at.
With that said, a thin but fairly consistent stream of challenging shows inspire attentive wall- and press release-reading every year, the most recent currently on display at apexart. Inspired by the desire for an imagined past or future, Stalking with Stories: The Pioneers of the Immemborable, an exhibition curated by Antonia Marjaca and Ivana Bago, brings together the macabre investigations of eight international artists.
Among the more visually dominant works in the show, Sanja Ivekovic’sPonos (Pride), a red neon sign from a former Yugoslavian textile shop, hangs near the entrance of the gallery. On its own, the piece reads as an empty mass- culture relic, though, as history documents, socialist-era banners such as this frequently employed words such as Freedom, Victory and Knowledge; politically charged words with emotionally invested ideology. In the post-communist economy these names were replaced with international counterparts; “Ponos,” or Pride, for example, might become the X Nation, Eldi International or Terranova. While these new signs do not appear in the exhibition, the historical reference coupled with the ambiguity of aesthetic interpretation underscore the uneasy transitional state of the country.
Also characterized by the pairing of past and present, Felix Gmelin’sFarbtest, Die Rote Fahne II simultaneously projects the 1969 performance documentation of Gmelin’s father running through the streets of West Berlin with a red flag, and the 2002 reenactment in Stockholm. Aside from obvious differences in location, the original film culminates in the meeting of other youth activists at a government building, whereas the updated performance engages multiple artists in the run, but finds no other collaborators at the finish. The absence speaks to a new generation of civic indifference and a small, marginalized community of politically engaged people.
In large part, the elegance of Gmelin and Ivekovic’s work comes from the simplicity and economy of the gesture itself. As the related video, It Doesn’t Matter, by Katerina Seda, goes, upon discovering that her depressed grandmother remembered all the items sold in a tool shop she once worked in, the artist asked her to draw each of these objects. The resulting video and book project not only saved her grandmother from inactivity by helping her engage with the present but served to document the past. Comparatively, however, Seda’s artistic response feels slightly less graceful than some of the other work in the show, weighting personal experience over shared national history. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course — Artur Zmijewski’sLisa also takes this approach, but the story is ultimately more digestable in an eight-minute short than through the copious documentation Seda provided. Still, I largely enjoyed the cataloguing of these objects, and see the project as a distinct voice behind the greater concept of the exhibition: that within the past there should lie a spark that helps us, if only briefly, to re-imagine the future.