Art and Protestby Matthew Biro
Can art today be a form of protest? And, if so, what subjects, what issues, what transgressions or injustices, does it most vitally and persuasively critique? In many ways, the obvious answer to this question is “yes.” As critics and historians remind us, many of the founding acts of modern art were based in the criticism and negation of the status quo, as artists and writers attacked conventional ways of seeing, doing, being, and understanding the world. And even after the rise of postmodernism, with its rejection of so many of high modernism’s primary ideals or values, modern art’s foundation in negation remained a bedrock for the continuing production and understanding of contemporary art.
At the same time, in today’s art world, many forms of critique seem worn out and hollow. Mega-artists like Christopher Wool and Jeff Koons appear to criticize the commodification of experience, the ways in which we as individuals begin to think, feel, and dream in stereotypes. Their works, according to their proponents, can easily be read as protests against the growth of hierarchy, inequality, commodification, and the spectacle. Despite this, however, their irony and attacks on artistic subjectivity create ambiguity and distance the spectator in ways that equally affirm both left- and right-wing ideals. At their core, the artworks of Koons and Wool suggest that all values are relative, and they support even the most extreme capitalist, free-market ideologies. Protest can perhaps still be genuine and viable in art today, but it can also clearly function as an attitude or pose, just another way of doing business.
For this reason, the question that I directed at different writers and artists in mid-April was, “Can art still be critical?” Their generous responses prove that it can be; although, to be sure, criticism can also be a clichéd attitude, espoused by even the most conservative artists. The separation of critique from affirmation, we are shown, always lies in the details, in the presence—or lack—of a significant crossing of content with form. Protest, we discover, arises from the tensed interaction of a certain imagination with a specific here and now, or in the unconventional conjunction of real historical events with particular techniques and strategies. And although it takes a variety of forms in art today, the presence of protest needs to be noted; for if art eschews criticism, it runs the danger of becoming mere entertainment, just another commodity that supports the status quo.
There are many ways to keep protest alive in art today. Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of following a number of artists under 30, whose works powerfully and convincingly embrace the task of critique. Their examples provide me with a sense that art can still be critical; and furthermore they suggest that dissent is once again changing, that it is becoming less cool and didactic. Instead, as these newcomers demonstrate, critique and social activism in art today are messier, more material and ambiguous, and increasingly imaginary and fantastic. A different sensibility, a kind of “libidinal politics,” seems to be growing, an attitude that blends political critique with reflection on the media and the body.
American born Sheida Soleimani makes photographs of an Iran she has never visited in person. The child of refugees who fled persecution in the Islamic Republic, she updates the strategy of photomontage, creating broken representations of a country where violence intermixes with desire. To make her photographs, Soleimani prints out images sourced from the Internet—politicians, religious figures, soldiers, prisoners, executioners, and ordinary people, as well as oriental rugs and other patterned forms—that she then combines with three-dimensional objects. The resulting dioramas, in which appropriated images are mixed with raw and processed foods, toys, pebbles, plants, hair, leaves, wigs, sugar cubes, and fabrics, are carefully lit and then re-photographed with a high resolution medium format digital camera. And the images that result, whose constituent parts signify Iran in a variety of different ways, suggest twisted propaganda posters or surreal product displays.
In “Lachrymatory Agent” (2014), Soleimani presents cut out photographic eyes within a larger configuration of three-dimensional objects, which include hand grenades, onions, and Coca Cola bottles, both broken and whole. Evoking the Arab world uprisings since late 2010—onions and Coca Cola are street remedies for tear gas—as well as the self-reflexive eyeball iconography of Dada artists like Hannah Höch, the image implies both martyrdom and consumption. It suggests a wounded or executed body, but also the aesthetics of advertising and food photography. “Nedā” (2014), on the other hand, presents the dying visage of Nedā Āghā-Soltān, the 26-year-old philosophy student murdered by the Iranian Basij paramilitary in 2009, during protests against the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Compiling different screen grabs of the dying woman appropriated from the famous YouTube video, the photograph also contains objects with symbolic connotations: sugar cubes, which in Iran are sometimes used to calm animals before slaughter; a toy ladder, which could signify ascension but also recalls images of public hangings; and a wilting hyacinth, a flower traditionally used in the Persian Nowruz celebration to represent the coming of spring. By suggesting both death and transcendence in the Internet era, “Nedā” conveys the power of the media to support domination as well as revolution. In still other photographs, the faces of dictators are altered with animal parts, food, and candles; and abstract fabric patterns are merged with the bodies of torture and acid victims. Mixing beauty with horror, Soleimani’s photomontages thus protest the violence of Iran’s history since the 1950s, while at the same time revealing sensuous color, detailed surface, and an appreciation of the decorative. An appeal to the senses pervades Soleimani’s work, a focus on attraction as well as consumption. For this reason, although the tragedies of Iran’s contemporary history are palpable, so are the promises of its cultural energies and passions.
Like Soleimani, Mengli Qi creates a type of art that mixes cultural memory with polymorphous desire. More specifically, Qi makes books and paintings that explore the power of sexuality to undermine conventional forms of identity defined by the Chinese media and state. Mashing up different genres of Chinese art and visual culture, she forms narrative images based on personal experience as well as news stories, popular literature, and the lives of public figures. Books such as Dear Leslie, Sister Known, and Pussy Water (all 2015), are inspired by lianhuanhua, a form of Chinese comics that was popular in the 20th century, as well as Asian cinema—directors such as Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang—and popular music from around the world. Other books cite illustrated school texts, movie advertising, and propaganda posters. To create these quasi-narrative publications, Qi sources images from the Internet, which she sometimes collages, creating “shots” that correspond to different moments in an imaginary narrative. She then reinterprets the still images as expressive, gestural paintings, the style of which shifts through different registers ranging from biomorphic surrealism to quasi-social realism. (Qi cites both Hans Bellmer and Liu Xiaodong as inspirations.) Finally, she combines the paintings into longer sequences, adding sparse texts (generally fragmented quotations) to form emotionally charged, dramatic, and ultimately ambiguous fantasy tales.
In Qi’s imaginary cinematic worlds, gender is both exaggerated and rendered fluid; and through a treatment of the human figure that mixes idealization with caricature, sexual desire is shown to transgress traditional gender roles, divisions between different ages, and even separations between different species. What makes Qi’s work political is that recognizable figures—Chinese politicians, oligarchs, and other people in the media—are mixed into the polymorphously perverse concatenation of actions. And in this way, her art visualizes a direct connection between imagination, libido, and real-world economic and political power. Even when the figures do not represent specific individuals, the critique of capital and the state is always present. Yu Wen (2014 – 15), for example, is a book and painting series inspired by illustrated Chinese language school texts. Here Qi presents us with a series of idealized Communist types—students, soldiers, sailors, athletes, policemen, workers, nurses, parents, and even a small figure of Lenin—placed in situations that recall popular myths promoted by the Chinese government to encourage social harmony. Instead of playing their traditional roles, however, these personae engage in increasingly outrageous physical interactions, thereby foregrounding the state’s control of privacy and sexuality, as well as the pleasures of both dominance and submission. By connecting power to instinct, Qi’s painted narratives protest how social and economic institutions dominate their subjects through the regulation of the body and consumption. In addition, through their intensity, humor, and imagination, Qi’s stories remind us that, in comparison to the stereotypical roles that our societies offer us, there are often better ways to live.
MATTHEW BIRO is Professor and Chair in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1998), The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (2009), and Anselm Kiefer (2013). His reviews of contemporary art, film, and photography have appeared in Artforum, Contemporary, Art Papers, and The New Art Examiner.