Thursday, August 31, 2006

We all laughed at Christopher Columbus: Exhibition Text

14 September – 21 October 2006

Roderick Buchanan
Jeremiah Day
Omer Fast
Runo Lagomarsino
Deimantas Narkevicius
Amalia Pica
Florian Wüst.

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 the artist 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. 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 Jeremiah Day and Florian Wüst’s practice. Wüst for example has researched one seminal happening after another that made an 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 of 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.

Two exhibitions, the first at Stedelijk Museum Bureau in Amsterdam, the second at Platform Garanti in Istanbul and a future publication aim to explore these inspired investigations of the past. The exhibition at Platform is composed as open in plan as possible, to allow the works to form a journey and the events explored by the artists to be viewed individually, while at the same time as part of an ongoing conversation. Although the subject matter of the works is not related, or consequentially linked in history in any acknowledged way, there are points of allusion through the artists’ similar approaches and attitudes. The significance the events considered is already determined in collective, internationally distributed history. Without disregarding this underlying historical significance, the artists form new interpretations of the subject matter that can be read autonomously, as well as in relation to the past they reference. This is most evident in the way the selected artists embrace the fictive within incident, without being compromised by feelings of responsibility to accuracy.


The statement ‘We all laughed at Christopher Columbus’, adopted and adapted by Runo Lagomarsino became the linchpin in the first exhibition at Stedelijk Museum Bureau in Amsterdam and remains in place as the title of the exhibition in Istanbul. As this statement continues to maintain a strong presence, a new work by Lagomarsino inhabits the exhibition. Casi Quasi Cinema presents in a model cinema the flyer text handed out by the US Directorate for Special Operations for a screening of the film The Battle of Algiers (Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo 1966) when it was shown at The Pentagon in August, 2003. The Pentagon considered the film a useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq and the flyer read, as does the text in the work:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

Two other works in the exhibition reference specific films. Omer Fast’s two channel video Spielberg’s List is constructed from the experiences of persons who participated as extras in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Spielberg shot his film on location in Krakow and employed thousands of local residents for the dramatic recreation of the historical events on which the movie is based. Some of the extras are old enough to have also experienced these events as they occurred in reality earlier in their own lives. Their recollections as witnesses and as viewers – indeed their duplicate first-hand experiences – bracket a fifty-year span during which events turn into movies, memory into filmed narrative. Fast mixes and juxtaposes footage of the constructed Plaszow film set with the neighbouring landscape. Interviews with extras who recall scenes from the film, are re-edited in the subtitles to offer more literal references to their fictive origins. In addition the videos include clips shot on the ‘Schindler’s List Tours’, thereby showing how notions of memory and place are both expanded and put under duress when history turns into film and when these layers are combined in a new multi-dimensional artistic interpretation.


The Role of a Lifetime by Deimantas Narkevicius features interview material with controversial British film director Peter Watkins, best known for his genre-breaking fictional documentary The War Game, 1965. Narkevicius' film combines three distinct elements. The first is his interview with Peter Watkins, recorded in Lithuania where Watkins lived for many years in the course of his self-imposed exile from Britain. The second is a sequence of drawings of the Lithuanian landscape, some depicting an unusual theme park, Gruto Park, a repository of Social Realist sculpture from the post-war era. The third comprises scenes of Brighton shot over an extended period by an amateur film enthusiast and never intended for public consumption. The Role of a Lifetime creates a space for Watkins to discuss his ongoing wish to liberate the film going audience and allow them the opportunity to be involved in a film’s research. And, by presenting his thoughts in a work by an artist interested in exploring the history he has created, his desire to encourage people to think about time, space, structure and process is intensified twofold.

Formed in a similar vein to consider memory, history and its interpretation through film is Amalia Pica’s work To Everyone That Waves. The 16mm footage shows an event organised in the harbour of Amsterdam of people waving farewell to those boarding an old sailing ship. Pica describes a fake collective memory that is generic and 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 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.

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. "Oppenheimer, who has often been called the father of the atom bomb, later refused to support the hydrogen bomb program of the U.S. government. Following this refusal he was accused of being a communist and subsequently lost his security clearance and his official advisory positions in 1954. 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 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 Roderick Buchanan’s new work has its roots in a particular historical moment, its reach is more contemporary and more complex in ambition.

The project was realized with financial support of the Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam.