Arguably itself an exercise in bringing the world closer, the Art from Elsewhere exhibition aims to discuss and explore complex questions about life in the contemporary world, dealing with issues like shifting identities in an increasingly globalised world.
The exhibition, containing the works of 30 artists from over 20 different countries, is a collaboration between the Arnolfini Galleries and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and proposes to offer a diverse take on conceptual art and its interaction with Bristol’s history by including a vast visual palette which brings young and more seasoned artists together, and which are grouped by its curator into seven broad themes – Surveillance, Transformations, Resistance, Borders, Rituals, Violence, and Capital.
Jozef Robakowski’s A View from my Window is at first glance almost comical in the obviousness of its theme – grainy footage of a street as seen from the artist’s window, a sight extremely familiar to viewers of American police-procedural programs. Surveillance. Robakowski’s work, however, is as insidious and seductive as the concept of surveillance itself, the viewer stands rooted to the spot in a strange anticipation born of voyeuristic curiosity – we feel guilty for feeling curious, for watching someone without their knowledge, but we rationalize and push away that nagging guilt.
It is all right for us to watch, it is on display in an art gallery, after all.
It is all right for us to watch, it is a national security issue, after all.
Robakowski provides a guiding commentary, however, which tethers us to the reality of the morality of surveillance – he is the observer, the wry artist, who is acutely aware of the discomforts – and the pleasures – of watching people and who acknowledges them and plays with them head on.
We live in a world where we can’t do away with surveillance, not really; but we can be informed, responsible and thoughtful about its implications, all bolstered by a dry sense of good natured humour.
Bani Abidi’s work – another video installation – is striking and frustrating in its effectiveness. Her work documents a Pakistani ‘pipe’ band, called Shan Pipe Band, while the band members learn to play The Star Spangled Banner. The work is ‘incomplete’, so to speak, because the result of all that rehearsing, of listening to the tune again and again, is never shown to us, emblematic of the process of the two countries coming to terms with each other in light of the tragedies and the effects of 9/11. The work is particularly wrenching because of the apparent futility of the act – a lone Pakistani band learning to play the American national anthem, with smiling, strangely innocent faces, while the war against terror moves no closer to resolution and ever present drones cast sinister shadows on the ground.
Part of the international ‘mail art’ movement – if only technically and through necessity – the Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn smuggled his works out from under the Pinochet regime folded up in envelopes. The work is powerful in its suggestions of anti-establishment, both in its implication and the way of its dissemination, which makes it all the more jarring when one sees it presented in the cold white cube of an art gallery. It is a strange and painful work, featuring faces of South American people in various media – photographs, sketches, etc. Years of accumulated pain, no true sense of repatriation, and the prevalence of foreign control through colonization look out through the haunting drawings of faces. The drawings are reminiscent of Ken Kesey’s drawings of captives of a similarly controlled environment ruled by a tyrannical presence in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – a psychiatric hospital.
The most striking and elaborate exhibit is Meschac Gaba’s Brazilian Bank. Gaba collects and incorporates out of circulation money into his works, thereby returning some of its value back to it. Money from all over the world, worthless just before being exhibited, lies in stacks and is hung from clotheslines in small rows. It arouses anxiety, a persistent modern anxiety which has to do with worries about money and its accumulation. A video installation next to it shows thousands of people, thousands and thousands of people, going somewhere by using money, to earn money, to spend money; while a Times Square-esque column broadcasts messages in red LED.
The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery also exhibited A Ton of Tea by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who has recently become very well known even outside art circles for his determined stances against the Chinese government’s policy on democracy and human rights. A Ton of Tea is, literally, a ton of tea. Weiwei has built a dense, solid cube out of tea which sits placidly at one end of the gallery space. It is ostensibly neither provoking nor shocking, but the subtle nuances of the concepts associated with tea – of Britishness and on to Bristol’s chequered history, of China – and the Chinese government’s oppressive practices reflected in the restriction of loose, flowing tea leaves into a forbidding and rigid structure of a cube – a prison, and a strict mould. It sits as a dense, dark and heavy block, seeming to absorb, propped up by some obscure and hidden means of support.
Weiwei’s simple and elegant sculpture doesn’t seek to shine, but its simplicity lends itself to various concepts and ideas, and makes it an enduring symbol of its creator’s own views.
Art from Elsewhere is extremely political in its choice of exhibits – it actually has a piece by the artist Imran Qureshi which features an abundance of blood splatters and bloody handprints, which leads me to my only criticism – that some of the pieces lack a subtlety which is inherent in political situations. They are too blatant in their messages, and jar with the quieter pieces; though fortunately, that is only a small minority. The majority of the works incorporates the conflicts and the grey morality of our world, and succeeds in doing justice to it.
words: Mannika Mishra