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Sites of history and contemporary art

The monument debates of the past decade, together with concerns over systemic injustice, extraction economies, and ecological disaster, as well as phenomena of global migrations and tourism, and the interleaving of live and mediated images and experience on social media, have given rise to new practices of public art and commemoration. Artists often strive to represent not specific events, persons, or points of agreement, but vast contentious problems—for publics at home and abroad, on the ground and online. A new site-specificity and media-friendly approaches to conveying it, sometimes via objects, sometimes through ‘transparent’ photographic mediums, come to the fore in recent monumental art, but also in debates about what to do with older monuments and architecture in urban space, particularly when these are the products of terror that require removal, modification, or other forms or recontextualization. Taking case studies ranging from Chicago and Berlin to Oslo, Bucharest, and Hong Kong, in media ranging from marble and glass to cardboard boxes, graffiti, and the re-enactment of historical documents, the book argues that history is being materialized by contemporary artists and activists in a register that harks back to the engaged realism of nineteenth-century art, updated to do justice both to embodied experiences of caring, and also to vaster, less tangible systems of power and information.

Mechtild Widrich

Beginning with the current monument debate, focussed in the United States on Confederate statuary but coming to envelop cities in Europe and elsewhere, I consider how a variety of on-site and more remote audiences to commemoration can help us think not only about activism around older monuments, but what kind of history art can represent in public space. From the use of ‘pussy hats’ in the Women’s Marches to Cai Guo-Qiang’s simultaneously celebratory and premonitory use of fireworks to simulate nuclear explosions, ambitious public art works both with specific sites and on social media and in the press, materially and performatively. Reviewing dominant theories of materiality, mediation, and commemoration, I plead for a concept not of static materiality but of materializing history open to a plurality of interests—what Michael Rothberg calls multidirectional memory. This, the introduction argues and the later chapters will show, is at work in many artists’ efforts to commemorate or raise awareness of overwhelming subjects that connect the local to the global—from patterns of labor and domination to environmental degradation and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

in Monumental cares
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Mechtild Widrich

Starting from the notion that political art reflects on its site, whether commemorating a victory or mourning a defeat, this chapter shows how strange and complex such interaction can be, as in the case of Confederate memorials in Washington, D.C. Reflecting on the mediated nature of much current site discourse (e.g. the recognizability of landmarks and public places like Tahrir Square from news and social media), the chapter goes on to reform the 1990s discourse of site specificity in art to reflect on the photographic mediation of actions and objects. This in turn opens up wider vistas, so that site-specificity becomes site-directedness, which can take place both on original sites of history and address wider publics, belated in space and time. I analyse a number of case studies, from the use of pop culture references in Hong Kong protests, to Romanian artist Alexandra Pirici’s group performance of historical photographs at Skulptur Projekte Münster, and the same artist’s staging of communist monumental architecture in Bucharest, for the camera and in a postcard format. The multidirectionality of site (paralleling the multidirectionality of memory noted by Michael Rothberg) is shown in a complex performance by Emilio Rojas connecting the University of Washington in Seattle with the territories and waters of the Musqueam Nation.

in Monumental cares
Mechtild Widrich

This chapter examines multidirectional commemoration in a particularly loaded site—a park in West Berlin, Steinplatz, used since the early 1950s to remember both Holocaust victims and‘victims of Stalinism through a pair of adjacent memorials. The omissions and contradictions of West and East German (and, by extension European memory culture) appear in especially stark light given contemporary efforts to carry out museum and Holocaust education for a multinational, multi-religious public in German cities like Berlin and Frankfurt. Accordingly, the chapter examines efforts to open up commemoration to other voices and traditions, both on the Steinplatz, and in the digital public sphere, through selfies and debates about representing oneself at sites of commemoration. Monument tourism, the coexistence of multiple communities on the same site simultaneously and at different times, and the difficulty of seeing history in the urban fabric of a frequently rebuilt metropolis like Berlin are considered, as is the controversy over ‘Holocaust selfies’. The chapter ends with a monument design by Yael Bartana in Frankfurt that takes account of the ludic potential in commemoration, a tribute to the Jewish children who left Germany in the Kindertransport taking the form of a functional merry-go-round.

in Monumental cares
Mechtild Widrich

This chapter turns from the political complexity of one art or commemorative site over a duration of time (the topic of the previous chapter) to the relation of one site to a system of local and global social structures. Starting with Carey Young’s 21st century re-enactments of classics of performance and land art in urban and desert site around the United Arab Emirates, the chapter considers the revolutionary transformations in critical geography that have placed time, change, and social tensions at the core of geographic theorizing, and make possible an engagement of contemporary art with the movement of people, whether economic, ecological, or caused by war. Geographically complex works of art by Ai Weiwei at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna and elsewhere are able to connect the history of empire and colonialism with current refugee and environmental crises. A final case study of the effort to commemorate the victims of mass murder in Oslo and on the nearby island of Utoya reveal the challenges and limitations in connecting sites from the urban centre to the periphery, while taking into account local political demands as well as more global problems of resource and land use.

in Monumental cares
Mechtild Widrich

This chapter applies the lessons about site complexity, geographical and historical layering to investigate how urban commemorative art in Bucharest recollects communist era and post-revolutionary violence, and connects University Square, a site of political ferment and struggle, to the People’s House, an enormous non-site that problematically contains both the Romanian government and the national museum of contemporary art (MNAC). Performances by Alexandra Pirici, Dan Perjovschi, and installations by Ana Lupas, Lia Perjovschi and others are considered as responses to and against the neo-Stalinist gigantism of the People’s House (drafted for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu by architect Anca Petrescu, and requiring the destruction of a vast portion of the city), and efforts to counteract or ‘exorcise’ this architecture, including the glass façade interventions designed for MNAC by Adrian Spirescu. Photography, painting, film, performance, and modernist design are considered as materials and strategies to both represent and counteract totalizing approaches to space such as that embodied in the People’s House, a critical art practice with a distinguished lineage reaching back to Lucian Pintilie’s 1968 film Reenactment. The chapter concludes by reflecting on how such practices can have a local, regional, and global impact, considering Dan Perjovschi’s wall-painted “horizontal newspaper” in the Perjovschi’s hometown of Sibiu and the way this work is visible online, during and past the pandemic.

in Monumental cares
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Mechtild Widrich

This chapter considers the conditions of visibility and intelligibility of most of the art and architecture considered in this book, that is, the transmission of images of a performance or space through a transparent medium, whether that be a camera lens, computer screen, or glass-walled modernist architecture. Ranging from Duchamp’s Large Glass to post-war German pretentions to political transparency and the postmodern celebration of obscurity and illusion, the chapter reaffirms a modernist commitment to clarity as a medium not of mythic purity but of self-reflection and criticism. The physical as well as metaphorical possibilities of transmitting and reflecting light, using glass and photographic techniques, lend themselves to a theoretical account of seeing through that may be profitably set alongside Richard Wollheim’s more familiar formalist phenomenon of seeing-in. Works of mediated conceptual art by Dan Graham, Hannah Wilke, Adrian Piper and Ana Mendieta are accordingly placed in a trajectory stretching from Emile Zola’s 19th-century conception of the “realist screen” to recent experiments in fractured glass architecture by Monica Bonvicini and to photographic neo-realist narrative films by Catherine Opie.

in Monumental cares
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Political art in circulation
Mechtild Widrich

Building on the analysis of transparency and realism in the previous chapter, and on our analysis of site-directedness in the preceding chapters, this chapter is an intensive analysis of a controversial work of contemporary art, Ai Weiwei’s photographed re-enactment of the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi. Placing this work in the complex networks of influence inhabited by its photographer, photojournalist Rohit Chawla, and its initial audience, the India Art Fair, the chapter moves outward, reading Ai’s emphatic gesture in terms of the powerful indictment of politically motivated suffering in Daumier’s 1834 lithograph Rue Transnonain. Showing how both works depend for their aesthetic and political efficacy on networks of publicity and commercial distribution, the chapter returns to the question of the circulation of images and artworks today to argue that a committed realist aesthetics necessarily combines truth-telling with the artist’s subjective involvement. In the final analysis, it is Ai’s emphatic realist identification of his own distinctive body with the political struggles he has documented and lived through that turns out to pose an obstacle to his embodiment of a victim of the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

in Monumental cares
Mechtild Widrich

The conclusion returns to contemporary monument debates from a pronounced standpoint of care, whether for those commemorated or doing the commemorating—like Doris Salcedo’s Fragmentos, for the female victims of civil war violence in Colombia, the comfort women memorials in Korea—but also for the aesthetic object itself, which in the clatter case of the Korean Girl Statue has received offerings of warm clothing. An ethic of care also motivates us to consider the material of commemoration, its human and environmental impact, as Salcedo does in building an art space from surrendered, melted-down weapons. The chapter, and the book, ends with a consideration of what care might mean in the negative sense—allowing certain unwanted monuments to decay naturally rather than investing resources in them, as Achille Mbembe has suggested for the disinvested Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town.

in Monumental cares