VAN Critique September/October 2015: El Lissitzky: The Artist and the State at IMMA

Klinom krasnym bej belych
El Lissitzky, Klinom krasnym bej belych, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. (1919 – 1920), reprint 1966, offset on paper 48.8 x 69.2cm, Collection Van Abbemuseum, photo by Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

El Lissitzky: The Artist and the State, with Rosella Biscotti, Maud Gonne, Nuria Guell, Alice Milligan, Sarah Pierce and Hito Steyerl
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin Garden Galleries
30 July – 18 October 2015

Curatorial practices require imaginative conceits, while considerations of funding and timing require pragmatic ones to boot. All of these appear activated in an exhibition that finds unexpected but stimulating connections between the co-development of abstraction and political ideology in post revolutionary Russia, and a desire for national sovereignty enacted on Irish bohereen in the years before 1916. The show is co-curated by Director of IMMA, Sarah Glennie, and Annie Fletcher, Chief Curator at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, from where the El Lissitzky material comes. The work of four contemporary artists, reflecting on “the position of the artist within our society now” adds fresh fuel to these retrospective fires.

In Room 1 three computer monitors, vertical and side-by-side on the white wall, glow a uniform red. They sit in an alcove built into a false wall angled within the room’s normal dimensions. This wedge-like ingress alludes to another work in the show, but that’s not apparent at first; for now it’s just peculiar but nice. Red Alert (2007), by German artist Hito Steyerl, refers to Homeland Security Red, the red of imminent danger, the colour of fear. Deceptively serene, the softly glowing monitors also refer to Russian Constructivism and in particular to Aleksandr Rodchenko’s ‘end of painting’ icon Pure Yellow, Pure Red, Pure Blue (1921). Rodchenko’s triptych is boiled down to a single colour and slogan, a uniform ‘red or dead’.

Steyerl’s other work can be found upstairs. Surveillance: Disappearance (2013) ingeniously recalls the work in Room 1. Whether this is sleight of hand by the artist or curator is not clear. It insinuates itself simultaneously into both you the viewer and into a framed print of El Lissitzky’s famously partisan Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919). (Clearly simulating the dynamic of the graphic image, the wedge-like alcove downstairs assumes its pictorial and architectural point). Fitted out with ‘camouflage software’, Steyerl’s work upstairs is a computer / monitor that simultaneously records and plays whatever is placed in front of it. It is hung on the opposing wall and as you stand between it and Lissetzky’s graphic image you become a digital apparition, a ghost in the machine of dialectical materialism!

Unlike Steyerl’s brilliant How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational. Mov File (2013) (available online) her two works here insinuate rather than instruct. Spanish artist Núria Guell leans more towards the latter. Stateless by Choice. On the prison of the Possible (2015) presents a laborious account – endless videos and documents – of her attempts to eschew her national identity (in favour of ‘Planet Núria’ perhaps – population one!). The Italian artist Rossella Biscotti offers a more oblique take on identity issues. Her tapestry 10×10 (Dead Minorities, 2014) extends for several metres across the gallery floor. Woven patterns of coloured squares are reminiscent of a pixilated image, and incidentally similar (though perhaps deliberately placed) to nearby charts illustrating the rate of collectivisation in Soviet Russia. At the bottom of the work a text key relays information about Belgian citizens in the dry accounting style of a census. Made using the Jacquard-weaving system, Biscotti’s tapestries – there’s another in the basement – make complex allusions to systems of representation and information gathering through their own complex technology.

“Arís! Arís!” the crowds roared as Alice Milligan and her collaborators – including the likes of Roger Casement, James Connolly and Maud Gonne – staged their roadside tableaux vivants. Illustrations and texts unfold across the walls of Room 5, presenting a historical display of Milligan’s nationalist zeal. In her exhibition notes Dr Catherine Morris writes: “It was through the ‘power of the mind’ – the collective imagination – that decolonization was first achieved”. Milligan’s scenarios of collective longing provoked a taste for more of the same while setting the scene for something entirely different.

Threaded through several rooms of the exhibition, a series of El Lissitzky’s geometric ‘prouns’ describe transitional points between painting and architecture. El Lissitzky fused artistic vision with social pragmatism, applying a suprematist idealism to forms of civil and social engineering – an exemplary ‘engineer of human souls’. Jointly commissioned by the Van Abbemuseum and IMMA, Sarah Pierce’s installation Gag (2015) takes cues from Alice Milligan’s DIY aesthetic and from the display mechanisms of Constructivism. A low stage is strewn with timber off-cuts, cardboard tubes and plastic sheeting, while in the background a similar mess is roughly fashioned into a slapstick collection of suprematist motifs. Framed and propped on spindly poles, archive images of the first Constructivist exhibition in 1921 fraternise with recent photographs of the El Lissitzky material ready for transport to Dublin (the recent photographs are not identified so I’m supposing the latter).Scheduled performances promise to unlock these frozen energies and provide an opportunity for Milligan, among other spectres, to haunt the here and now once again.

The dead hand of Socialist Realism would eventually smother the innovations pioneered by El Lissitzky and his contemporaries. They continued to evolve nonetheless, particularly through their influence on movements like De Stijl and the Bauhaus, and provide a timely example of how states, institutions and artists adapt in order to survive. Driven by imperatives often mutually antagonistic, evidence of these machinations, with their conflicts and accommodations (hidden or otherwise), make fascinating viewing.

John Graham is an artist based in Dublin.

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