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The political made personal: Notes on the HKU <3 NMW opening at the Academy Gallery.

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Two months ago, twelve students of Fine Arts at the HKU were invited by Impakt to produce an artwork on the theme of No More Westerns. The artworks that they have produced are now on display at the the Academy Gallery in the Minrebroederstraat, under the moniker “HKU <3 NMW”. The exhibition, which opened last Friday and will stay until the 28th of October, features ten artworks of all shapes, sizes, media, and interpretations. I spoke with the artists at the opening, and asked them for some commentary on their work.

I first run into Tim Hollander, who made the first artwork you see when entering the gallery: Three Decades of Re-Written History. It’s a large, grey, museum-style exhibition table, in which several “artifacts” of 21st century Western Music are carefully arranged. A little sticker informs us that the display is on loan from the Chinese Museum of Natural History. We see a broken recorder (“Primitive Flute, Germany, ±2000), some ancient books on musical theory and, brilliantly, a copy of Djembe Hero for the Playstation 3 (I chuckled out loud at seeing that one). Hollander tells me that he wanted to challenge the European view of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, and make his audience rethink the concept of World Music. It’s a cool idea, although it’s a bit scary to imagine how true it might one day turn out to be.

Left of Hollanders’ display is Thera Clazing’s untitled video installation. To tackle the theme of changing cultures, Clazing decided to interview people from both Western and non-western backgrounds on the topic of freedom. It’s one of the more personal pieces in the exhibition, especially since Clazing decided to make herself the central figure of the documentary-like video. She tells me that before making the video, she thought about freedom as having no boundaries, but that she now thinks of it more in terms of having different choices and being brave enough to make them.

Next we find Guy Vording’s Move 1 t/m 4, four surreal collage-style pictures pinned to the wall. Vording himself had left the exhibition before I could talk to him, so he couldn’t comment on the works himself. They pictures show small clusters of humans in a large, almost apocalyptic landscape, and one of them even shows a nuclear explosion. Most people seem to be in the process of burying one or more of their fellows. Many of them are wearing Micky Mouse-ears. I found the pictures other-wordly and dreamlike, showing tiny figures against these massive landscapes. It’s a harrowing sight.

A less pessimistic sight of culture clash can be found in Wendy Brugman and Joost Mellink’s dual video installation Touching Land. Brugman visited the United States for the project while Mellink stayed in the Netherlands, both of them filming their travels. On two parallel TV screens, we see their videos at the same time. Brugman and Mellink told me that they intended to take a step back from the theme to inventorize the idea of Western culture, and it’s certainly interesting to see both the differences and the similarities between the two countries displayed at the same time.

Turning the corner in the exhibition space, you see a large white piece of paper hanging on the wall, on which the scenario of an episode of Pucca is printed in big black letters. However, the names of the characters and some important subjects are crossed out throughout the text with pink marker, and a different name is written above it. The protagonist becomes “China”, his friend “West”, and a wishing well is dubbed “Kapital”. I asked Ruben Baart, who made the piece (which is called I NINJA COWBOY), why he chose to spell the word with a K instead of a C. He told me that he hadn’t noticed doing so before I asked him, but offered the fact that he had read the biography of Karl Marx for inspiration as a possible explanation. When I asked him about the meaning of the work, he referred to Ghosts With Shit Jobs, and told me that his fear is that China will take over the world without being capable of managing it.

Left of Baart’s work is a mysterious wooden chamber, that features two video screens set up on opposite sides of each other. One shows a Tibetan singing bowl, the other a Moog synthesizer, and both are connected to a loudspeaker. The Moog tries to imitate the sound of the bowl which, if successful, means that the sound waves neutralize each other and die out. Elise ‘t Hart and Nils Davidse explain to me that my initial interpretation of the piece being about modern technology suppressing ancient traditions was wrong, and that they didn’t have a political statement with their work. They were more interested in the way music has manifested itself around the world, in particular in relation to music theory, which is a decisively Western idea. Moog synths, they tell me, all sound the same, while singing bells are all unique.

On the side of the little wooden chamber are two video screens which display Milda Navickytè’s Encounter. Navickytè has set out to combine Eastern views on spirituality with Western life, which she tries to accomplish by way of rituals. The Lithuanian artist tells me that with her Eastern European background, she felt connected both to the Eastern and the Western tradition, and wishes to combine the best of both worlds. She tells me that many people in the West don’t even believe that people have souls anymore. Judging by the tone of her voice, she finds this downright shocking.

To the left on the wall, Nici Metselaar’s untitled mixed media installation is placed. On a contraption of wood, bamboo and a plastic palm tree (which the artist later tells me were all found) a beamer is aimed, which projects scenes from Nollywood films (Nollywood is the nickname of the Nigerian film industry. I wrote about the industry on this blog a week or so back. The post can be found here). Metselaar tells me she is fascinated by the improvised architectural aesthetic of slums, which she has combined with scenes from the largely improvised Nollywood cinema.

Back in the first room of the exhibition, I watch Malcolm Kratz’s conceptual video piece October 9th, 09:00 – 11:00 / 15:00 – 17:00, in which he slowly and ceremoniously burns dollar bills in the flame of a candle. Kratz explained to me that he intended the piece to be a funeral for Western civilization, conducted by way of traditional Chinese burial rituals. The title of the work refers to the exact time he performed the ritual, as instructed by a Feng Shui master. Malcolm’s explanation doesn’t seem to be spirited so much as melancholic. “Where did it go wrong?”, he asks me, and I have to admit I can’t answer him.

The final piece of the exhibition, Control, is another large wooden box, which you have to stick your head into. Inside, a little robot with light sensors on its back is put on the floor, across which a beamer is projecting several circles of light, all colored like the flags of one of the current superpowers. Whenever one of the light circles comes over the robot, it starts following the circle, until another one comes along. In an exhibit where the political upheaval we’re facing is reflected upon in so many different ways, it’s interesting to end with an artwork that seems to suggest that politics don’t really matter in the end. Or, as maker Jochem van Grieken described it to me: “The bottom crawler doesn’t care who’s on top.”