The Sweetest Taboo

On “The Art of Iconoclasm” at BAK and at Centraal Museum, Utrecht

As some may remember, in the times preceding the global economic collapse that has occupied all our media filters and driven us out into the streets to forage for food and cheap credit, in those pre-feral times, there appeared to be a lively public debate about whether religion was making a comeback in the secular West and what kind of cultural and political symptoms served as its auguries. Stemming from the post-9/11 “clash of civilizations” discourse and merging into assorted Western European right-wing nationalisms, religion “returned” to tabloid prominence in large part as coded reference to the encroachment of the Islamic “Other”, especially in places like the Netherlands that couched nativist agendas in the rhetoric of “secularism,” using the tradition of tolerance to identify and exclude those deemed alien to it. It is this ideological miasma that the “The Return of Religion and Other Myths” stirs, with the title already betraying a scepticism about whether it is the return of religion and other myths that we have to deal with, or whether it is this purported “return” that forms a mythology to be interrogated. Comprising a talks programme, a reader and the exhibition “The Art of Iconoclasm”, curated by Sven Lütticken, this long-term research project, organised by BAK and Utrecht University, tries to articulate certain notions it finds in common between religion and art – image, visibility, spectacle – with the aim of redefining ossified conceptions of faith and rationalism and contributing to the renewal of a “secular public sphere.”

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The Art of Iconoclasm: From Idol to Artwork, installatie overzicht/installation view, BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 2008 (foto/photo: Victor Nieuwenhuijs)

 

In contrast to the above, which communicates a vagueness that could be related to the exigencies of public funding and the need for cultural institutions to take a critical but ultimately compensatory stance towards the default populism of Dutch civic life, “The Art of Iconoclasm” is that rare thing, an “essay exhibition” which is not so much the abuse of experimental writing by curators as an allusive, if formidably tight, form of argumentation (with precision being the hallmark more of the BAK show, and a more wayward, metaleptic mode at the Centraal).  Lütticken mobilises, notably, Carl Andre, Krijn de Kooning, Hans Haacke, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Carel Blotkamp, Guy Debord, Haim Steinbach, Rod Dickinson & Tom McCarthy and Arnoud Holleman to reflect on the proximities of Modernist abstraction and Minimalism to negative theology, of religious and artistic iconoclasm, of purity and decorative kitsch in abstract art, and the inverted mirror of art to the abstraction of commodity exchange. Although the two phases of the exhibition are thematically distinct, with the BAK one oriented towards iconoclasm as the disenchantment of the world from classical Greece to the contemporary art epoch and the Centraal one more about iconoclasm as in smashing the spectacle, there is a red thread uniting them that can perhaps be summed up as the intimacy between pagan myth and the Enlightenment, cruising each other on the shoddy backlots of Art History.  Krijn de Kooning's space-filling (and fracturing) installation “Work for five plaster casts, slide show and a red rectangle” (2008) and Arnoud Holleman's “Museum” video (1998) both play with the architectonics of a 19th century museum complex, in each case “abstracted” several times over.  In the de Kooning, the plaster casts of Greek classical deities are not only devoid of sacred or academic significance, they are long past being re-sacralized by the institution of art, and the installation drags them out of the lumber-rooms of the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam to insert a scheming double, or false bottom, into the exhibition itself with their uncertain or merely neutral aesthetic and commodity value. A strong Adornian subtext breaks through here, the one about the ontology of art being its variant relation to the historical state of what it is not.1 Conversely, the dialogue between Greco-Roman antiquities and the moderns makes for an altogether more vivant tableau in Holleman's video, itself a re-edit of another film maker's gay porn film with only the networks of lascivious gazes left in. Here, rather than the mordant agora of icons without devotees in “Work for five plaster casts, slide show and a red rectangle,” “Museum” palpitates with an erotic hum, as young men in skimpy clothes, security guards and middle-aged patrons eye each other up under the chaste stares of pans and satyrs in opulent interiors. These scenes, with their air of limpid debauchery, remind us that the disinterest of classical aesthetics was treating with forms drawn from the Golden Age of pederasty in classical Greece, and also have something of the mood of the first part of Giorgio Agamben's The Open: Man and Animal, where he discusses the gnostics' view of the state of bliss that would come from transcendence of humanity by animality after the Last Judgment. In some ways, “The Art of Iconoclasm” draws on Lütticken's earlier “Living with Abstraction” article, published in Texte zur Kunst, especially in its gestures at an Adornian concept of mimesis and abstraction as the universal condition for all art produced under capitalism, a system that revolves around abstract labour and abstract streams of value. These motifs ripple through in Carel Blotkamp's re-take on Barnett Newman's “Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?”, which he shrinks and makes out of paper and sequins rather than paint, in a bid to see whether Newman's mysticism can survive the shift from sublimity to gaudiness; and Dickinson/McCarthy's “Greenwich Degree Zero”, an archive of a radical political event that never happened and that contains bewilderingly careful fabrications of early 20th century newspapers, ephemera and even period-look film footage of the alleged event.

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01. Arnoud Holleman, Museum, 1998, video, 8 min., video still

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01.1. Lidwien van de Ven, Isfahan, 14/10/2000, 2007, digitale print op papier/digital print on paper

If anything, the conceptual ambition of the show gets too vertiginous at points, with a surfeit of clamorously dense works here, and fairly illustrative works that jar with the exhibition's writing “style” there, such as William Oorebeek and Lidwien van de Ven, both of whose work transfigures mass media imagery (painting over newspapers with dark but translucent layers of paint, oversized format images of veiled women) to stress hyper-visibility and distortion as characteristics of Western media. The relays between the show's twin focuses on abstraction and religion can be provocative, but also shaky at times. The arguments diverge sometimes, with the curator's heart clearly more in the abstraction side of things. When it comes to religion, the argument seems to owe a great deal to the thesis by the Bay area collective Retort in their book “Afflicted Powers” that contemporary political struggles play out in the domain of images, which seems to bespeak a rather literal appropriation of “spectacle” as a political framework; by taking the proffered “images” of a mediated regime of visibility as the ground for critique, it lets the “spectacle” set the terms of the debate rather than using its contradictions to expose the limits of those terms – something that the material ruptures brought about by the capsizing of “fictitious capital” draw our attention to readily. The link between abstraction and religion works well here, especially when art is seen as the “spirit” of capitalism; but the “return of religion” as anything other than a blatant code for anti-migrant racism merits more questioning than it gets here. It has to be said, finally, that these are minor cavils; the exhibition succeeds, and it does so strikingly, wielding its dialectics gracefully, and laying down more secret heuristics than can be unearthed in a concise review.

MARINA VISHMIDT, is a London-based writer and researcher.

“The Art of Iconoclasm”, BAK and Centraal Museum, Utrecht, November 3, 2008 – March 1, 2009