by Zohra KhanJun 16, 2020
X is Not a Small Country: Unravelling the Post-Global Era, curated by Aric Chen with Martina Muzi, is an exploration of the post-global condition through the built environment. The incredible scale of the exhibition, which is housed in the oval space at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon, Portugal, attempts to encompass the complex conditions of globalisation. Tracking the flaws of globalisation exposed by the global financial crisis of 2008, the exhibition explores the various scales of larger systematic issues that have been transformed. Conceptualised before the pandemic, the show is observed at different levels through territories, cities, infrastructures, and objects. However, the premises of the show still hold, and in some ways has been accelerated by the pandemic.
Featuring nine large-scale installations, including a special edition of the Teeter Totter Wall by Rael San Fratello studio, the exhibition includes works by international practitioners. The diverse nature of the projects presented is further highlighted by their multiple geographic perspectives. Ranging from architectural intervention to augmented reality, the installations are a critique of the convoluted state of our contemporary lives that have largely been accepted as facts. When one considers large scale installations, we tend to envision an immersive environment. The idea of X is Not a Small Country is to create a landscape that gives the complex processes the exhibition is discussing a physicality. These installations then become a lens through which one can examine what Chen, the curator, refers to as “the post-global condition”.
The title of the show is a reference to a very specific geopolitical concept postulated by the nationalist government in Portugal in the 1930s. In an interview with STIR, Chen explains his curatorial process, "Whenever I do a show, I like to look for something within the context of that show, from which we can extrapolate broader issues. It is important to tackle contemporary issues, I am not Portuguese, so I can only look at it from a wider perspective. I was struck by how the formerly colonial relationships have somehow been inverted. I stumbled upon this poster which is quite iconic in Portugal, but I had never seen it before and it was very fascinating to me even in its graphic design."
The poster in question was a map promoting the idea of Portugal as a pluricontinental country. The geopolitical concept put forth presented the notion that Portugal was not just a continental country in Europe but rather a transcontinental country with all its global colonies contributing to its size. Chen emphasises the relevance of the poster as a graphic and the geopolitical concept, adding "to be in the situation now where those relationships have become very convoluted, the image captured that”.
The exhibition is carefully designed to contextualise the installations. X is Not a Small Country begins with the display of Wolfgang Tillman’s work. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, he has been creating a series of posters and print advertisements that were pro-EU. The work focuses on the rise of populism and a rightward shift in politics while speaking on the geographical consequence as well. Tillman continued this series with the Dutch election, French election, and eventually the EU election. This is something that the Portugal audience will be able to relate to. Tillman, in an official statement, mentions: “The fact that the decision to vote or not to vote has far-reaching consequences to personal life. That's what I really care about. Borderlines between an art practice such as institutional critique and mass media phenomena are secondary in the light of the real agency that a vote has. Democracy works when all are stakeholders and all are at least aware of that. To promote this, I see my call as a citizen, for the means to do so I employ what is available to me as an artist”.
One of the interactive installations in the gallery - a scaled version of the Teeter Totter Wall - is the recipient of the 2020 Beazley Design of the Year Award. The cross border see-saw by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello became widely popular during Trump's presidency. While there is no board wall at the MAAT, the gallery is bisected by vertical metal slats, this iteration of the Teeter Totter Wall emulates the border wall between Mexico and the US. Chen explains the placement and inclusion of this work saying, "There are two entry points into the gallery, a ramp or a staircase. Either way, you will be confronted by this barrier. Where you will see the other visitors coming down the other side. We hope this will create a very powerful almost visceral understanding of what we are talking about with this show."
Model of Jamaica by the Portuguese architect, Paulo Moreira, is a historical look at the district of Jamaica which was demolished in 2019. There is a large model of a now-demolished building from the neighbourhood which was home to a lot of immigrants from former Portuguese colonies such as Angola. The idea is to poke one’s head into the model and see what the archive of the architect calls “a paradigmatic example of how the decolonisation process in Portugal’s former African colonies has affected Lisbon and its surroundings”. Some of the other installations are more speculative and conceptual, but the exhibition finds a balance between contextual work and theoretical postulations.
What truly stands out about the exhibition is the fact that a lot of the dynamics that the architects and artists were presenting evolved over the last year. The method of representation in these cases, however, allows for the works to also transfer. Two installations that were particularly affected were Itineraries of Usual and Unusual Commodities from the Mumbai-based duo Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty (Bard Studio), and an installation by Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen. Chen explains this phenomenon saying, “Cohen and Balen’s work, which looks at the funding of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, was being funded by a casino, which was run by a prominent political donor to both Donal Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. While planning the show this donor died, Trump was not re-elected, and suddenly you had Israel and United Arab and Bahrain re-establishing diplomatic relations.
Bard studio was looking at the migration of objects between India and China. During the development of the exhibition, the relationship between the two countries changed with India banning all the Chinese apps. The installation is about a very specific exchange dynamic between India and China and over the course of the conceptualisation and the execution a lot changed. There is, of course, the global lockdown but also the strained trade and border relations between the two countries also developed between the two moments”.
Bard Studio elaborates on their installation saying, “While a lot of utilitarian devices and objects such as electronic goods, shoes, appliances, come to India from China, there are also ear scratchers, invisible ink pens, various types of massagers, that arrive. Our idea of the unusual relates not only to the unfamiliarity associated with some of these objects, but also to ways in which these objects unassumingly respond to some very instinctual desires.” The exhibition also includes cinematic presentations including architect and director Liam Young's latest speculative fiction film Planet City. While Tactile Cinema by the architecture studio Brick Lab addresses the three-decade prohibition on cinemas during a period of religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia. Connecting various geographical locations and ideas the exhibition brings to the forefront the realities and restrictions in the “landscape of post-global observation”.
In a concluding remark, Chen, also the Curator at Large at M+ in Hong Kong, discusses the subtleties of putting together an architectural exhibition. Responding to a question on the boundary between architecture, art and graphical musings, he says, "This has been discussed and debated for a long time. But what I think this reflects is the increasing multiple disciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of current creative practices. I think a lot of practitioners are less interested in formal concerns like how something looks or what is the aesthetic ideology. Is it good design, is it bad design, I think those things are a lot less relevant now. Especially these days when we as a species are confronted with this very existential crisis. A lot of cultural and creative practitioners are moving towards work that is more about questions and issues. So how you manifest that, along the traditional lines of architecture versus design versus art has become less pertinent. When it really is a broader issue. We have to remember that these disciplinary boundaries are really quite new. We take them as a given, but these disciplines as we think of them now have only been around for 150 years and mostly in Europe and North America”.
X is Not a Small Country: Unravelling the Post-Global Era, is on display at MAAT in Lisbon, Portugal till September 6, 2021. A series of online events will be accompanying the show during its run at the museum. The presented installations include works by Bard Studio (Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty), Bricklab (Abdulrahman Hisham Gazzaz and Turki Hisham Gazzaz), Ibiye Camp, Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen, He Jing, Liam Young, Paulo Moreira, Rael San Fratello Studio (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello), and Wolfgang Tillmans. The graphic identity of this exhibition was done by Joana Pestana with Maxwell Ryan and was meant to reflect the challenge in articulating the complexities of the global order. The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) was launched in October 2016 as part of EDP Foundation’s long-lasting commitment to cultural patronage.