Beyond bread, wine, cars, security and peace

The debut exhibit at Kunsthalle Wien by its new directors, the Croatian collective, What, How & for Whom (WHW), reveals the inherently classist nature of our desires for peace.

by Rosalyn D`Mello Published on : Sep 18, 2020

I was left with a litany of regrets after my visit to the Kunsthalle Wien in August 2020. I had taken the train from Salzburg to Vienna on a Saturday specifically to visit “... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace,” the institution’s debut exhibition under the new directorship of the Croatian female curatorial collective, What, How & for Whom (WHW), comprising Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović. I figured that two to three hours would have been enough. I would even resist the temptation to visit other institutions within the Museumsquartier, so as not to feel rushed. Weeks later, as I process my time at the show, I feel besieged by longing.

If only I hadn’t lost two hours because my train was delayed. If only I had allowed myself the luxury of staying on longer. If only I had pursued the opportunity to have the curators guide me. But I gave in, instead, to my preference for when artworks singularly call out to me, either silently or flamboyantly. I love moving closer to them because I am seduced by some aspect of their being, not because someone has noted a detail. I had heard exhilarating feedback from peers about ...of bread, wine, cars, security and peace. Yet nothing had prepared me for the biennale-like scope of the curatorial intervention, and the countless poetic possibilities coded into its display coupled with the inventive programming around it. It was the kind of show that made me wish I lived in Vienna. It made sense why the directors had perhaps adopted a ‘pay as you like’ entry fee. Besides the desire to make the show accessible to all income groups, the only other explanation was this—the curators had factored in that one visit wouldn’t be enough to cover the show’s extensive ideological ground constituted by multiple locations, even.

“...of bread, wine, cars, security and peace” seemed to me a radical invitation for viewers to confront the mediatory possibilities of art in an era where deep-seated historical inequalities, violent racial conflict and climate change are coming to a head. The title derives from a thought articulated in a 2003 essay by Lebanese intellectual Bilal Khbeiz, Globalization and the Manufacture of Transient Events. While articulating the tenuous conditions necessary for the true experience of a potentially peaceful future (‘A Palestinian cannot imagine the future without a fair political agreement’ or ‘... a Tanzanian woman who walks for more than 30 kilometers every day in search for wood to cook her family’s meal, dreams of a future with gas stoves and a constant supply of electricity), he speaks about how our dreams are segregated by the class from which we come. “Science fiction is a specialty of developed societies, while we in the Third World are left to dream of bread, wine, cars, security and peace”.  

Dan Perjovschi’s drawings on the walls and windows of the Kunsthalle Wien validate viewers’ intuitions about our bizarre new world | STIRworld
Dan Perjovschi, peace, 2020 Image: Courtesy of the artist & Gregor Podnar Gallery, Berlin

While the country of my origin—India, is on the brink of finalising its right-wing fundamentalist descent into a fascist Hindutva state, I have been acclimatising into my marital home in a post-colonial region of Italy, a country struggling to cope with the continuing influx of refugees. All of the nuances of the world’s many ongoing crises as experienced by cross-sections of its populace somehow find reflection in the exhibition. Such daring inclusivity and subversion of the museum exhibition format felt invigorating, and a clear reflection of WHW’s feminist working methodology. In invoking the classist nature of the very notion of peace, the show complicates any easy claim to a collective assessment of what the future holds. Khbeiz vocalises this angst powerfully in his essay published in the exhibition’s catalogue, “Spilled blood pollutes the dead victim”.

“What can we hope for?” he asks.

Dan Perjovschi, whose drawings populate the walls and windows of the Kunsthalle Wien, isn’t too convinced by the possibility of an optimistic response, especially given our new pandemic circumstances. One of Perjovschi’s drawings has a smiling stick figure exhibiting his empty pockets beside the text that reads, “In times of economic crises or junk economy the way to stay safe is to have nothing”. Tuan Andrew Nguyen extends the purview of hope beyond the realm of the human species in his 2017 two-channel video, “My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires.” An engaging philosophical dialogue unfolds between the spirits of the last Javan rhinoceros and the Hoàn Kiếm turtle, “Cụ Rùa”, which, in Vietnamese, means ‘great grandfather turtle’, about their potential liberation from humans, who have inflicted violent extremities on the animal kingdom through the proliferation of their unchecked greed and aspirations. The video footage offers itself as evidence to their points of view.

Marwa Arsanios, Who is Afraid of Ideology? shows the immense potential of feminist nurture in reappropriating war-torn landscapes| STIRworld
Marwa Arsanios, Who is Afraid of Ideology?, 2019, film still Image: Courtesy of the artist & mor charpentier gallery, Paris

Not all is nihilistic and pessimistic, though. WHW offers us succour through small doses of future potential energy, specifically by contextualising the restorative possibilities of ecofeminist gestures. This is most emphatically manifested in Marwa Arsanios’ two-part video, Who is Afraid of Ideology (2017-2019), consisting of interviews with ecofeminist groups in war-ravaged regions, namely, the mountains of Kurdistan, where it focuses on the Autonomous Women’s Movement; the Jinwar village in Rojava, built by and exclusively for women; and a cooperative in the Bekaa valley, near the Syrian border in Lebanon. Arsanios documents the various alternative forms of self-governance and economy evolved organically by women, revealing how blood-stained land can be reappropriated through systems of care, repair, and healing.

Works by over 35 artists make this an exhaustive exhibition replete with layers of translucent and elusive significance. Where one is typically prone towards skipping video works in lieu of less time-consuming mediums like installation and/or painting, here you find yourself electing to be immersed. The video works are immediate. They vie for your attention and sustain their hold over it. Like the suite of six films by Oliver Ressler, Everything’s Coming Together While Everything’s Falling Apart that addresses climate change activism that hopes to fundamentally alter how we, as a global society, consume and mine the earth’s resources; or Saddie Choua’s arresting audio-visual collage, Am I the Only One Who is Like Me, which poignantly reveals the insidious structures that proliferate racism, while challenging us to de-colonize feminism to celebrate non-white subjectivities.

Adji Dieye’s series, Maggic Cube, uses photography and film to comment on the impact of globalisation on native food cultures| Adji Dieye | STIRworld
Adji Dieye, Maggic Cube, 2016-2019 Image: Courtesy of the artist

...of bread, wine, cars, security and peace lures you into an ideological labyrinth from which escape is impossible, even as you exit. Different viewers will find themselves catapulted between different works. I found myself uniquely held hostage by the interstitial semantic and sonic field between artworks by artists from two different time zones and post-colonial realities; Adji Dieye and Mladen Stilinović. Dieye’s installation Maggic Cube used staged photography to critique Swiss-owned Maggi company’s sway in Africa, where, thanks to aggressive marketing, 36 billion Maggi bouillon cubes are sold annually in West and Central Africa alone. Dieye plays with the bold red and yellow typical of the brand’s packaging. These coded primary colours greet you at the entrance to Kunsthalle Wien, while the repetitive sales pitch from a megaphone carried by Alyoub, a young African migrant, through the weekly market of Milan’s Isola neighbourhood, resonates through the museum’s ground floor, emanating from Dieye’s video, Circuit Fermé. The performative gesture is meant to sell back the cube to the European colonising market. However, there are few takers. Just as there are none in the late post-conceptual artist Stilinović’s 2001 film, Potatoes, Potatoes, placed on the staircase on the topmost floor. It has the artist kneeling in a snow-clad landscape devoid of other people; the opposite of a market place. Here he sells his wares—cakes. Except, he cries out, “Potatoes, Potatoes.”

Mladen Stilinović’s 2001 film Potatoes, Potatoes, was installed alongside one of Tim Etchells’ Mirror Pieces at the top-most floor of the Kunsthalle Wien | Jorit Aust | STIRworld
Installation view: “... of bread, wine, cars, security and peace, Kunsthalle Wien 2020, with Mladen Stilinović, Potatoes, Potatoes, 2001; and in the background: Tim Etchells, Mirror Pieces, 2014 Image: Jorit Aust; Courtesy of Mladen Stilinović, Branka Stipančić, Zagreb; and Tim Etchells, Vitrine, London/Basel; Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco/New York & Ebensperger-Rhomberg, Berlin/Salzburg

The curatorial walkthrough, like the exhibition catalogue I read later, would have told me that this work “addresses practices of shameless deception and dishonesty in a ruthless economy and advertising business”. And I see how it does. But the work also seemed to proclaim something unspeakably profound about what it means to be an artist evangelising for the cause of hope, and peace, and for one’s plea to seem like it is being made in a vacuum, not even falling on deaf years, and the essential nature of what it means to produce not necessarily to be heard. I made my way to the exit of the Kunsthalle Wien over-sated, almost burping metaphors, making sure not to stumble on Stilinović’s 2008 sculptures, bread loaves topped with either cake or cobblestones, titled Maria Antoinetta’68. Parts of my intuition were validated when I later read Stilinović’s treatise, In Praise of Laziness, and when I found an obituary by Ana Janevski in Artforum. She writes of Stilinović’s love of potatoes, and quotes something he had once told her: “There are two kinds of art: potato art and cake art.”

The exhibition “of bread, wine, cars, security and peace” is on display at Museumsquartier till October 4, 2020.

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