The late Sardinian artist Maria Lai’s works demonstrate the freedom from dogma that artists at the periphery can enjoy. Though her most creative period—the early 1970s to the late 1980s—coincided with the advent of postmodernism, her practice was firmly anchored in a modernist language. However, while the ideal modern artist was figured as a heroic innovator, Lai was a synthesizer of methodologies, liberally taking elements from Arte Povera, Conceptual art, Minimalism, and fiber art, or works by painters such as Cy Twombly and Agnes Martin. These diverse vocabularies constitute Lai’s highly original hybrid language.
This concise exhibition, curated by David Komary, presents six relatively small works from Lai’s vast output, functioning as a focused sample of her oeuvre. These pieces highlight her idiosyncratic inquiry into writing and cartography, two dominant concerns of the postwar avant-garde. Geography, 1979, for instance, shows a canvas sewn with threads to form a pattern that resembles a map with written commentary. It does not depict any particular location, though, and on closer inspection the text turns out to be an abstract design of illegible lines that take after the the Western writing system. The characters on both Pages, 1982, and Sheet, 1989, are also indecipherable patterns organized so as to simulate pages of a book. These are abstractions of already abstract systems.
Despite their elegant beauty, these works are notably provocative. By producing objects that merely appear as text or map, as though to imply their look is enough regardless of their content, Lai points out the aestheticization of language and other systems of representation brought about by a conceptual turn in art while challenging Conceptualist orthodoxy.
Prompted by ongoing social upheavals—including the fall of the Iron Curtain, the advance of globalization, and the AIDS crisis—the artistic paradigm around the 1990s didn’t so much shift as it broke into many overlapping positions that required a nuanced understanding of context. Diverse practices such as activism, politics, and exhibition design were adopted as artistic endeavors. Instead of being a neutral shell to be filled with artworks, an exhibition became a complex medium itself—produced by specific social, political, and economic conditions.
Naturally, a historical exhibition on socially responsive practices poses a problem of misrepresentation. Curator Matthias Michalka addresses this challenge by giving equal prominence to documentation, artworks, reconstructions, and publications, weaving them together conceptually and spatially to provide a comprehensive picture of the period and its various scenes. Key exhibitions from the time—including 1988’s “Democracy” by Group Material or 1989’s “If You Lived Here . . .” by Martha Rosler, both of which were held at Dia Art Foundation in New York and altered the perception of what an exhibition could be by foregrounding audience participation—are represented alongside an archive documenting influential institutions that rethought the format of shows, such as Cologne’s Friesenwall 120, run by Stephan Dillemuth, Josef Strau, and others between 1990 and 1994. Moreover, Artfan from Vienna—created by Linda Bilda and Ariane Müller from 1991 to 1995—and other artists’ publications are presented in order to demonstrate the blurring of theory and production that was crucial to the practices in this show.
Emphasizing the loosely interconnected scenes of New York, Cologne, and Vienna, this display examines, with profound scholarship, what is perhaps the most important artistic legacy from the last three decades: the turn from art production to exhibition making.
Anna Konik’s work operates within the psychological states of the afflicted: Refugees, schizophrenics, the elderly, and the infirm are all subjects of her video installations. Konik interprets their stories through fragmented, multichannel constructions where each part provides a different glimpse into the narrative. Shifts between abstraction and representation—and an indeterminate line between the real and the fictional—increase the dramatic tension. Our Lady’s Forever, 2007, for instance, is a seven-channel work shot in a defunct mental institution featuring footage of an electric fan; on the opposite wall in the gallery, a real curtain billows. The monumental projection of The Villa of the Entranced, 2009, presents a villa in crisp focus while smaller elements projected onto four screens nearby are blurred beyond recognition. The women speaking to the camera in In the Same City, Under the Same Sky . . . , 2011–15, provide first-person testimonies of the hardship and injustice borne by immigrants, but they are actors.
Despite the intense subject matter, these videos feel calm. With slow pans over a mountain, dangling ropes, and a woman, Play Back (of Irčne), 2009, reconstructs the experience of falling from a cliff. Fifteen monitors are suspended from the ceiling at the eye level of the video’s protagonist, but their arrangement in the space obscures a direct view; from no vantage can the viewer observe all of them at once. Making the narrative even more elusive, the black-and-white images periodically dissolve into circles of bright color, like a vivid dream recalled at the moment it slips away.
It is tempting to talk about CANAN within the framework of the tempestuous politics of Turkey right now—with a civil war rapidly unfolding in the southeast of the country—and to reconsider the body and its integrity, or lack thereof, in terms of the state. This exhibition, “The Shining Darkness,” presents images that stand on tentative ground in relation to power paradigms, appearing most clearly strained in the video Hezeyan (Delusion), 2014, and the series of photogravure prints “Transparent Police Station,” 1998.
The seemingly unassuming, almost abstract imagery of that series depicts CANAN in the nude, forever reproducible from etched metal plates. Multiple views of her body overlap in some of the eight individual images. In Transparent Police Station 4, the infantile handwriting on the walls that the artist seems to be kicking, pushing, and caressing reads like a chant. It includes the word “bütünlük,” or “integrity,” but within the context of CANAN’s practice, this is not something merely preached but rather is as tangible as the wall on which it’s written.
Hezeyan (Delusion), an hour-long love story gone awry, is acutely personal. The artist is the protagonist, obsessed with a stalker who is in her computer but is also a man she knows in real life. The boundaries between what the artist experiences in front of her machine and what happens outside of the digital realm become increasingly blurred. CANAN positions her video at the intersection of romance’s reality, love as it is represented in culture, and the role of surveillance in structures of power—its oscillation between tenderness and violence. After all, watching is a form of care, and there is something about the paternal tenderness of monitoring that the artist addresses here. Is it possible to love too much? When does care become corrosive?
Damascus has long been famous for its apricots. However, as war rages not only on and beyond the southern border of Turkey but also in its eastern provinces, in the form of state violence against the Kurds, Damascus is now no longer quite as readily associated with the fruit. This exhibition’s title derives from a Turkish proverb—a token of wishful thinking that roughly translates to “Only apricots from Damascus can be better than this!” Beyond its ludic faux optimism, the name also manages to capture such issues at the heart of the exhibition as dislocation, multilingualism, and the spoils of colonialism.
Wishful is one of the many words (along with cosmopolitanism, institutionalization, and mustachioed) that Kamal Abu Dieb had to invent in Arabic while translating Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Here, Fehras Publishing Practices, founded by Syrian expatriates, enlarges all fourteen pages of Dieb’s index of definitions into rainbow-colored posters, next to an octopus-like stand covered with copies of Apricots from Damascus, a zine that the exhibition’s organizers launched in October.
In addition to Dieb, the show revives another historical figure—İvi Stangali, a Turkish-born Greek artist—here through the archival research of Dilek Winchester and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan. Several of Stangali’s primitivism-inspired works, which take the form of illustrations for Turkish translations of Homer’s Iliad and More’s Utopia, appear in vitrines alongside a couple of her photographs. (One vitrine also displays passages from a poignant letter Stangali wrote while exiled in Athens.) The subject matter of her commissioned work—the Iliad’s unending search for the homeland, and Utopia’s descriptive journey through a land that is, in reality, invariably out of reach—mysteriously parallels her later exile from her beloved Istanbul due to Turkey’s 1960s ultranationalist crackdown. Perhaps Nadia al Issa’s installation Cultivating Exile, 2015—a small garden in pots overlooking the Galata Bridge through a huge arched window—complements Stangali’s Istanbul longings the most: An audio guide plays the artist’s voice reciting the properties of and the myths behind botanical species associated with death, grief, remembrance, and—in one case—resilience.