The idea that contemporary visual art can be an instrument for deconstructing the paradigms of the past, for recognising and eliminating the divergences that are intrinsic to interpersonal, political, economic or social relationships, underlies most current discourses formulated by artists or curators through their cultural practices. This maybe a plausible idea, art having the ability to function as an agent of change in society; however, it we may need to ask ourselves what we want art to offer us and especially why. What is the importance of images in the context of historical and political knowledge? The image, through its materiality, can provide us with a new key to understanding the tensions between several time variables, accumulated in a constellation of paces and durations. Consequently, confronting the image implies confronting time. The images we are talking about are not limited to photographs or paintings. An image is any complex temporal tissue that connects the present with the various forms of the past.
How do we relate to art, whose structure implies malleable time? Art historian Sotirios Bahtsetzis argues that we relate to contemporary art in a quasi-theological way. Bahtsetzis explains in his own words what Walter Benjamin claims in his book Capitalism as Religion: God’s transcendence is at an end, but he is by no means dead, as Nietzsche’s famous saying goes. He is captive in man’s destiny. With the historical avant-garde, the opposition of artists to social norms begins to be appreciated by highlighting art’s potential to transform the world, but artworks are not excluded from the semiocapitalist economic system. Semiocapitalism is a late stage of capitalism characterized by the camouflaged use of signs and information, in order to make use of the capital. The power of images is rooted in archaic and idolatrous beliefs, but it has gradually been subordinated to the production, distribution and consumption of goods. The creation and visualisation of images are two inherent processes in a hegemonic system of knowledge, being directly related to the economic circulation of goods and ideas. As art critic Cristian Nae argues in his book Ways to Perceive. An Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art Theory, “a commodity is an intriguing social hieroglyph that must be deciphered to reveal the existence of another economy.”
In Bahtsetzis’s terms, “Semiocapitalism is the natural development of the “theologico-economico-political affirmation of power, domination, and exploitation” of Christianity’s usurpation of both the intelligible and the affective world – with no escape possible! In this regard, one may assume that the dispositive of the oeconomia simply changes avatars; from the theocracy of the medieval period to the humanism of the Renaissance and the “monovalence of the ‘general equivalence’” of advanced capitalism, the development of Western nihilism unfolds”. Bahtsetzis provides a revealing explanation of the historical avant-garde, arguing that despite its pseudo-anarchic anti-institutionalism, it contributed massively to the mythical aura of art, and the mysticism common to both Byzantine and medieval or Renaissance art forms envelops modern or contemporary art, keeping the public at bay. This problem also concerns art critic Clement Greenberg. Advocating a new art against the “high” academic art and the “kitsch” of the “uneducated” masses, he developed protocols for understanding and feeling modern art in his writings. This vision still prevails today, pre-establishing how the public interacts with works of art, to which they often refer as objects of worship. Thus, in Bahtsetzis’s opinion, “In this regard, the concept of the avant-garde, but also its evocation – visible in various contemporary attempts to restore art’s alleged lost aesthetic autonomy and the non-instrumentalisation of artists and artworks in the midst of current semiocapitalism – actually prolong the quasi-theological promises of salvation offered by capitalism.” Both in the context of the mercantile Renaissance and in modern or contemporary art, the “display value” of a work lies in the visual availability of the object compared to its “aura”. Thus, the viewer does not perceive what the image presents, but only what it represents. In confronting the images, we have an anachronistic understanding of them because we deprive them of their historical time, not acknowledging them for what they are in and for the present.
According to Fredric Jameson, culture has always been material, or materialistic, in its structures and functions. Matter is inherently dynamic and significant. Images produce knowledge and are themselves particular configurations resulting from acts of “performativity” of matter. Walter Benjamin, in his 1916 essay On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, initially written as a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, holds that, “There is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language”. We can say that images do not represent reality, but create it. How can we coexist with images and how can we realize when they shape our subjectivity?
In her work 10 Tons of Dust (2016), Dušica Dražić proposes an artistic discourse that can be assimilated to a theoretical framework called performative materialism. In the materialist performative approach, the new materialists emphasize the way in which matter is alive, dynamic, aggressive and therefore active.
Dušica Dražić studies tons of soil samples kept inside the Swedish History Museum – a huge amount of geological and archaeological data. The samples were collected from Sweden in different periods; some require scientific cataloguing, others are part of a mineralogical and anthropological landscape stored by the museum. The installation includes a visual-textual study of the sources and meanings of the samples and a video in which the soil samples are filmed as if the camera were producing a panorama in a desert area – a land on which we see no human figure, an environment where the connections between land, national identity and borders are eroded. The video questions the existence of an optical unconscious of the representation and consciousness of the soil. The soil contains traces of cultural artifacts from various civilizations; therefore Dražić highlights the connection between soil and national identity, which is often reflected in symbolic acts such as kissing the ground, the desire to be buried in the soil where you were born etc. The artist analyses the history of the place and the contradictory interpretations of the past.
Dušica Dražić’s work, which suggests that soil does not exist independently of the measurements that serve as interpretation patterns, reflects the performative materialist view of feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad. According to Barad, observations do not simply reveal pre-existing values, but also play a role in their constitution. Consequently, people are what they observe and are partially made of what they observe.
The exhibitions of the 2021 edition of the Art Encounters Biennial revolve around the concepts of coexistence and presence, trying to create a framework for understanding how the contemporary visual forms determine us to build projections about ourselves, about Our Other Us, about borders and distances. How to Live Together, Kasia Redzisz’s curatorial project, investigates the relationship between art, artists and nature in Eastern Europe. Landscape in a Convex Mirror, a project curated by Mihnea Mircan, raises questions about the relationship between figure and background following the development of new perspectives, technologies and orientation techniques. The two exhibitions suggest new ways of perceiving Our Other Us, by avoiding a series of categorical oppositions such as nature/culture, subject/object, human/non-human, in order to cover the distance to Our Other Us through the relational understanding of the world.