In 1937 towards the end of a decade of despair and depression in Europe the Popular Front, the left-wing French government at the time, staged the ‘Exposition Internationale’. In the tradition of the ‘Exposition Universelle’ of 1889 it was to be a showcase for French manufacturing, art and design. Its aim was to act as a national unifying force but also to provide much needed economic stimulus. In addition the exhibition featured forty-four international pavilions. Opposing architectural styles of neo-classicism versus modernist were utilised by the German and Soviet backed buildings to leverage their respective political utopias. The Exposition itself included many of the differing approaches to art of the period. Commissioned work ranged from the relatively conservative sculptures of Aristide Maillol to the more modernist murals created by Fernand Léger for the ‘Palace of Discovery’. Yet despite its supposedly all-encompassing agenda no significant Surrealist artist was featured at all. As a result the ‘International Exhibition of Surrealism’ was held the following year as a direct response to their omission from the established cultural view of the time.
To therefore encapsulate the mood and direction of a country at any given moment is difficult. To attempt the same for an entire continent is even more challenging. So to reflect this in a cultural form is a brave endeavor. Nevertheless this is what the Irish Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with the Städelschule international academy in Frankfurt, Germany, set out to capture common pan-European concerns in the recent exhibition ‘I knOw yoU’. Such an undertaking with over twenty artists and their respective collaborators featured would inevitably lead to multiple viewpoints. A coherent theme would be difficult to achieve. However at it’s core was the stated aim to explore “an alternative model of capital” and the “relations between knowing and owing”. Certainly with Frankfurt emerging as one, if not the primary, heart of finance in Europe such a background could provide a useful springboard for an alternative view of cultural capital.
In July of 2013 Euro area government debt was up to 92.2% of GDP for all combined European States. In monetary terms this is an amount in excess of 12 trillion euros; a figure, which is difficult to grasp or comprehend. The unemployment rate stood at 10.9% or over 26 million.
So asking the average European citizen, if there can possibly be such a person, what was their biggest concern right now and the likelihood is they would reply employment and costs of living. Echoes therefore to the fears of Europeans in 1937 still recovering from a similar disastrous economic collapse.
There is no doubt that some of the artists chosen for ‘I knOw yoU’ did confront head-on the global financial crash within their exhibited work. An example was the large-scale animated photomontage video by Holger Wüst. The slowly evolving monochrome piece reveals a post-apocalyptic landscape strewn with abandoned motorcars and ghostly images of Karl Marx and floating currency notes.
Jeronimo Voss culled an article entitled ‘Boom Ahead’ from a German magazine for his photomontage and Vincenzo Estremo’s recorded story alluded to the current crisis.
Other contributors took a more elliptical approach examining consumption, waste, sustainability and ecological concerns. Stefan Müller used unconventional found materials whilst Sergej Jensen and Michael Callies recycled previously exhibited objects. Haegue Yang assembled sculptural installations from an array of disused materials. In contrast Claus Rasmussen meticulously recreated the garments of his college peers displayed on a rail reminiscent of a fashion boutique. His installation also alluded to another common theme in the exhibition that of craft versus technology. Denise Mawila covered ceramic objects in black paint but Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel used familiar craft materials in unexpected ways.
But the majority of exhibits emanated from a broader spectrum of societal concerns. The quest for a stable identity in the shifting contemporary globalised domain informed the work of Danh Vo and of Pattara Chanruechachai with Simon Fujiwara taking a more humorous approach.
Indeed the latter highlights the problem of limiting art practice to a snapshot of a single continent when globalised narratives inevitably seep into the programme from New York to Vietnam and beyond.
What we received though was a calm and sober reflection of a cultural landscape without perhaps alluding to Europe’s trans-continental angst and public riots. With nothing on show too squeamish for the culprits of our economic downfall or delineating the complicities and tensions underlying the connections between art and money. Cultural capital can of course also become devalued. Artists though were not the creators of credit swaps and structured investment vehicles. They, it would seem from this exhibition, don’t owe us anything.
I knOw yoU exhibition