press release

POLITICAL/POETICAL Curatorial Exhibition of the 14th Tallinn Print Triennial

Who lives in this house: A Black Panther or Mickey Mouse? Alexander Brener & Barbara Schurz


When preparing for this exhibition, I happened to stumble upon an article by Kai Kresse, in which he analyzes the Zulu praise poetry, izibongo, which has an important political and socio-regulative function in society. Thanks to the ambivalence of the language, one can use the same praise poem for public criticism and this is so not only because of the play with words and various tonalities encoding in the public presentation – irony, sarcasm, etc. In the case of izibongo, the principle of special “poetic license” applies, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression for the public positions expressed as praise poems. This principle, in combination with the poet’s obligation to paint a “full and true picture of the praised and the social life and to contribute to a socially accepted, just progression of social life”, leads to izibongo being a mechanism for documenting social life on one hand and forming a normative social discourse on the other.[i] The task of the poet, who assumes the role of mediating between the ruler and the people, is to reconcile various misunderstandings in the common good, and in this way, to intervene in the development social processes.

Revolutionary printmaking

An organic connection between cultural forms and political criticism is alien to Western culture. First, the affirmation of Christianity, then feudal power, and later the idea of nationalism, the sublimation of psychic problems or the role of the culture industry’s products are just some of the ‘important’ functions that culture has fulfilled in the West through the centuries.

In the contemporary sense, graphic arts are something totally archaic and anachronistic, although one is dealing with a medium that has a direct connection with politics encoded into it since its birth. This as a technological revolution, as an entry into Guttenberg’s galaxy, as well as a political weapon ideologically – the Reformation. The invention of the printing press made the previously inaccessible representations of self and one’s values accessible to an entire social class and the relatively rapid and inexpensive reproduction techniques produced an information revolution that is witnessed by the unusually fast spread of the ideas of the Reformation across Europe at the time. It was printmaking that enabled the distribution among the illiterate peasantry of small caricatures depicting the difficult condition of the lower classes and ridiculing the Church and the aristocracy. The possibility offered by reproduction, cheapness and rapid distribution made prints a powerful weapon in political battles. The graphic arts of the Reformation period are definitely a field in which artistic quality recedes before a socio-political message that is much more important. This created an entire discourse of political graphic arts, albeit not a very consistent one, and a historical platform for the art of caricature of all subsequent revolutions. Here the limits of the genre were defined – simplicity, directness, popularity, irony, allegory, but also the bases for the sharp-edged political art of Hogarth, Daumier, and Goya were established. Naturally, printmaking maintained an important political function until the arrival of photography, although thereafter, fields related to it have been connected to politics. Recall, for instance, the comics hijacked by the Situationists and their political graffiti, or for instance Adbusters, which are both descended to a lesser or greater degree from the tradition of political printmaking. If we expand the definition of printmaking to ‘graphic arts’, we cannot overlook drawings, which many of the most radical contemporary artists still consider to be the most democratic and dynamic art form – it is easy and cheap to execute. One can draw anywhere. One can always find a section of wall, a piece of paper, some chalk or a pencil, and all the conditions for an artist exist. Let’s not forget that a couple of cartoonists almost brought us to the brink of a war between civilizations a while ago. The cartoons were not the most the wittiest ones, but they were graphic art. Therefore, some part of the ‘graphic culture’ still participates in the political processes, and plays a not unimportant role. Moreover, it definitely forms one of the most interesting and intriguing part of the graphic arts.

Influx of idiosyncrasy

Another quality that has historically embellished the graphic arts is a certain poetic language. This too is almost a characteristic of the graphic arts as such. Throughout history, it has fluctuated between two extreme roles that, at first glance, seem to preclude each other. On the one hand graphic arts were absolutely self-less and servile in their secondary reproductive role in respect to ‘high art’ – the quality of the print was determined by the technical intricacy, innovativeness, and precision of the imitatio, etc. After all, the roots of the technological obsessions of graphic arts are hidden here – often receding before the content. On the other hand, paradoxically, the canons and strict rules of the ‘high art’ had less effect on graphic arts (as is visible from the traditions of political graphic arts). For example Estonia’s long graphic arts tradition has produced the strangest, sometimes totally absurd and irrational visual idiom, which is outside any discourse, and can only be characterized as poetic. This ‘poetic dimension’ is something that seems to be especially characteristic of Eastern Europe art, and hopefully, the exhibition entitled 1987, curated by Anders Kreuger, will provide the viewers with an inkling of this. Therefore, the secondary position in the artistic hierarchy and lack of traditional discipline promoted the influx of ‘poetic’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ language into fine graphic arts as soon as it started to be freed from its reproductive function.

The ‘poetic language’ as it was understood by the Russian formalists is distinct from ordinary language not because it may involve a departure from the norm, but because it is almost an otherness of the language. As opposed to the language of transparency (where the word is forgotten for the sake of the object or concept designated), the poetic language is a “language of materiality, in which the writers effort is to work in a ‘transrational’ (Ossip Brik’s phrase) manner with sounds and rhythms rather than meanings, thereby provoking ‘semantic relocations’ as Viktor Shklovsky calls them”. [ii] Thereby, the languages of Shakespeare, the Marquis de Sade, as well as of the psychotics are poetic, as are many languages in between.

In the present day, of course, we do not share such a strict definition of poetry that contrasts poetical language so categorically with ordinary language. However, if we are not as absolute about the formalistic definition, and expand it a bit, we can perhaps continue to use it. When we treat poetry in respect to language, lets say, as a sensitive field, and language, as repressive machinery that defines what is possible, one can understand poetry, for instance, as a critical weapon against the repressiveness of language that helps to shift and reveal power relationships – to make ‘semantic relocations’, if you will. Contemporary poetic language is related to both the tangibility as well as its transparency of language, it is concerned with rhythms as well as ideologies. Fluctuating between these two extremes, it produces multi-dimensionality and ambivalence. Made absolute as the otherness of language, poetry becomes just a form of escapism that hides the ideology of language behind strictly formal and esthetic games and is blind to the power relationship language does contain.

Politica et Poetica

The precondition for this exhibition and the direct relationship with the context of its happening is a proposition about two characteristics that are historically intertwined with graphic arts – the state of being political and the state of being poetic. The exhibition uses this as a starting point to more broadly examine the relations between poetics and politics in contemporary art. Therefore, the exhibition is not focused on ‘graphics’, but the ‘graphical’ – on the drawing-like, collage-like, printed, video and photographic arts. It is art in which the poetic and the political intertwine, where the poetic language is a weapon for political criticism—that is, contemporary izibongo.

Ten years ago, in The Political Potential of Art, one of the key discussions pervading the book, Poetics/Politics of Documenta X, Jean-François Chevrier articulates the need for a break “between the political demand and artistic practices”[iii] in contemporary art. He says that “The risk today is to block the process of subjectivization by an overly analytical approach”, and he feels it is important “to come back to the surrealist unconscious, as well as the question of intimacy.” Chevrier ads that “The public/private dialectic is frozen, it hasn’t been able to take new forms. If we want it recompose itself outside its bourgeois definition, on another terrain, then we have to reintroduce the thinking of subjectivity, all the way to the dimensions of the unconscious and of intimacy.”[iv] However, Benjamin Buchloch thinks this connection is so totalizing, as well as impossible, that it is even not possible to create it by force. He says, “I wonder whether they shouldn’t be conceived as two necessary urgencies, which remain separate.”[v] After Nazism and fascism, he feels that the experience of the myth proposed by surrealism for deep reflection – myth in the form of mythology and individual experience in the form of dreams and subconscious – is just no longer possible. At the same time, Buchloch asserts that in post-WWII culture, the cultural industry has usurped the subconscious and manages it. Moreover, nothing speaks to us more clearly of this than Slavoj Žižek’s endless psychoanalytical flirt with Hollywood, I might add.

Although Buchloch and Chevrier agree on the necessity of both the political and poetic dimensions in contemporary art, they are not able to provide a solution on how to join them that would satisfy them both. However, aren’t the incompleteness and imperfection that they recognize in the work of many artists, its non-crystallization into utopia or totality, the continued ‘translations’ between the two, the constant postponements and lapses the strength of this strategy? Doesn’t this create a break between poetics and politics, between the position of an artist and political activist?

It may seem that keeping in mind the author positions circulating in contemporary art, the current exhibition risks being moderately conservative in its white-cube environment. However, the participating body of artists is heterogeneous and versatile in the strategic profiles and ‘anti-technologies’ through which they communicate with the world. Several projects stretch themselves out from the secure walls of the exhibition premises. Hopefully, the exhibition will be able to present several important, intriguing, as also polemical author positions and works in which poetic language is united with a political agenda.

Anders Härm

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mit Adel Abidin, Michael Baers, Arunas Gudaitis, Minna Hint, Johnson & Johnson, Jakob Kolding, Teemu Mäki, Dan Perjovschi, Barbara Schurz & Alexander Brener, David Sherry, Hanno Soans ...