My latest review for Art-Agenda
Berlin-based Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s exhibition at Carroll / Fletcher might appear visually spare, but with each work, Haghighian draws you further into a game of institutional hide-and-seek, in which visibility and invisibility, the act of remaining hidden and being revealed, are played out as Machiavellian manipulations of the conventions of spectatorship and exhibition, where voyeurism plays a critical role.
You are, in other words, being messed with, and it starts as you step into the first, storefront gallery space, occupied by what looks like typical contemporary art “sculpture” (de paso, 2012)—a wheel-on suitcase has been motorized, and it slides slowly back and forth on its belly, propped up slightly by the empty mineral water bottle over which the case’s handlebars rest. A dangling microphone picks up and amplifies the crackling of the plastic bottle.
So far, so mysterious. A little adjacent gallery presents a set of associated works that extrapolate this weird sculpture: a set of printed maps and notes outline the history of the expansion of intra-European flight paths in the wake of the deregulation of the European air industry; alongside these are notes and letters sent to an English municipal council, which has agreed to 100-year licensing rights with Nestlé for the extraction and marketing of “Buxton” spring water. Liberalization and privatization, opening up and closing down, offering and withdrawing—the piece is a succinct bit of politico-institutional critical art in a Hans Haacke mould, but it might, if your politics are of the free market liberal variety, elicit little more than a shrugging “so what?”
Of course, one senses that free market liberals aren’t Haghighian’s core audience, but the piece is interesting less for its political implications than for the self-conscious dual rendering of the content—as research documents in one space and as the assemblage of elements into the “sculpture” in the first gallery. There’s something going on here with the alternative modes of presentation an artist has chosen to adopt, and the antagonism between pleasure and criticality that might operate in the reception of artworks.
Such slippery, fugitive manipulations of the codes of the gallery space and the institutional mechanisms of the artworld wind through the other works. In the next gallery, Haghighian has installed large blow-ups of what appear to be surveillance photographs of people at a bus stop. These echo the nearby video Unternehmen:Bermuda (Bermuda: venture) (2000), which documents how Haghighian assembled the jury of the Ars Viva award (of which she was a recipient) at a bus stop in Berlin, making a spoken presentation to the group while they were filmed covertly by Haghighian’s associates. The video narrates an vaguely implausible set of connections between the Bermuda triangle, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Queen Elizabeth I’s master spy John Dee, Ian Fleming’s 007, Antonioni’s Blow Up, and the geographical “triangle” drawn between three major Berlin institutions.
Hiding, revealing, seeing, blinding—descending to the basement galleries, Haghighian has mounted disorientating, motion-activated floodlights that dazzle as you arrive at a wall text in fluorescent paint that only appears for a brief moment as a UV light switches on. Some passage of fiction, opening with the narrator talking to a “young whore” who demands “Beat my cunt,” before the narrator spins off into a discourse about the violence that commerce does to people and about how it is necessary to destroy images—or something like that, as the text is nearly impossible to follow, its phosphorescence fading instantly, leaving you squinting in the gloom. The text is from punk feminist novelist Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), and the connection isn’t trivial. Haghighian’s interest in power slips in and out of various forms of bodily and institutional subjugation: the blinding light recurs in another room of works, in a video animation in which a line drawing of an empty spot-lit stage and microphone stand spins and morphs into the searchlights and barbed wire of a prison yard (Vice/Virtue, 2001); or in the perverse object The Microscope (2006), whose eyepiece has been “blinded” by its replacement with a headphone speaker, from which burbles a plaintively-sung voice-synthesizer version of The Police’s Every Breath You Take; or the two slide projectors whose blank slides have been slashed, the blade responsible then inserted into the slide aperture of a third projector, the blade little more than a fluttering shadow in the projector’s beam (Schnitte (Cuts), 1998). Vision, in the anti-enlightenment metaphor operating here, is not revelation and truth, but the regulated tunnel-vision which excludes what must not be seen and cannot be represented.
This being a sort of mini-retrospective show of fifteen years of Haghighian’s work, there’s also a reading room for publications and videos, among them the catalogue of the exhibition “Solo Show,” whose fictional artist “Robbie Williams” produces sculptures that look uncannily like they might serve as show jumping stiles—an ironic play on the reputational economy at stake when one is “on show” as an artist; and a short text that narrates the installation of a museum exhibition from the perspective of various animate and inanimate protagonists—a woodscrew being driven into a stud wall, an email waiting to be sent, an installation technician who is fed up at being treated like a lackey, and the curator herself, exhausted and distraught that her meticulously planned opening night is destroyed by an accident involving a sculpture so heavy that it crashes through the gallery floor into the basement below, uninsured.
The photocopied text is bracketed by two illustrations—the appear/disappear states of the Cheshire Cat, as illustrated by John Tenniel in Lewis Carroll’s original edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The grinning cat might stand as an avatar of Haghighian herself, who delights in endlessly complicating and evading the institutional tractor-beams of artworld conformity, looping the normally hidden processes of insider, career, and reputational politics onto themselves. Haghighian offers a winning, advanced hybrid of institution critique and situational pragmatics that shift things from the sabotage of earlier institutional-critical work into a more footloose practice of interruption, deferment, and evasion.
But continuously pointing back to the framing systems of artistic presentation has its downside: on one level, the mechanics of power in any cultural economy are eventually banal issues, however much one dislikes them, and a critique of the institutional processes that enable the staging of art doesn’t help deliberate the value of the art eventually staged. The critique of conditions that cannot alter those conditions is always in danger of remaining the product of those conditions, which is why Haghighian’s work is continuously fringed with cynicism. However performative her desire to disrupt the machine, Haghighian may even then still be symbiotically, euphorically wired into it.