Documenting politics and reality in art

In the midst of Christmas and New Year’s festivities, an art exhibition that addresses global political and social issues paints a hard and pessimistic world. Even so, through its melancholy mood it strangely matches the spirit of the day by compelling us to think with compassion about victims of poor social and political conditions around the world. «Testimonies: Between Fiction and Reality» is the third in a succession of annually held exhibitions of the so-called «Synopsis» series aimed at addressing current issues in contemporary art. The exhibitions are organized by the National Museum of Contemporary Art. «Testimonies» is currently on view at the newly inaugurated exhibition hall of the Athens Concert Hall, one of the venues that will temporarily host the museum’s exhibition until the reopening of its premises at the FIX building. Currently under reconstruction, the expanded premises of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (a total of 20,000 square meters) are expected to open to the public at the end of 2005. In the interim, the museum has scheduled a number of exhibitions to be held across the city: A large exhibition for the summer will be an addition to the city’s cultural events during the Olympic Games. Curated by the museum’s director, Anna Kafetsi, «Testimonies» captures the concern of contemporary artists with political themes. It addresses diverse phenomena ranging from immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the post-apartheid period in South Africa, terrorism, and the ramifications of a globalized economy. Mimicking the aesthetics and structure of film or photographic documentaries, most works also test the line separating fiction from reality and draw attention to how actual events are filtered through the media, art and different ideologies. The works raise some critical thinking on the relationships between documentation and representation, art and politics, visual aesthetics and political content, and objective reality and its subjective interpretation. One of the most unusual and imaginative works of the exhibition is William Kentridge’s «Stereoscope,» essentially an animation film put together by the charcoal drawings of this South African artist whose work repeatedly addresses the post-apartheid period. In «dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y,» a the work first presented at the 1997 Kassel Documenta, artist Johan Grimonprez, also South African, has pasted together news clippings to create a pseudo-documentary that chronicles global hijackings from the 1950s to the present. The video alludes to the false presentation of reality through media coverage. One of the exhibition’s highlights is Allan Sekula’s third part of his famous «Fish Story,» an installation that blends texts with images, the latter taken from big ports around the world. The work, which was recently acquired by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, is based on the artist’s extended research on international transportation, trade and the shipping industry. As in most of the exhibition’s works, the installation is designed as a documentary and tries to be as objective and distanced as possible while also placing the artist in the role of a reporter. This becomes obvious in Ann Sofi Siden’s expanding video installation put together from interviews that the artist conducted with various figures involved in prostitution in two small towns on the Czech-German border. The format of a documentary is also replicated and tested in Kutlug Attaman’s double video projection showing Turkish-Cypriot author Nese Yasin’s narration of the Cyprus issue. The ways that the perception of history is tinted by gender, ethnic background and cultural conditioning is one of the themes explored in the work. The Cyprus issue also comes up in a sprawling, intricate installation by the Cypriot-born artist Nikos Charalambides; the work was commissioned by the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Also commissioned by the museum is Lina Theodorou’s multimedia installation, a work that considers the ambiguity between the real and the fictional by using real data to invent an imaginary, illicit company for the trafficking of immigrants. The fragmentary media presentation of political events is one of the issues addressed by Jayce Salloum’s video in which the viewer follows the narration of a Palestinian refugee who has returned to his occupied homeland. The function and use of photographic documents and archival material for our understanding of history is a theme that comes up in two different works: Fiona Tan’s impressive installation of ethnographic footage tests the objectivity of scientific reportage, while a joint work by the Lebanese artists Walid Ra’ad and Akram Zaatari use different kinds of photographic portraiture taken in the Middle East in the early part of the 20th century (the material is from the Arab Image Foundation, which Zaatari founded) to investigate how documentary material is classified and interpreted. Walid Ra’ad also exhibits several video works related to contemporary Lebanese political events. The works are part of the «Atlas Group» projects, a research center that the artist established in Beirut in the late 1970s with the objective of exploring Lebanese history. The rest of the exhibition’s works, despite their political content, do not draw attention to specific events. Yan Pei Ming’s huge painting of Mao Tse Tung, for example, questions the role of portraiture, particularly of monumental propaganda painting. Kendel Geers’s installation of empty body bags hung one beside the other along a corridor alludes to violence and war. Gillian Wearing’s sprawling video installation-triptych, in which actors set against a stark background replicate the behavior of drunk people in the community of London’s southern suburbs, isolates emotional behavior from its social background, thus creating an unusual kind of documentary. As in the rest of the works, the line separating an artwork from a documentary, or objective reality from its subjective presentation, becomes an issue. In «Testimonies,» artists step into the role of an archivist, a documentarist, a reporter or an objective observer of reality in order to explore how solid and truthful «Testimonies» really are. The outcome is an exhibition of consistency and character that makes us think both about politics and about the condition of art. At the new exhibition space at the Athens Concert Hall (210.728.2000) through February 29.