Issue 2/2021

Things That Divide Us


Divisions, here, there and everywhere. Yet at the same time a desire to establish new forms of solidarity and strike a balance within society. The defining political/cultural scenario of recent years could be defined in these terms and has become still more acute in the light of the pandemic. On the one hand, the undeniable observation that differences of all kinds have tended to become more pronounced due to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic. On the other hand, calls have emerged, especially on the part of artists and intellectuals, to focus more on what unites us and what we share as aspects that should cut across all class or other identities.
Yet this kind of juxtaposition between separation and reconciliation is not as simple as it first appears. Often, too much is projected into society’s alleged polarisation; too much is blown out of proportion by the familiar dynamics of social media. However, on the other side of the debate, matters are frequently less clear-cut than they initially appear: many individual aspirations have grown far too inconsistent, even incommensurable, to be resolved by the presumed panacea of universal solidarity. Go ahead and talk about “we” – but without “us”, please.
One way out of this dilemma entails reflecting not on identities and subjects, but on objects – whether these are divisive or unifying. More precisely: reflecting on objects that recount political and cultural projections, as well as counter-projections, in their capacity as objects (without being pre-categorised as ready-made identity markers). These objects tell of mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that play a central part in the current radical ecological and economic turmoil, in transnational technological change, but also in increasingly nationalistic identity politics. In this context, things often become a crystallisation point for the “familiar” as well as the “alien”, even serving as proxies for sometimes essentialist assumptions about these purportedly clear-cut circumstances.
This edition takes a close look at this conflict-ridden mix. It is based on the exhibition project Dinge, die wir voneinander ahnen [Things we sense about each other], realised by with Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe. It is about things that reveal different, often contradictory attributes – depending on who interprets them, lays claims to them or uses them in ways at odds with their intended purpose. Things that are semantically charged in myriad highly diverse ways as a function of their utilisation and that can assume almost diametrically opposed meanings, despite being identical.
Be it in the form of everyday objects, works of art, political symbols, cryptograms, gestures, plants or items of clothing, we are frequently confronted with “shapeshifters” that are not only embedded in a single framework of negotiation, but can frequently alter their substantive content too. Yet what renders an object capable of representing a particular cultural nexus and what does its materiality reveal? How and to what extent is our perception coloured by discourse around and classification of this materiality? Don’t these objects also hold the potential to act as instruments that are antagonistic, yet simultaneously mediating and potentially reconciliatory in the dialogue between myriad social and cultural constellations?
This edition renders the problematic and conflict-laden position of such objects visible through artistic and discursive case studies, while simultaneously exploring the transformative potential of a history embodied in objects. Roger Buergel and Sophia Prinz, for instance, use the example of a 3,000-year-old divinity sculpted in basalt, originally from northern Syria, to problematise the diverse and conflicting attributions that a (non-European) artefact can experience across epochs. This vantage point is not far removed from debates about provenance and illegal ownership – providing an opportunity for Clémentine Deliss to reflect in her piece on the “metabolic” function of today’s museums. The term references the kind of appropriation by individual institutions that transforms objects that everyone should share in equal measure into exclusive marketing objects.
In order to counteract that, imaginative projects are required that break out of any narrow framework of instrumentalised use, as the works represented here demonstrate. Whether it is ZIP Group’s balcony gallery inspired by historical Constructivism, water from the Black Sea being transported across Europe (Aleksei Taruts and Serhiy Klymko) or Susanne Kriemann’s graphic/photographic research on deforestation in Romania to supply the low-cost furniture industry, these works herald ambiguous object configurations in which a differential oppositional dimension is always at play. That is also underlined by the essays on the two Belarusian artists Jura Shust and Sergey Shabohin, whose works demonstrate the need for transformative art thinking, especially against the backdrop of a repressive totalitarian system.
Essays by Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu (on the imaginary of supersonic rockets in the former Eastern Bloc), Celine Wawruschka (addressing the ritual of the solstice celebration with its various connotations) and Damir Arsenijević (considering the contemporary plight of migrants stranded in Bosnia) complete the spectrum. In a range of different ways, these essays render concrete the foreign, disturbing or uncanny, the unconscious and the contradictory space occupied by the “things that divide us”. Last but not least, divergent perspectives are thus sketched out, depicting a Europe conceived in emancipatory and democratic terms that seems increasingly to be corroding at the edges (as in the centre). Nonetheless, underlying these tendencies towards division, approaches directed to a new form of shared existence always shine through.