the art of iconoclasm

BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht
30 November 2008 – 1 March 2009

‘How can we imagine forms of theory and practice that break the deadlock created by the war of images and counter-images, of terror and counter-terror?’ asks Sven Lütticken poignantly in the notes accompanying his exhibition, ‘The Art of Iconoclasm’. The answer, the exhibition suggested, might lie in iterations of art’s investigation of its own status as image. Lütticken notes the role of the de-sacralisation of religious idols in facilitating their transformation into art objects, and the iconoclastic aspects of modern art’s shift away from representation—effected, in certain cases, with a dogmatism bordering on the religious—as demonstrative of art’s potential to contribute to considerations of contemporary religion and visual culture alike. For Lütticken, this is less an academic conceit than a social one as we watch the so-called return of fundamentalism play out in the form of mediatised ‘image wars’, from uploaded terrorist broadsides to legislative confrontations between secular and faith-based ideologies.

‘The Art of Iconoclasm’ was conceived as part of The Return of Religion and Other Myths, an ongoing research project at Utrecht’s BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, which also takes in academic seminars, public programs and a critical reader. BAK’s intellectual dynamism aside, Utrecht seemed the perfect setting to rethink iconoclasm, the city’s picturesque medieval streets forever blighted by a sprawling, incongruous 1970s shopping mall that serves as a utilitarian monument to commodity fetishism. It should be said that Lütticken, at least according to standard divisions of art-world labour, is not a curator but a critic, one of Europe’s most incisive and original. But if at times ‘The Art of Iconoclasm’ did indeed take on a thesis-like character, this did not detract from its eminently propositional character, making it far more memorable than dozens of slicker presentations to have taken place in the first few months of this year.

The exhibition was staged in two parts, From Idol to Artwork in BAK’s humble spaces, and Attacking the Spectacle at the nearby Centraal Museum, respectively considering the tendency of iconoclasm to actually produce new art, and artistic contestations of a society mediated by images. Each section constructed its arguments around certain historical markers, such as Carl Andre’s The life process of society… and Heim Steinbach’s Untitled (Malevich tea set, Hallmark ghosts) in the first, and black and white Imi Knoebel monochromes and Guy Debord’s now eerily ubiquitous film The Society of the Spectacle, in the second. These were brought into dialogue with more recent and, interestingly, more humorous productions, among them Carel Blotkamp’s remakings of Barnett Newman zip paintings in sequins, and Arnoud Holleman’s Museum, which brilliantly edited all of the sex scenes out of a gay porn film to leave only the tension of the gaze and the ritual and strategy of seduction.

Most compelling, though, were the three major installations presented across the exhibition, to which the other, more modestly displayed works seemed to serve as discursive introductions or framing statements. Krijn de Koning’s Work for five plaster casts, slide show and a red rectangle(2008) constructed a gallery-within-a-gallery, whose scale and design never completely allowed the viewer access, designed to display several poorly maintained Greco-Roman statues, a pseudo-formalist red square, and some faded slides of other antiquities; the net effect of seeing these shabby artefacts in such a dynamic structure was one of curious disappointment. In the context of works by Hans Haacke and Gert Jan Kocken explicitly concerned with the September 11 attacks, their mediatic over-writing and mobilisation toward various ideological ends, Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy created their own media event in Greenwich Degree Zero (2005), with its faked newsreel and resource room full of doctored accounts of the 1894 destruction of Greenwich Observatory by an anarchist bomb (in reality the bombing failed). Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s Empire of the Senseless (2006), meanwhile, reproduced a quote from Kathy Acker in fluorescent text, obscured by sensor activated lights as the viewer approached, but was illuminated as soon as they faded, itself fading before the viewer could read through the paragraph to the final line. Or else the text was obliterated as another viewer entered the room, but then was immediately recharged, giving the work an unexpectedly collective aspect.

Empire of the Senseless was an important inclusion in ‘The Art of Iconoclasm’, as its direct implication of the viewer indicates something specific to, or at least inherent in, the presentation and reception of art, and that is the production of meaning through engagement over time. This finds its reflection in the rigorous devotion, sustained theological work and processes of individual and collective self-interrogation that form the basis of religiosity. The condition of religion as manifested by the contemporary ‘image wars’ is that it is made immediate, no longer subject to these complex processes and thus no longer properly religious. If we are to take the exhibition’s proposition seriously, art, in retaining some of the iconoclastic logic of the monotheistic religions, can both challenge the idolatry and reductiveness of mediatised discourse on what is essentially the ethics of collective existence, and seed strategies for its dismantling.