Contemporary art meets politics

Recently I have been researching a lot about modern and contemporary art in the context of globalism and political issues. In a University class called “The Global Museum” we have been discussing how contemporary artists are manifesting their positions and viewpoints regarding political topics, ranging from World War II to current situations we are facing in this era of Populism and Post-colonialism

Last week I have discovered an exhibition that draws a strong artistic connection to politics and issues of society.

The exhibition “Natural Histories – Traces of the Political” at MUMOK in Vienna explores representations of nature in reference to social processes and historical events. Looking at various themes, these works show the mutual interrelations between nature and history beyond all idyllic idealisation. 

Nature is mainly seen as a scenery of peace and silence. Nevertheless many artists utilise exactly this “perfect image” to point at various issues or conflicts. 

The presentation of such contrasts spans the period from the 1960s to the present, beginning with works of conceptual art that reflect on both the conditions of artistic production and reception and also their social dimensions and critiques of history. Artists of the next generation draw on the traditions of critiques of colonialism and of Western society. They transfer and update these into their own contemporary environments.
Depictions of nature also play a role in works that look at issues like genocide or politically motivated violence, persecution, or resistance in the context of totalitarian systems and military conflicts. A further theme is the transformation of public and historical places by natural processes. 

I have chosen nine examples to provide an insight into the exhibition. The show is only running until January 14, 2018. Make sure you don’t miss it!

  1. Alfredo Jaar, Untitled (Water), 1990

Alfredo Jaar, who experienced the military coup under General Pinochet, in Chile in 1973, makes art – mainly installations – that addresses the global north-south divide and neocolonial conflicts, focusing on the oppressed, exploited and persecuted people. His work Untitled (Water) makes the viewer come up against a rather theatrical barrier made of three illuminated boxes showing images of a seaside and with portrait photographs hidden around the back. The latter can be seen in mirrors on the wall, offering only an indirect, reduced and fragmented view of the portrayed people who can be identified with Vietnamese boat people. The images of high, insuperable waves seem to be a symbol of refugees. In contrast to news reports or populist politic views, Jaar shows us the inscrutable fates of broken individuals. 


2. Christian Kosmas Mayer, The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival, 2017

During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were organised by the Nazis, every gold metal winner was given a small oak seedling in a pot. US American high jumper Cornelius Cooper Johnson won his discipline with a new Olympic record. A few minutes before the awarding ceremony, Hitler left the stadium in order to avoid having to invite the Afro-American athlete into his box. Johnson was neither invited by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House for participating in the Olympic Games. The social discrimination of Afro-Americans also appeared to Olympic winners at that time. After returing to Los Angeles, Johnson planted the oak and afterwards Mayer was able to find the tree. Mayer was able to clone small shoots from the oak in a lab. The seedlings have returned to Europe in order to transform and continue the story. 


3. Ion Grigorescu, La Bella Addormentata (The Sleeping Beauty), 1982

This work shows an album of 23 photographs hand coloured by the artist and collaged texts which form a fragmented narrative. The protagonist, an unknown woman is seen in landscapes that initially emphasise nature as sensual peacefulness. As the story gets told, more and more threatening elements are included like those the visitor may know from fairytales such as “Sleeping Beauty” which Grigorescu used as the title of the work. The artist found the photographs in the attic of a house where his first wife lived and he discovered that they were taken by her stepfather and also found hints that were confirmed by the family history: The woman is a lady named Emma, who was brutally murdered during the Holocaust. Auschwitz would destroy the anonymous young woman in the foreground soon after the pictures were taken. The landscape shows historical locations of the memory of persecution. 


4. Mark Dion, The Ethnographer at Home, 2012

In Dion’s mixed media installation the visitor encounters a fictitious colonial ethnographer’s private living room, projecting our exotic fantasies onto him, a collector of context-severed stuff. Shaded from the sun’s glare by an umbrella tied to a bamboo stalk, his wicker chair – within reach of the gin and cigar on his bamboo table – looks onto an easel-propped photograph of an anonymous ‘tribal’ village, beside others from a nearby leather trunk, like an embryonic television. All the projects by the American artist are directed by the fascination that nature exercises on man and, because of its power and unpredictability, how it makes him sometimes a winner, some others a loser.



5. Marcel Broodthaers, Un jardin d’hiver II., 1974

This installation examines the idea of the “winter garden” which is contradictory and artificial in itself. Plenty palms, folding chairs and photographic reproductions of images from natural history (showing peacocks, monkeys and camels) function as symbols for the domestication of nature and the bourgeois longing for the “exotic”. The bourgeois conservatory and its furnishings also stand in the tradition of the glass architecture used in the public zoological and botanic gardens, especially the “crystal palaces” of the world fairs, which were the most impressive manifestations of territorial and economic expansion in the 19th century. The first version of “Jardin d’hiver” was shown in 1974 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paris).


6. Mario Merz, Igloo di Giap, 1968

Around 1968 Mario Merz began making his igloo sculptures in various dimensions and materials. The one in the Mumok exhibition is one of the earliest versions. Around the dome of the igloo a neon sign in Italian is saying: “If the enemy masses his forces, he loses ground. If he scatters, he loses strength.” The statement derives from Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giáp referring to the Vietnam War. Giáp led an attack by North Vietnamese troops that forced American units to retreat. The artist combines an archetypical form of building as an evocation of the primeval state of humankind with a highly controversial political statement. Merz gives a voice to the Vietnamese people who were stigmatised by the rules of the Western world, instead of seeing them as political subjects, who found ways to fight the superior US Army. The igloo can be seen as a metaphor for the victims and opponents of a Neo-Imperialist war. 


7. Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974

In 1974 German gallery owner René Block opened his new premises in the USA with Joseph Beuys’s action “I Like America and America Likes Me”. When Beuys arrived in New York, he was immediately to the new gallery, where he spent several days with a coyote he called “Little John”, while ignoring the rest of the city or country. The coyote has a certain meaning in relation to America: For the indigenous people of America it’s a holy animal that plays a major role in their “myth”. On the contrary the Western society defines the wolf as a threat. 


8. Nikita Kadan, Limits of responsibility, 2014

In this installation the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan looks at the Maidan protest movement in his country. During the period of the “Orange Revolution” the Independence Square in Kiev became a place where demonstrators gathered. Ten years later the same square became a battlefield. In order to protect themselves the activists created barracks and planted small gardens. The artist included a vegetable patch in the sculpture to show this precise happening. In his work, Kadan does not only reflect on current events – he also makes a connection to the Soviet period. By leaving the discplay boards empty he is referring to the contradiction between propaganda and the real fact that most inhabitants were forced to plant their own vegetables because food suppliers were short. 


9. Lois Weinberger, Wüstung, 2016

“Wüstung” (debris field) means former functional spaces or settlements that have been abandoned but whose relics still indicate their former use. In this installation Weinberger places photographs that were already part of his 193 work “Ruderal society” in a new context. The concept of the “ruderal society” is used for groups of plants that flourish in places that have been neglected by people – on rubble, in ruins, and wastelands. These plants are usually non-local and brought from other regions. Weinberger’s photographs show these wild plants in a barren steppe-like landscape including traces of civilisation trash such as plastic bags. In his artistic practice Weinberger pursues an archeology of the everyday in which nature plays a key role. 


Click here for more information about the exhibition. 

Adress: Mumok, Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Vienna (Austria) / Public transport: U3: Volkstheater, U2: Museumsquartier 

All photos by Judith Bradlwarter. ©

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