Five two-metre metal rods with forked ends are attached to wall-mounted brackets in Gardar Eide Einarsson’s exhibition Maybe it’s the calm before the storm. Could be the calm, the calm before the storm. at Standard (Oslo). Titled Sasumata (In Advance of the Broken Arm) (all works 2022), the work references Duchamp’s snow shovel, thereby linking conceptual art’s use of mass-produced objects to regimes of security and discipline. The sasumata tool, which has roots dating back to Japan’s feudal period, can now be found in institutions such as schools where it is intended as a means of self-defence, enabling wielders to stop intruders by pinning them against a wall or the ground with the forked end. Be a model citizen or face the consequences!
In the same gallery, just beneath the ceiling, hangs an oblong painting whose dimensions are based on those of a scrolling LED sign. According to the list of works, the text, in white Chinese script on black, reads: “Strengthen Ethnic Unity; Maintain Social Stability.” Such ethnic-nationalist messages from the authorities are commonplace in Chinese mass media and also appear on outdoor signs in urban areas. The unpleasant implication, directed at ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs, is that they must adapt, culturally and politically, to the majority Han Chinese population if they wish to avoid further internment, violence, and surveillance.
In Postscript on the Societies of Control (1990), Gilles Deleuze writes about the transition from the historical form of power Michel Foucault called disciplinary society to what he himself calls a society of control. Disciplinary society, which arose in the 18th century and reached its apex in the early 20th century, is based on institutions that impose a set of rules specific to their relevant tasks, such as the school, the military, the factory, and the prison. This is how institutions make bodies “useful” to those in power. By contrast, the society of control is characterised by transferring the exercise of power to technological systems and markets. Politics, social life, and work are henceforth modulated by a dynamic “flow.” The specific techniques and rules are fluid and dynamic, intended to steer our movements in covert ways rather than through overt coercion, and the manifestations of power therefore become less visible than before.
Einarsson’s art refers to indirect threats of violence, imprisonment, and other disciplinary forms of power. At the same time, it seems as if the security devices to which he refers are designed not primarily to enforce the institutions’ rules, but rather to remind us of the necessity of order itself. They straddle the boundary between the disciplinary society and the society of control, we might say. This project is – I think – about showing signs that modulate emotions, nudging citizens in the direction of low-grade paranoid discomfort, then constructing an imaginary enemy. And yet, these signs are not necessarily perceived as barriers in everyday life. The fact that most of the works on display in this exhibition refer to contemporary security apparatuses indicates that the regimes and political agents wishing to promote uniformity and conformity are on the rise.
Elsewhere in the gallery, much of the floor is laid with white casts of bricks, stacked so that they look like footstools – or possibly miniature versions of the formations at Stonehenge. The installation Untitled (Brick Battleground) mimics the stacks used by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong both as handy ammunition stores and as barriers during protest rallies. Beside it hangs a row of four white canvases, Blank Placard Paintings, presumably referencing the arrest of protesters carrying blank placards in Russia. In this case, the medium has become the message while the concrete iconography of resistance has been drained of its power. Strikingly, when the tools of opposition appear in this exhibition, they not only come across as slightly desperate improvisations lacking any capacity to significantly challenge established power structures, but also suggest a defensive position.
Einarsson’s anti-aesthetic representations of instruments of power and strategies of resistance are black and white, pared back, and functional; they suggest that contemporary art’s blend of politics and conspicuous aesthetic gestures is more for show than for use. Einarsson’s overt tackling of the limitations of contemporary art offers a stark contrast to prevailing trends. These days, biennials and large-scale group exhibitions abound with artworks that focus on the under-communicated or forgotten stories of marginalised groups, call attention to the destruction inflicted on the climate by profit-seeking parties, and more. But what, if anything, is actually being accomplished? The answer is unclear, and as this exhibition points out, outside of art there is much happening that suggests that things may well get worse in the future, not better. And in any case, real power resides elsewhere.