The transparent exhibition

The problem with Seeing is believing at Kunstwerke in Berlin can be called an overestimation of the transparent powers of the exhibition as a form to accommodate works of pictorial criticism.

Seeing is believing, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2011. Sean Snyder, Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars, 2004-2005; Anita Di Bianco, Corrections and Clarifications, volume 13, 2011; 2001 ongoing; Hito Steyerl, Red Alert, 2007. Photo: Uwe Walter.

To begin evaluating an exhibition by starting with its title can seem as inappropriate as starting a meal by eating the napkin, but probably as natural as reading the menu. In any case it’s difficult not to start this way regarding the recently opened Seeing is believing at Kunstwerke in Berlin. First and foremost the title itself and the exhibition’s brief introductory text—drawing on the relation between images of terrorist attacks, photographs as exhibits of evidence in global politics, and the insight that images not only are signifiers of an unmediated reality but also “create their own realities”—manage to refer to a more than century-old debate over the truth value of photography and an almost equally long tradition of critique of ideology and analysis of mass-media images. These are not easily assessed discussions even when they overlap.

Secondly this title, a proverb about belief in the visible, only seems to work as an illusion or misconception for the exhibition to reveal. This might seem vain, especially if one recalls for example what Paul Valéry had to say as early as 1939 in a speech at the Sorbonne on the occasion of photography’s centenary: “I might add that photography even makes so bold as to practice an art in which the word has, from time immemorial, specialized: the art of lying” (from Classic Essays in Photography).

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Phantom Truck, 2007. Courtesy Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter.

The exhibition begins immediately at the ticket counter with a work by Alfredo Jaar that presents the image of Obama and his associates as they view the execution of Bin Laden. Then one is led into Kunstwerke’s large ground floor, which for this occasion has been darkened.  (No titles of works have been given in the exhibition itself, but are neatly provided in a small booklet, which means that you can fumble about ignorantly in the dark as long as you wish.) After a pleasantly long time you glimpse a kind of wooden crate with what looks like a metal box inside. The darkness naturally gives room for whatever images and associations one wishes, but with the Obama cabinet and the unseen reprisal for September 11 left on the retina it’s more probable that the visitor sees Guantanamo prisoners and Abu Ghraib silhouettes than anything else. The work called Phantom Truck by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle proves, however, to be a ten-meter-long “platonic model” of a truck, constructed with inspiration from the satellite photo Colin Powell showed in 2003 to the United Nations Security Council as evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the USA’s full justification for invading the country.

Thus a stretch of time between the invasion of Iraq and Bin Laden’s execution has been put in play in a very appealing and effective manner, along with what one might view as a spatial representation of that period’s atrocious political circumstances. This perpetuated state of emergency and an internment camp lasting an undefined time—which Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler have described so well—doesn’t, however, leave much time before you arrive at the stairwell, where the exhibition continues and (unfortunately, after such a magnificent lead-in) loses momentum.

Khaled Hourani, The Zebra Copy Card, 2009.10,000 postcards. Photo: Majed Shala. Donkeys painted by Nidal Ahmad Bargiouth.

Not because there aren’t interesting works (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s very systematic display of egg-colored and destroyed film negatives; Sean Snyder’s video Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars, in which a slow voice-over blends photographs of trademarks in Iraq with moving images from the nightly bombings of Baghdad’s luxury hotel; Taysir Batniji’s Watchtowers, depictions of Israeli watchtowers shot and framed in the manner of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s famous pictures of water towers; Anita di Bianco’s irresistible Corrections and Clarifications, a newspaper that gathers editorial corrections from German- and English-language papers from May to August 2011). But perhaps because they appear arbitrarily assembled (Taryn Simon’s Contraband with its sober images of confiscated goods and objects at airports), at the edge of predictable (Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died and its oft-repeated critique of representation), or unable, in the filtered and mildly illumined light of day, to answer the enormous questions the exhibition raises about images and our relationship to them.

Paul Chan, RE: The Operation, 2002. Videostill.

Deserving emphasis, however, are Khaled Hourani’s The Zebra Copy Card and Paul Chan’s video Re: The_Operation, both seeming to transcend the context. Khaled Hourani’s picture postcard shows two donkeys painted with black-and-white stripes to be put on show at a zoo in Gaza. The card is printed in a lot of 10,000 and can be taken from a wall-mounted postcard stand. What’s compelling is not just the zebra-donkey’s warning to beware of illusions, or the curious experience of seeing two species in the same animal, or that the back of the card has a Reuters telegram explaining the event (in which, interestingly enough, half a sentence has been removed: “Gaza’s Palestinians are impoverished by their isolation under an Israeli embargo against its Islamist Hamas rulers, who refuse to give up armed resistance against the Jewish state“). Its grandeur lies in the amateurish composition, which occurs because Hourani, a West Bank resident, couldn’t go to Gaza, and had to ask a zoo staff member to take the picture:   standing, obliquely from above, with the donkeys about to turn away. Similarly, the postcard format is congenial to this implicit representation of material conditions, as if the postcard were the only possible communication channel from Gaza, that enormous outdoor prison which Israel considers itself entitled to operate in whichever way it likes.

Paul Chan in turn produces perhaps the most willful work with Re: The_Operation, a video which in form can be described as half epistolary novel and half interactive web design of the least attractive kind. The video mixes hello-kitty-style caricatures of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and other members of the Bush staff with photo montages in which the same people find themselves being soldiers in Iraq. The sound track consists of letters home written by these “soldiers”; darkly, oddly, and comically they express doubts, fears, and alienation: a fiction allowing various reflections about war to confront each other in unexpected ways.

Gianni Motti, Shock and Awe, 2003. Videostill.

Seeing is believing thus addresses the most contentious and widely reproduced images of our time, which probably contributes to giving it a rather sweeping quality. In 2009 Susanne Pfeffer also curated the thematically related For the Use of Those Who See at Kunstwerke—which, to describe it in a very few words, was an extremely hermetic exhibition with two male artists who dealt with the restrictions and possibilities of the image and figuration. Here she continues her work with vision, the image, the gaze, and their representations, but in a somewhat more open fashion, more loosely around the edges, and with almost entirely different artists. The common problem of these two exhibitions, however, could perhaps be described as an overestimation of the transparent abilities of the exhibition as a form to accommodate works of pictorial criticism. Quite simply there is something paradoxical in presenting artistic works that criticize the categories of seeing, the mediation of the visible, and the ideological features of the image in an exhibition shaping the visitor’s vision just as neatly, anonymously, and seemingly rationally as any given TV news.

Translation from the Swedish by Richard Simpson.