In a scene straight out of a Latino “CSI,” the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles scrounges for bits of glass and gore following a killing on the streets of Ciudad Juárez, murder capital of the world. Her use of these grisly
“art supplies” at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 wins her death threats from anonymous parties and de facto excommunication from Mexico’s official cultural scene.
The U.S. photographer Nina Berman portrays Iraq War veteran Ty Ziegel and his wife, Renee Kline, in their wedding clothes. Showing a disfigured Ziegel and a dazed Kline, Berman’s image exposes the real-life costs of war, and goes viral after appearing in the New York Times in 2007.
An Egyptian artist named Mohamed Fahmy, aka Ganzeer, is picked up by the police on the streets of Cairo in May 2011. His crime: pasting up a sticker featuring a gagged man and an Arabic phrase that translates as “Mask of Freedom.” On his release, Ganzeer states his desire to paint a mural for each of the 800-plus martyrs to the 18 days of national revolt that began in January 2011.
The great Chinese rebel Ai Weiwei finally pushes his ongoing criticism of Communist rule too far. The regime demolishes one his studios and later detains him. When the artist emerges 81 days later—following an international pressure campaign that mobilizes the worlds of culture and politics—he shows little sign of quieting his very vocal dissent. As of this writing, he continues to harass the authoritarian rulers of China.
This is today’s New Realism. In response to a host of global challenges ranging from political repression to economic crisis to endemic poverty and human rights violations, artists around the world are taking up pencils, brushes, cameras and iPhones to make art that connects with large numbers of people outside the system of galleries and museums. Despite living in far-flung locales and working in different mediums, these artists express a shared belief in the power of art to promote and effect social change. In the age of Facebook and live Twitter feeds, this conviction links them to a global audience that, for the most part, hardly follows the goings-on of the art world.
With precursors in the art and activism of previous decades-for example, the genuine political radicalism of Joseph Beuys (few remember that he helped found the German Green Party in 1979) and the agitprop of the Argentine collective Tucumán Arde (their short-lived activities in the late ’60s erased the line between fine art and political militancy)—this international phenomenon appears not merely as an artistic trope. Representing less a movement than a widespread cultural moment, these figures find cohesion in a growing resistance to an increasingly globalized economic and cultural status quo. A mixture of protest, imagination and refusal, facilitated by social technology and frequent air travel, the new esthetic-political ethos shared by these and many other artists centers on the belief that artworks should be part of a larger social or moral terrain.
Consider, for instance, the case of Ganzeer. A 29-year-old multimedia artist and graphic designer whose nom d’artiste means “chain” in Arabic, Ganzeer has rapidly become, according to the English-language Daily News Egypt, one of the most recognizable faces on the Egyptian arts scene-the country’s “de facto cultural operator.”1 Having participated in commercial exhibitions in his home country, the artist recently said he found his gallery work to be “the least satisfying” as it “is not relevant to life,”2 so he is currently focusing on mural-size public works rather than discrete art objects. As a response to the government’s crackdown on political demonstrations in early 2011, Ganzeer took to painting the walls of Cairo with portraits of the uprising’s fallen in red, yellow, white and black, the colors of the Egyptian flag.
Ganzeer is reportedly the major player in what London’s Guardian newspaper describes as the emergence of a flourishing “counter-culture arts scene on the mainstream radar.”3 His popular likenesses function as images of the human costs of authoritarianism, in a country where censorship normally silences political opposition.
They also serve as a portrait of the protest movement itself and—in their being much celebrated, frequently visited, and ardently discussed—as a demonstration of the potential of activist work. Like the protestors’ often anonymous radical publications and viral videos, Ganzeer’s stenciled street portraits capture key images of the movement and, more importantly, the evolving social possibilities of art.
Despite the obvious similarities, the Egyptian artist-who has also done projects in Holland, Germany, Poland, Jordan and Kuwait and was recently invited to speak before the European Cultural Congress-differs significantly from those who would seem to be his counterparts in the UK and the U.S. Banksy, for instance, has become largely a “profiteer of the village green,” as the blog The Radio Paper puts it, and the same could be said of Shepard Fairey. In contrast, Ganzeer remains radically populist and political. The reputed author of an anonymous leaflet called “How to Revolt Cleverly,” which contains illustrated advice for confronting riot police and besieging government offices, Ganzeer continues to play the role of artist-as-political-provocateur at great personal risk and for little, if any, financial reward.
“Creating graffiti involves taking ownership of the streets, just like we did during the uprising,” Ganzeer told one reporter. “And so of course it’s political, and illegal.”4
Similar language might be used to characterize the actions of the Russian art collective Voina. The group claims to rely on no Russian curators or galleries, to cooperate with no state or private institutions and to have no sources of funding whatsoever. Carrying out shockingly provocative, not to mention highly dangerous, activities, Voina thrives on the kind of radical independence that violates most political and artistic conventions, and breaks not a few laws.
Voina, whose name means “war,” has throughout its outrageous history both gained and alienated the sympathies of Russia’s artists, its youth and many mainstream opponents of the Putin regime. Founded in 2006 and consisting of like-minded artists and philosophy students from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the collective carries out an inventive, performance-based campaign against authoritarianism, political corruption and the Russian government’s arbitrary use of power. In February 2008, on the eve of the election of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, five naked couples, including a pregnant woman, staged an orgy inside Moscow’s Timirayzev State Museum of Biology. The title of the action: Fuck for the Heir Medvedev’s Little Bear! (Medvedev’s name is derived from medved, Russian for “bear.”)
Other equally incendiary actions followed. In 2009, Voina smuggled guitars, microphones and amplifiers into a federal courtroom to perform a satirical song titled “All Cops Are Bastards” in front of a judge presiding over the case of curator Andrei Yerofeyev, on trial for organizing the 2007 exhibition “Forbidden Art” at the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow. To protest Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s homophobic and racist comments—as well as the city’s inaction after a string of sometimes deadly hate crimes against immigrants—the group mock-lynched gay men and immigrant workers inside a busy supermarket.
In the summer of 2010, Voina produced what remains their most popular “installation”: they painted a huge phallus on a 200-foot-tall drawbridge in St. Petersburg, in full view of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (successor to the KGB). As images of the functioning drawbridge hit the news and the web, a Voina spokesman claimed the phallus was aroused by Putin’s power.
Despite opposition among some members of a seven-judge panel, the artwork was awarded the Ministry of Culture’s prestigious Innovation Prize that year (approximately $14,000). “No one wanted to look like a conformist,” declared Yerofeyev, who, ironically, served as a judge.5 He said the panel eventually became convinced that Voina’s mockery of state power was already so popular that ignoring it would itself constitute a statement.
Not content to bask in the glow of official honors, Voina upped the ante. On New Year’s Eve 2011, in protest of the repeated incarceration and beating of several of its members, the group set fire to a police truck in the courtyard of a St. Petersburg police station. In a prepared statement, the group dedicated this “fire gift” to Russian political prisoners everywhere. As with previous Voina actions, details of the “street performance” were rapidly disseminated online.
Although this act-as well as an earlier campaign of overturning police cars, for which members were prosecuted and, astoundingly, exonerated-might be dismissed by some as mere hooliganism, the collective has gained wide recognition for escalating protests against the Russian state. An international support network of artists, activists and human rights advocates has emerged. Last November saw the group’s appointment as associate curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale (on view through July 1). “Free Voina” banners have appeared in places as far away from Moscow as Zurich and Brooklyn. Additionally, in February 2011—in a generous act of solidarity and possibly even artistic deference-Banksy bailed out several of Voina’s jailed members to the tune of $10,000 each.
One of Voina’s members describes the group’s artistic mission this way: “We work on the thin line between activism and art. . . . All our actions have underlying political messages, but we use art language only. We speak in images, symbols, which are mostly visual. In the current socio-political situation in Russia, an honest artist can’t be mute and make glamorous ‘masterpieces’ for oligarchs, who decorate their ‘brilliant’ dachas.”6
The similarities between Voina’s aims and those of the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles are remarkable, especially if one considers their geographical distance from each other. Having been described as “one of the unchallenged representatives of a new minimal body art,”7
Margolles works with human corpses, underscoring the anonymous effects of global poverty as well as the social and political disenfranchisement of millions of her fellow Mexicans. Since Margolles obtained a diploma in forensic medicine in the 1990s, her métier has been, simply put, the social and political economy of death. When touching on Mexico’s runaway narco-violence-one day last September, 35 bodies were dumped in full daylight on a congested avenue in Veracruz-her work turns cathartic and visionary.
According to Margolles, Mexico’s appalling violence is the only subject worth addressing-in her own art at least. She has scandalized both her countrymen and the international art world on a number of occasions by confronting the problem of violence in her homeland with brutal directness. This she did most notably in 2009, when she represented Mexico at the 53rd Venice Biennale with the eerie installation ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?). The installation featured human blood, glass from shattered windshields, and other materials scavenged from behind police barriers in her home state of Sinaloa (birthplace of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is, according to U.S. intelligence, “the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in the world”).
Far more affecting than some of her early performances with dead animals or the videos and photographs she shot inside morgues, Margolles’s Venice installation eschewed actual representations of violence for a sepulchral display that one interlocutor admiringly referred to as a “temple of blood.”8 Serving in a sense to give political life to the anonymous dead, the installation quickly became both an international succès de scandale and a national diplomatic debacle. It’s no secret today, three years after the fact, that many of those who supported Margolles’s Venice pavilion within Mexico’s official cultural sphere were dismissed on express orders of the government of President Calderón. One presumes that Mexico’s ongoing orgy of violence was not what the power suits wanted to talk about—and certainly not in public, with the rest of the world listening in.
Nina Berman, perhaps the best known of the international photographers who are liberally mixing conventional esthetics and documentary practice, has taken pictures of Iraq war veterans, Tea Party activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters. Producing neither standard-issue photojournalism nor art portraiture of a traditional or postmodern variety, Berman portrays her subjects with a special canniness. She examines how individuals define themselves in the larger social sphere-through their clothing or domestic environments, for instance-and, in a related vein, how ideologies or social hierarchies are mapped onto subjects. She has been quite explicit in characterizing her artistic stance: “I say I’m a political person, and that my work is political, although I’m not saying what that politics is. I’m just saying that [the work] lives in a political world.”9
For the Irish photographer Richard Mosse, “Art has the potential to reflect our difficult world, shifting the way we see, the way we understand, and can have a cumulative and profound effect on consciousness.”10 Mosse evokes the intractable conflict in eastern Congo with Conrad-like complexity, employing the hot pinks and fuchsias provided by Aerochrome, a disused infrared film once developed for surveillance by the U.S. military. His landscape and portrait photographs, often shot with an obsolete wooden field camera, are at once realistic and hallucinatory. They are essentially vibrant, gorgeous pictures of hell on earth.
Captured visions of a real-life nightmare that has been notoriously hard to fathom, Mosse’s frankly esthetic images problematize photography, deftly turning his medium’s falsehoods (the red appearance of green hills and valleys, for example) into human certainties (those very pastoral-looking landscapes are the setting of massacres and hide actual blood underfoot). Mosse’s work reveals what remains invisible to photographers who record only what the camera sees with its “naked lens.” Expanding out from conventional realism, his efforts to represent the unrepresentable break through the apathy often associated with photographs of unrelenting misery. According to Mosse, art “can help us begin to describe, and thereby account for, what exists at the limits of human articulation.”11
While artists have long sought to reveal socio-political truths in their work, today they can disseminate their messages with unprecedented rapidity and reach. This is demonstrated best by Ai Weiwei, who has successfully resuscitated the figure of the public intellectual in a plugged-in, global guise.
Using art as his bullhorn, Ai has challenged the Chinese government on everything from its corruption to its lethal AIDS policy to its responsibility in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2006, he went online to widen his audience. When his blog was shut down in May 2009, Ai turned to Twitter and microblogging. Still, the 2,700 posts on his former site make up what curator Hans Ulrich Obrist called “one of the greatest social sculptures of our time.”12 A challenge to contemporary art’s often hidebound ways of constructing and circulating meaning, Ai’s blog also proved a demonstration—in an era that soon saw the Arab Spring and the efforts of Occupy Wall Street—of the genuine social utility of the Internet.
Ai’s arrest by the Chinese Communist authorities on Apr. 3, 2011, at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, leapt off the pages of the art press and into the 24/7 international news circuit. Already an art star, a recognized architect (he helped design the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics) and a longtime outspoken dissident, Ai suddenly became a cultural symbol of sorts. Today, his story serves to bring a number of apparently opposing ideas into a comprehensible whole: East and West, communism and capitalism, freedom and repression, art and politics, change and status quo. His difficulties are understood by the public—as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s plight once was—to represent the need for the expansion of freedom around the world.
The artists discussed here represent only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ironists, snipers, agitators and provocateurs who are currently bringing an artistic conscience and cunning to local and global politics. Their various styles and concerns, in turn, provide ethical challenges for the future-for tomorrow’s unsentimental and uncynical artists, that is, and the societies they will look to transform.
1 Heba Elkayal, “Ganzeer: The De Facto Cultural Operator,” Daily News Eygpt, July 27, 2011.
2 Ganzeer, “Practical Advice,” in Bidoun, no. 25, Summer 2011, quoted in Anny Shaw and Gareth Harris, “Arab Protesters Put Their Art on the Streets,” Art Newspaper, Dec. 30, 2011.
3 Jack Shenker, “Egypt’s Uprising Brings DIY Spirit out on to the Streets,” Guardian, May 18, 2011.
4 Ganzeer, quoted in ibid.
5 Andrei Yerofeyev, quoted in Ellen Barry, “Radical Art Group Wins Russian Ministry Prize,” New York Times, Apr. 8, 2011.
6 Alexei Plutser-Sarno, quoted in Michael Lithgow, “Even Banksy Couldn’t Help Them,” Art Threat, Feb. 7, 2011, artthreat.net.
7 Niklas Maak, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 21, 2003.
8 Daniel Hernández, “Temple of blood: Teresa Margolles at the Venice Biennale,” Intersections,
May 28, 2009, danielhernandez.typepad.com.
9 Nina Berman, interviewed by Jonathan Blaustein, A Photo Editor, March 3, 2010, www.aphotoeditor.com.
10 Richard Mosse, Infra: Photographs by Richard Mosse, New York, Aperture, 2011, p. 133.
11 Ibid., p. 132. 12 Hans Ulrich Obrist, quoted in Mathieu Wellner, “Ai Weiwei,” Mono-Kulture, no. 22, Autumn 2009, p. 5.
Christian Viveros-Fauné is a New York-based writer and curator.