The outside of the gallery is covered in scaffolding obscuring the bright yellow facade that makes The Showroom so recognisable. This is not another of London’s ubiquitous building projects but a frame from which heavy black canvases hang. These are the work of Columbian artist Oscar Murillo, who last year destroyed his British passport on a flight to Australia as a protest against western privilege. They are from The Institute of Reconciliation, an ongoing series of canvases covered in thick layers of black paint until they take on a sculptural quality. Riffing off Malevich’s Black Square, their density creates a radical negativity. This work seems to reflect the current sombre mood in London, but within the gallery the power of artistic resistance during times of enforced insularity is celebrated.
Murillo is a (sometime) London-based addition to an exhibition of seminal works by artists from Central, Eastern and South-East Europe from the Kontakt Collection in Vienna. The show disrupts the usual sanitised and decontextualized collection mode of display via the intervention of Marcus Geiger, who has covered the floor in cardboard and tape as if the builders were in. The room is scattered with Sony cubes across the floor, on plinths and in tool cupboards, and leaning pieces of plywood. Works seep into one another and overlap.
The exhibition is dedicated to Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović (1947-2016), who lends the show its title. It is inspired by his anti-systemic approach to artmaking and his rebellion against both social conventions and the conventions of art. Under our feet are loaves of bread with cakes pushed into their doughy surfaces, a playful reference to the French queen’s famous command ‘Let them eat cake’. This is Stilinović’s For Marie Antoinette ’68 (2000/2017), a humorous comment on the symbiotic relationship between money and ideology.
This exhibition is the final chapter of a larger project curated by Zagreb-based curatorial collective What, How & For Whom/ WHW, The Showroom’s Emily Pethick and Kathrin Rhomberg, artistic director of the Kontakt Art Collection. It looks at artistic approaches of the 1960s and 70s from a contemporary perspective, acknowledging that these anti-commodity strategies have now been assimilated into the art market and the art historical canon and are being revived by artists today.
The themes of the Kontakt Collection – radical utopianism, the artist dissident, questions of gendered bodies, political engagement and the status of public space – are as relevant in Brexit Britain as they were in the Communist Eastern Bloc. Many of the works remind us of the unpleasant reality of a not so distant past when free movement in Europe was not possible. The curatorial statement describes the exhibition as ‘haunted by post-communist transition and its suppressed lessons’ and asks how this experience can be used positively to mould our future?
One highlight is Open Form - Game on an Actress’s Face, a compelling silent film, just 2.5 minutes long, by artist couple KwieKulik. The beautiful face of an actress, styled as for a Hitchcock movie, all sleek blonde hair and blue eyeshadow, is the blank canvas. The pair take it in turns to add something to her face, responding to each other’s moves. She is covered by turn in Sellotape, chopped garlic, pieces of paper, cloth, stick and clay, green paint. Her head is wrapped in paper and string and then cut open with a knife to reveal an eye. The wrapped face recalls works by Man Ray, Magritte, and Christo. The disturbing juxtaposition of the naked eye and knife recalls Brunel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. The actress resists being a neutral object, we see her struggling to breathe, choking, spitting, laughing, crying, apparently fainting. She is made to eat raw pasta and drink a red liquid which is spat out, like blood. At the end of the film her face has become abject, covered in red liquid, paint and dirt. Sadism and voyeurism are exposed. We are used to seeing the female face fetishised in close up in distress in movies, why does this feel different?
The work makes explicit the uses and abuses of the female body in advertising, art and cinema. The actress seems to move from the role of collaborator to victim; at one point she holds a square of glass in her mouth on which a cigarette burns, like an Allen Jones sculpture. Unlike the work of Marina Abramović, where the artist puts her own body at the disposal of the audience such as in Rhythm O (1974), here the protagonist is an actress, paid to be the vehicle for the creative acts of others. The dual male – female authorship of the work confuses easy interpretation. The artists are outside the frame, we only see their hands; is this a political allegory on the lack of personal agency under a totalitarian regime?
It is interesting to compare this with another video here, Sanja Iveković’s Personal Cuts (1982). In it the artist wears a pair of tights over her face, terrorist-style, in which she cuts holes. This footage is interspersed with clips of television programmes by which she presciently suggests the ‘real’ violence is the structural violence of television’s political power.
Ion Grigorescu’s series of photographs Electoral Meeting (1975) document ambiguous street activity in Romania with a secret camera. It turns out to be a sham electoral meeting organised by the communist party with secret police disguised as union leaders, reminding us that fake news is nothing new. Under repressive regimes, resistance often takes personal form. Croatian artist Tomislav Gotovac’s Breathing the Air (1962) celebrates the simple act of breathing as a joyous act of rebellion against societal conformity. Meanwhile Czech artist Petr Štembera grafts a bush sprig into his arm in Grafting (1975). This act of extreme body performance was an oblique response to the Normalisation Years after the curtailment of the Prague Spring.
A different kind of imprisonment pervades Josef Dabernig’s 2001 black and white film WARS, which takes place in the dining car of a post-Soviet Polish train. The hypnotic rhythm of the train lulls us into a state of suspended animation as the underemployed, bored and weary waiter and waitress wait for customers who never come and then proceed to clean the unused carriage from top to bottom in a futile choreography. They travel but nothing changes. The journey will be repeated tomorrow, with only cigarettes to salve the loneliness and monotony.
In our current era of uncertainty it is worth remembering that the consequences of systemic changes are not always as we might imagine. Do catch the last fortnight of this timely show that invites us to look again at work produced on what were once considered the peripheries of the art world.
The Showroom, 63 Penfold St, Marylebone, London NW8 8PQ. Open Wednesday – Sunday 12.00 – 18.00. Exhibition continues until Saturday 11 November 2017. www.theshowroom.org