The Political Space of Art

Left over space Sculpture

Image from “Left-over Spaces: The Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers”. Photo by writer, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

The Political Space of Art is quick to clarify its title: rather than focusing on literal space within art, its reference is more figurative. Using four artists working in different art forms – filmmakers The Dardenne Brothers, writer Arundhati Roy, visual artist Ai Weiwei and musician Burial – the book explores the formation of creative work within a thick web of political relationships and spheres.

Front Cover, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

The Political Space of Art. Front Cover, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

That is not to say there is a disregard of literal space or materiality. Unlike most books about art, usually written from an art or art historical perspective, this publication is written from a political/philosophical standpoint. Dillet and Puri analogise in the introduction that, just as Deleuze and Guattari argue for a non-philosophical approach to philosophy to see the different facets of how it really operates, a “non-art approach to art” is required to open up insights into its effect. As such, the physicality of the media is one of many components of art’s “palpable co-habit(ation with us)”, particularly within the geographies they reference, exist or are produced within.

Before these discussions of each individual artist’s practice, the philosophical groundwork is laid out in “Aesthetics, Poetics and Techno-Aesthetics”. This is by far the most rigorous part of the book, dense with theory and a useful grounding to keep in mind for the more analytical chapters that follow. It explains and uses Jacques Rancière’s points of “three major regimes of identification” as an initial structure.

These regimes seem like an obtuse framework for art when considered alone, yet are significant to the political lens of the text: first is the Platonic ethical regime (that is, art judged according to authenticity, being “real” rather than a simulation), then the Aristotelian poetic or representative regime (work based in narrative, with story placed over character; poiesis is interpreted as production rooted in the impetus of work and a separate force from practical creation), and lastly aesthetics (once thought of as an “inferior knowledge”, Rancière wishes to democratise aesthetics, focusing on its aspect of sharing and what is sensible to everyone).  The final principle becomes a springboard to address ideas about social value in art and what makes shared experience, and with that, references Boris Groys’ work on the murky divide of producer and consumer, and stresses the key position of the spectator as an active participant in any piece of work.

Given their contemporary artistic touchstones, the following chapters are more straightforward. Helpfully they are full of description, so extensive knowledge of every practice is not required, and individual theories appear in the discussions. The Dardenne Brothers, for instance, have been accused by critics of making repetitious films, but in this first chapter Dillet and Puri argue that in fact they have been building a general visual portrait of the post-industrial Belgian town. This is despite “place rarely (being) the primary focus of the shot”; whilst focused on the journey of a protagonist, the interaction between character, film and location builds a cohesive sense of place, using filmic devices such as framing bodies rather than expressions, often from behind, and never filming without a person in the frame.

Image from "Arundhati Roy's Language of Politics". Photo by writer, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

Image from “Arundhati Roy’s Language of Politics”. Photo by writer, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

Aside from Weiwei’s appreciation of Warhol, little is made of any artistic influences upon the practices discussed, perhaps to keep this non-art consideration within its bounds. At the same time, no artist discussed in this book is taken as wholly representative of a particular nationhood, medium or set political ideal. Instead, capitalisation on political unrest is a problem recurrently addressed, such as Roy’s issue with “behalf-ism” in  “Arundhati Roy’s Language of Politics”.

With this issue in mind it is fitting that, whilst at times venerating the artists, much of the book still addresses the political complexities of hyper-mediatisation in art, and from there, the splitting of artist persona and artwork. This gets particularly complicated when this fame becomes a platform for representation and social engagement, bleeding into their production, as is the case with Weiwei’s recent work.

Image from "Ai Weiwei's Useless Materials. Photo by writer, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

Image from “Ai Weiwei’s Useless Materials. Photo by writer, courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield International.

Even though this book was published in the middle of recent controversies surrounding Weiwei’s actions in the refugee crisis, it makes a pertinent point when, comparing works like Sunflower Seeds, Coca Cola Vase and the 2007 work Fairytale, they compare the artist’s sculptural and social acts. In the latter piece, where 1001 Chinese citizens were brought to Kassel as tourists for the artist’s work in Documenta, the authors criticize of its easy media acceptability based solely on its inclusive nature, and argue “Ai Weiwei’s work is both more political and more collaborative when it reflects on material qualities and on our usages of history rather than….all-too-direct social collaboration.” Whilst seeing work from a loaded object does not equal a uniform experience, it is, as Rancière suggested, a shared experience, and can allow room for politics to materialise within art rather than be enacted within it.

By Dorothy Hunter

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