mounir fatmi
Apexart, New York

Unrest, 2012

Unrest: Revolt Against Reason

Apexart, New York

September 12 - October 27, 2012

Curator: Natalie Musteata


Featuring work by: mounir fatmi, Claire Fontaine, Shilpa Gupta, Iman Issa, Tala Madani, Ahmet Ögüt, Tomáš Rafa, and Alexandre Singh


“Revolt against Reason!” stated Herbert Marcuse in his 1972 book Counter-Revolution and Revolt. Writing against the backdrop of the escalating Vietnam War, Marcuse judged that the conditions of twentieth century capitalism have so greatly changed from those of the previous century that a future revolution would require an expanded base, strategy, and direction. Such revolution would necessitate the rejection of “Reason.” Not just of the establishment, capitalism, and bourgeois society, but of Reason itself (in the Kantian sense)—and art, a sphere defined by its resistance to reality, he asserted, would be uniquely positioned to provoke the radical transformation of political thought and action. 

At the onset of the twenty-first century, the complex relationship between creative practice and political activism has gained new critical relevance. The wave of Arab Spring revolutions and the growth of the global Occupy movements have ignited a reassessment of the intersection between art and politics—as evidenced by recent exhibitions including the 7th Berlin Biennale and dOCUMENTA (13). UNREST seeks a focused perspective; it reflects on the idea of experiential revolt within artistic practices that have emerged in the last decade. The exhibition presents eight contemporary artists who respond to recent historical changes by engaging with issues of resistance against conformist reason. At times this manifests itself as an instigative action, other times as a responsive gesture, and occasionally as an urgent awareness-raising exercise.

The Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta, for instance, probes deep-seated issues of national identity and power politics in her new media work. Consider her sculptural sound piece, Tryst with Destiny (2007-08), a solitary microphone that broadcasts Gupta singing the historic speech delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, to celebrate the country’s independence from Britain. A printed version of the speech, reduced in font size to the point of illegibility, hangs next to it on the wall. Gupta’s deft oration touches on equality, prosperity, democracy, and freedom. Yet, her tone, wavering with each line, renders visible the distinctions between past promise and unresolved conflict, specifically as it relates to cultural divisions and the clashing of borders between India and Pakistan, issues that are still critical today.

Unfolding, in Marcusian terms, “an intelligence of opposition,” Moroccan artist mounir fatmi makes use of national emblems to subversive ends. His installation, G8-The Brooms (Contamination) (2008), is composed of twelve flags: the recognizable eight denote the countries that make up the G8 (a forum established in 1975 for the governments of the world’s largest economies), whereas the other four (all monochrome black) stand for anarchy. Propped up in a cluster against the wall, each flag—a sacred totem of authority—is buttressed by a push broom—a profane utensil of the working class. The flag/broom combination is a leitmotif in fatmi’s work, and sometimes implies a symbolic “cleaning up.” Here it acts as a poignant metaphor for the relationship between the 1 and 99%, as well as the forced semblance of its equilibrium.

How can a minority fight injustice? The Occupy movement, according to American philosopher Noam Chomsky, “is the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” It is a movement based on moral solidarity rather than political and economic rationality. Oscar William Sam (2012), a four-minute video by Kurdish/Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt, consists of a compilation of shots of the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zucotti Park (days before it was evicted by the NYPD Counterterrorism unit at 2 a.m. on November 15, 2011). In it, an anonymous finger points out individuals in the camp, calling them by the most popular first names in the United States. Throughout the video, both the identity and position of the protagonist remain unclear: is he an informant or a fellow occupier? The title, which refers to the supposed names of the squatters (all names are fictitious), also functions as an acronym for the Occupy Wall Street movement, and as abbreviations often deployed by law enforcement officials to single out individuals. Using the repetition of minimal actions—in this case, naming—Ö?üt identifies the movement’s power, i.e., its solidarity, its sense of belonging, and its espousal of being-together beyond a politics of identity.

Set against the background of political unrest, demonstrations, blockades, and scenes of everyday life, Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa’s ongoing video project, New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe (2009-12), documents the fine line between patriotism and exalted nationalism, as well as the aggression instigated by racist actions and xenophobia. Besides recording anti-Fascist protests in the Czech Republic, and the Occupy movement in New York, Rafa has focused on pro-life rallies in Switzerland, LGBT marches in Poland, and displays of extremism elsewhere. How could protest movements and practices grounded in aesthetic experiments act as oppositional cultural forms and reshape social reality? Rafa suggests that the first steps would precisely entail the reversal of conformity, passivity, and acceptance of the established order (i.e., an order manifested in the one-dimensional language of the media and politicians).

The transformative tactics of “striking” are salient to the practice of Paris-based collective Claire Fontaine. Founded in 2004, Claire Fontaine, whose name is derived from a brand of French notebooks, describes herself as a “ready-made artist”—the equivalent of a urinal or Brillo box. Her neo-conceptual pieces provoke an ongoing interrogation of the political “impotence” of contemporary art. Claire Fontaine explores to what extent forms of cultural and social rebellion develop oppositional modes of acting that could subvert the one-dimensional society. In Fight Fire with Fire (2006), a sign made of cardboard and smoke, she implements the language, aesthetic, and “poor art” materials of protest. The text itself is lifted from placards carried by French youths of African and Maghrebian descent during the series of riots that took place in October and November of 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. In the text, Human Strike Has Already Begun (2005), Claire Fontaine suggests that to break with the status quo one must engage in “human strike”—a revolt inspired by Italian feminist groups of the 1970s to counteract constricting social relations (i.e., housework, obligatory sex) endorsed by the dominant order.

The British artist Alexandre Singh approaches politics in a less overt, but equally effective manner. A Wikipediast philosopher, he is an inventor of new linkages, an author of a language of defiance. Weaving facts with fiction, as well as history with current events, he often makes use of word plays and non-linear, associative thinking. In one of his earliest works, The Economist (2006), Singh takes a political idea and transforms it into an intertextual hyperlink. He begins with the cover of an edition of The Economist—a publication that Singh remembers lying around his childhood home—to which he applies the anagram logic of the Kabbala to reveal the publication’s hidden messages. Singh is precisely the kind of artist that Marcuse envisaged when he said that art must discover “hidden and repressed truths,” in order to shape social reality, and produce “society [itself] as a work of art.”

In her work, Iranian-born Tala Madani explores the subversive, politically-inflected quality of satire. Humor is one of the most powerful forms of protest: it disrupts and reshapes the world as we know it. Appropriating the art of the trickster, Madani offers resistance to dominant ideologies. Her darkly playful scenarios feature Middle Eastern men playing out fictive and deviant rituals, which satirize the religious fundamentalism and sexism—especially machismo—still pervasive in contemporary society. For UNREST, Madani presents two works: Spiral Suicide (2012), a large diptych painting in which a generic man is caught in a vortex, spiraling to his self-inflicted death; and Music Man (2009), an accompanying animation in which a burly man tortures his captive by having him vomit repeatedly on a musical staff, an exercise that results in a silent score for the senseless brutality. Both pieces are pervaded by a sense of futility, made explicit through the circuitous iteration of graphic violence. Madani’s use of humor acts as a strategy of rupture that simultaneously liberates, questions, and reveals.

The revolutionary transformation of our increasingly stifled society and culture requires a nonconformist language. Egyptian artist Iman Issa’s work is grounded in the seditious use of traditional materials. In Colors, Lines, Numbers, Symbols, Shapes, and Images (2010), a set of four minimal posters conceived prior to Egypt’s uprising against long-standing autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Issa mines national symbols to probe their formal and conceptual codes. Based on the “political/election poster,” the series was designed at a moment when propagandistic symbols had been emptied of meanings, and revolutionary actions seemed unattainable. Stimulated by Issa’s memories of specific historical moments, events, places, and characters, each unique poster mediates the visual and written language of political iconography with the potential of emancipatory thought—the “what is” and “what could be.”

UNREST opens on the daybreak of the 11th anniversary of September 11th, and the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movements. The motivation for this exhibition resides in the idea that art can produce revolutionary consciousness. Art best serves praxis in its own dimension, i.e., not by being a mere instrument of propaganda, but by critically engaging, subverting, opposing, and resisting the political establishment. When expressing a new language, art becomes a material source in social reconstruction. In other words, art has the agency to react to the deep crisis of democracy and transform the world. The artists in UNREST play an indispensable role in this context: by engaging with the Arab Spring revolutions, the Occupy movements, “human striking,” and other forms of protest as forms of “social sculpture,” they provide a new language of expression for the transformation of society itself. They thus engender a re-thinking of culture, a reawakening of engaged political thought, and a renewed state of UNREST.

—Natalie Musteata © 2012

Expositions personnelles I Solo shows (selection)
Ceysson & Bénétière 2019Wilde Gallery 2019CDAN Museum 2018
Göteborgs Konsthall 2018Art Front Gallery 2017Officine dell'Immagine 2017
Galerie De Multiples 2017Analix Forever Gallery 2017Jane Lombard Gallery 2017
Galerie Delacroix 2017Goodman Gallery 2017Lawrie Shabibi 2017
Analix Forever Gallery 2017Maisons des Arts du Grütli 2017ADN Platform 2016
Keitelman Gallery 2016Labanque 2016MMP+ 2016
MAMCO 2015MIAMIBUS 2015Analix Forever 2015
CCC Tours 2014ADN Galeria 2014ADN Platform 2014
Analix Forever 2014Yvon Lambert 2014Museum Kunst Palast 2013
Keitelman Gallery 2013Paradise Row 2013Institut Français de Casablanca 2013
Galerie Fatma Jellal 2013Analix Forever 2013Goodman Gallery 2012
Shoshana Wayne Gallery 2012 Lombard-Fried Projects 2012Galerie Conrads 2011
Fondazione Collegio San Carlo 2011Galerie Hussenot 2011AKBank Sanat 2011
Galerie Hussenot 2010Galerie Conrads 2009FRAC Alsace 2009
Galerie Delacroix IFM 2008Creux de l'enfer 2008Galerie Ferdinand van Dieten 2007
Musée national Pablo Picasso 2007Shoshana Wayne Gallery 2007La maison rouge 2007
Lombard Freid projects 2007Bank galerie 2006CAC d'Istres 2005
Espace des arts Colomiers 2004 CAC Le Parvis 2004Migros museum 2003
Biennales & Triennales I Biennials, Triennials (selection)
13eme Biennale de Dakar 20187th Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 20181er Biennale de Rabat 2018
57th Venice Biennale 20177eme Biennale d'Architecture de Shenzhen 201711eme Biennale de Bamako 2017
15eme Biennale d'art contemporain Alios! 2017Biennale Poznan 2016Setouchi Triennale 2016
10èmes Rencontres de Bamako 20155th Thessaloniki Biennale 201516th Media art Biennale Wro 2015
1st Trio Biennale, Rio de Janeiro 20152nd Bodrum Biennial 2015Fotofest Biennial 2014
5th Auckland Triennial 201310th Dakar Biennial 2012 White House Biennial 2013
Manif d'Art 6 20123rd Thessaloniki Biennial 201111th Lyon Biennial 2011
54th Venice Biennial 2011XIIth Cairo Biennial 20101st Mediterranean Biennial of Haifa 2010
Port Izmir 2, international triennial of contemporary art 20108th Dakar Biennial 2010Biennale Cuvée 2010
Xth Lyon Biennial 2009Art Tel Aviv 20098èmes Rencontres de Bamako 2009
1st Brussels Biennial 2008Pontevedra Biennial 200824th Biennial Memorial of Nadezda Petrovic 2007
1st Luanda Triennial 2007 52th Venice Biennial 20078th Sharjah Biennial 2007
2nd Seville Biennial 2006 Gwangju biennial 2004 7th Dakar Biennial 2006
4th Dakar Biennial 20007th Biennal Art Media 1999
Expositions collectives I Group shows (selection)
Maison Populaire 2019Bedford Gallery 2019 Evliyagil Museum 2019
Jane Lombard 2019James Cohan 2019Mathaf 2018
MACAAL 2018Fondation Boghossian 2018Sammlung Philara 2018
Nasher Museum of Art 2018Ellen Noël Art Museum 2018Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea 2018
MOCAK 2018Bozar Center for fine arts 2018Philharmonie de Paris 2018
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery 2018Goodman Gallery 2018Institut Français de Saint Louis 2018
Pensacola Museum of Art 2018 Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle 2018Gifu Museum 2017
Huntsville Museum of Art 2017Bandjoun Station 2017Institut des Cultures d’Islam 2017
Bellevue Arts Museum 2017Mudac 2017Primo Marella Gallery 2017
Goodman Gallery 2017MACAAL 2017Museum De Wieger 2017
Conrads Gallery 2017Galerie Ceysson & Bénétière 2017Keitelman Gallery 2017
Musée du Pays de Hanau 2017Château de Servières 2017CEAA 2017
Fondazione Fotografia Modena 2017H&R Block Artspace 2017Bedford Gallery 2016
Beijing Today Art Museum 2016Hôtel des Arts 2016Museum of Old and New Art 2016
Labanque 2016Les Photaumnales 2016Al Maaden 2016
Kunsthalle Faust 2016Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg 2016Archives Nationales 2016
Bardo National Museum 2016Arles 2016Musée d'Art Moderne de Troyes 2016
Rotor 2016Goodman Gallery 2016Musée Bartholdi 2016
Institut d’Art Contemporain 2016Santander Art Gallery 2016Brandts & Viborg Kunsthal 2016
Fondazione VIDEOINSIGHT 2015A Tale of a Tub 2015Contemporary Istanbul 2015
ADMAF 2015Goodman Gallery 2015Keitelman Gallery 2015
Galeria Municipal do Porto 2015Fabra i Coats 2015AMOCA 2015
Monastère Royal de Brou 2015CAC La Traverse 2015FRAC Franche-Comté 2015
ZKM 2015The National Library 2015Station 2015
La FabriC - Fondation Salomon 2015Van Abbemuseum 2015The Brooklyn Museum 2015
MMP+ 2015Sharjah Museum 2015Kamel Lazaar Foundation 2015
Sextant & + 2015Gwangju Museum of Art 2014QAGOMA 2014
N.B.K. 2014CAyT Centro de Arte y Technologia 2014Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery 2014
Station 2014Institut du Monde Arabe 2014Art Gallery of Western Australia 2014
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art 2014Palais de Tokyo 2014L'art dans les chapelles 2013
MAD Museum 2013Marseille - Provence 2013V&A Museum 2013
30 ans des FRAC 2013MAC Marseille 2013MAXXI 2013
Museu de Arte Moderna de Salvador de Bahia 2012Institut du Monde Arabe 2012Edge of Arabia 2012
Apexart 2012B.P.S. 22 2012Dorsky Gallery 2012
International Center of Graphic Arts 2012Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art 2011Fondation Blachère 2011
Brooklyn Museum 2011Dublin Contemporary 2011Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts 2011
Museum on the Seam 2011Tri Postal Lille 2011Meeting Point 6 2011
The New School 2010Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil 2010Fondazione Fotografia Modena 2010
Aargauer Kunsthaus 2010KAdE 2010Kunst Museum Bochum 2010
Moscow museum of modern art 2010Art Gallery of Ontario 2010Fondation Gulbenkian 2009
Centro de Arte de Santa Monica 2009Beirut Art Center 2009Salina Art Center 2009
Kunstverein Medienturm Ilz 2008Te Papa museum 2008Studio Museum Harlem 2008
Haus der Kunst 2008Centre Pompidou 2008CAAM 2008
Centro de Arte de Santa Monica 2008Johannesburg Art Gallery 2007CAC Le Parvis 2006
CAPC musée d'art contemporain 2006Bank Galerie 2006Les Abattoirs 2006
Moderna museet 2006Mori art museum 2006Wereldmuseum 2005
Centre Pompidou 2005The Stenersen Museum 2005Saw gallery 2005
Konstmuseum 2005Hayward Gallery 2005Museum Kunst Palast 2004
Tri Postal Lille 20042nd international contemporary art meeting 2003Espacio C 2002
O.N.A. Foundation 1999CAC Castres 1999Musée des beaux-arts de Dôle 1999
Musée des arts décoratifs 1999  
interventions publiques I public space projects (selection)
metavilla 2015Collateral Project to the 12th Havana Biennial 2015Prison Qara Meknès 2015
Art Paris 2015Analix Forever 2014Sculpture Beach Art Dubai 2012
Le Printemps de Septembre 2012Narracje 4 2012Ivry 2010
FIAC Tuileries 2010 Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2004