Nothing is neutral
Life, love, art, and politics
To introduce the new exhibition Enjoy, I’d like to begin with two works that in very different ways both touch upon and communicate the political content of places: the series A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project (1998–2004) by Yto Barrada and the poster work Austrian Airlines Porträt (Portrait) (1993) by Félix González-Torres.
The French Moroccan artist Yto Barrada (*1971) spent years with her camera following daily life at the Strait of Gibraltar in Tangier, Morocco. As the French-born daughter of immigrant parents, she holds two passports and experiences travel very differently to others in her family. And it was the awareness of this difference that steered her attention to everyday life at the strait, one defined by waiting, emigration, and mass tourism. In order to understand more about this and also to process her own experiences of valediction, return, loss, and yearning and to connect with the political circumstances, she started A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project in 1988. She photographed scenes she had observed in Tangier, working with an ambivalent aesthetic between snapshot and allegory and superimposing reportage styling, her subjective point of view, and the political provisos of each scene. In a conversation with the artist, Nadia Tazi formulated it thus: “One of the ambiguities of your work is that it doesn’t have the dimension of neutral objectivity, of pseudo-scientific recording (…) even if it appears to. In its own way, it recreates the melancholy of the Strait.”#1#
Félix González-Torres too repeatedly interwove personal experience and political conditions in his work—here shown in the poster project Austrian Airlines Porträt in a surprisingly simple way: from 1991 to 2002, as part of a museum in progress project, international artists were invited to design posters for public spaces in Vienna. On a green background, Torres displayed in silver lettering all the destinations flown to by Austrian Airlines at the time, including the year in which it first occurred. Austrian Airlines was also a cooperation partner of the Plakat (Poster) project, and so Torres also drew attention to the economic parameters of the art project. With this simple list, Torres interwove geopolitical and financial developments with various individual biographies, recollections, and longings. Because each time you read it, the places and dates connect with personal experiences, recalled political events, and questions. It also occurs even if you do not know the connection between the date and place—reinforced by repeatedly encountering and reading it in the urban space. For González-Torres, who was sent as a teenager by his parents from Cuba to relatives in Spain, and later in America lived apart from his Canadian life partner, Ross, because the authorities did not recognize the relationship, every place was a “social landscape.”#2#
Torres noted that his art was most strongly motivated by psychoanalysis, Marxist analysis, and feminism.#3# And that “after twenty years of feminist discourse and feminist theory we have come to realize that ‘just looking’ is not just looking but that looking is invested with identity: gender, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation.”#4# And with this knowledge, he also criticized the assertion of a formal neutrality, as constructed in Minimal Art, as the “reproduction of the straight, white, male artist as a neutral, universal form of unmarked subjectivity.”#5# Here Torres picked up on an extremely important critique of queer/feminist academics and theorists of art, media, and film.#6#
In one interview, Yto Barrada used the metaphor of the geological section for her work. A Life Full of Holes thus comprises several layers. These include “mythology (Hercules), the history of the Mediterranean, the ‘Moroccan issue’ (the position of the country under the rival colonial powers at the beginning of the twentieth century), the contemporary political situation (migration and the black market), and my own family history. And in the past twenty years—since the Schengen Agreement cut Europe off from Africa—the stories of emigration, separation, loss, exile, emigrant hardships, and displacement have inevitably increased.”#7#
The Strait is just fourteen kilometers wide. On a plane, faraway places are quick and easy to reach. But not for everyone. These two works are intertwined through the context of their origin and subject matter with present-day migration, escape, longing, and exclusion. In observing them, everyone is invited to think about what is and is not seen.
1 Nadia Tazi, “A Conversation between Yto Barrada and Philosopher Nadia Tazi (Extracts),” in Yto Barrada: A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, London 2005, p. 58
2 Interview with Félix Gonzáles-Torres, in Rhetorical Image, New York 1990, p. 48.
3 For example in his conversation with Joseph Kosuth to mark their joint exhibition at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York in 2005,
available online here.
4 “Interview by Tim Rollins,” in Bill Bartman, ed., Félix González-Torres, New York 1993,
online version available here.
5 Joshua Chambers-Letson, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life, New York 2018, pp. 140–41.
6 For example, Laura Cottingham, Lucy Lippard, Rosalind Krauss, Laura Mulvey, and bell hooks, to name but a few.
7 Yto Barrada and Eyal Weizman, “Fossile Zankäpfel,” Parkett, 91, 2012, p. 175.