1979 was a year marked by victories, revolutions, delusion and cultural innovation: the collapse of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, the Iranian and Nicaraguan Revolutions, the coming into power of Margaret Thatcher and Saddam Hussein, the imprisonment of Antonio Negri, the implementation of China’s one-child policy and the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.
Curated by Carles Guerra and conceived as a ‘historical essay’, ‘1979, a Monument to Radical Moments’ is inspired by Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975–81), a three-volume novel set between 1937 and 1945, which addresses the transformative power of culture. Like Weiss’s book, Guerra’s exhibition, which includes the work of 70 practitioners, concentrates on the confluence between art, politics and the worker via art, film, photojournalism, propaganda, archival material and everyday objects such as Billy, the shelf designed by Gillis Lundgren for IKEA in 1979. Guerra has treated every object on display equally, including reproduced art works and facsimiles of documents, embracing Weiss’s engagement with the ‘poor image’ manifested in the explorations by the novel’s characters of art works only available through reproductions.
The show is constructed around four sections: ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance’, ‘Institutions’, ‘Revolutions’ and ‘Vindications’. Acting as a leitmotif, the work of Philippe Van Snick can be seen in and from almost every room. His arrangements of broken-up glass are carefully applied to the wall or assembled into mobiles – Éclats (Fragments), Blauw Glas (Blue Glass) (both 1979) and Zonder Titel (Untitled, 1978–80) – all suggesting volatility and urban decay. The section titled ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance’ forms the core of the exhibition and includes Manolo Laguillo’s late 1970s photographs of Barcelona’s industrial quarter – which he subtly juxtaposed with photographs of industrial Manchester – and a reproduction of Hans Haacke’s Taking Stock (Unfinished) (1983–4), an oil painting highlighting the links between Thatcher and the Saatchi brothers.
In the central room of the same section, documents from Weiss’s research for The Aesthetics of Resistance are displayed alongside Robert Koehler’s large painting The Strike (1886), which is discussed in the novel; it depicts workers debating among themselves and defying the factory owner. This theme is further explored in several documentaries including Numax Presenta (Numax Presents, 1979), which filmmaker Joaquin Jordà made with the workers of a Barcelona factory in order to discuss their strike and attempts at self-management. In the same room, the factory worker is scrutinized from a homoerotic perspective by Marc Roig Blesa through Werker 2 (Worker 2, 2010), a slide show and publication of photographs of zealous male workers from the 1970s.
Informed by Michel Foucault’s work on bio-politics from the period, the section ‘Institutions’ includes photographs by Jesús Atienza, Pep Cunties and Eduardo Subias of a psychiatric hospital, a geriatric institute and a slaughterhouse, taken in Barcelona between 1975 and 1979. A mood of isolation, indignity and violence permeates the images, which were made in response to Article 580 of the Spanish penal code, which is notorious for grouping mentally ill people and vicious animals together. A different kind of violence is captured in the work of American photojournalist Susan Meiselas in a large installation in the section ‘Revolutions’. Meiselas travelled to Nicaragua to document the Sandinista Revolution in 1978 but later reflected on the ambiguities of her role there. Voyages (1985) is a filmic journey through her photographs in which Meiselas admits to her complicity in re-staging situations in order to get a good shot, and discusses the problems of taking a photograph out of context, as well as the deadly potential of images.
‘1979, a Monument to Radical Moments’ is an experiment in writing history that assists in a greater understanding of the radical period we find ourselves in today, a time when the production of images is, more than ever, instrumental in both containing us and instilling resistance.
First published in Issue 140