After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century

Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany

In 2016, postfaktisch (post-factual) was voted Word of the Year by the Association for the German Language. Contemporary art, too, has seen increased critical engagement with manipulative communication strategies in the face of the ‘migrant crisis’, Brexit, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump. Many of Germany’s artistic institutions are currently undergoing what could be termed a political ‘(re)turn’ to showcase their opposition to antidemocratic tendencies: a correct enough approach, but one that raises difficult questions about art’s relationship to politics.

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Aura Rosenberg, The Missing Souvenir, 2002, poured plastic, acrylic paint, 24 × 8 × 8 cm. Courtesy: of the artist and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

Curated by Stephanie Weber, ‘After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century’ at Munich’s Lenbachhaus aims to show the ways contemporary artists engage with new forms of media propaganda – a situation not limited to totalitarian states. The show opens with Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Frontpage (2002), which spans an entire wall and is made up of 151 front pages from daily newspapers with images of New York’s World Trade Center ablaze after the 9/11 attacks. The tableau shows not only how suggestively the image material was used, but also how the wording of the headlines shifts with newspapers’ political orientations.

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Bradley Davies, Sun / TIMES, 2014, newspaper, plywood cut-out, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist 

Similar strategies involving comparative analysis of documentary material are seen in works by Alfredo Jaar, Harun Farocki and Franz Wanner. Jaar’s May 1, 2011 (2011) deals with the shooting of Osama bin Laden; Farocki’s video Ein neues Produkt (A New Product, 2012) skewers the absurdities of executive-speak; and Wanner’s Battle Management Drawings #1-5 (2017) analyses processes used in military product development. All three works carefully expose the ways in which language and images can be subtly instrumentalized for political and economic gains.

In themed sections on ‘Creative Industry’, ‘Traditionalisms’, ‘State Power’, ‘Public Relations’, ‘World Orders’, ‘Spectacle, Identity’ and ‘Aggression, Status Quo’, the show addresses broader issues including sexism, marginalization, border policies, escapism and the neoliberal creative economy. Advertising by the sandwich chain Subway seeking ‘sandwich artists’ highlight links between creative labour and precarious work. In her audio piece Betaversion 4.0 (2004–17) Beate Engl takes a speech by the activist and Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) and replaces the word ‘capital’ with ‘art’, turning the text into a philippic against the international art market. Between the individual sections, intermediate spaces contain documentary material: an explanatory video, by NS-Watch, on the ongoing NSU (National Socialist Underground) trial in Munich and sexist adverts by Germany’s far right-wing party AfD.

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Sandow Birk, Standing Down (Ferguson) (Rückzug [Ferguson]), 2016, acrylic on canvas, 76 × 121 cm. Courtesy: the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York

Such investigative and analytical artworks give the impression that documentary work and the artists making it are conduits objective ‘truth’, setting them up as a contrast to the notion of 'the ‘post-factual’. This was the exhibition’s blind spot, largely ignoring the fact that art is implicated in systems of power, capital and commerce. Nowhere was it pointed out thatFarocki and Jaar also select and dramatize in their work, or that their ‘objective’ visual language can deciphered as a mere semblance of objectivity. The inclusion of ‘actual’ documentary material rendered the difference between art and documentation not more, but less, clear.

This raises the difficult question of whether the exhibition itself might be classified in a broad sense as propaganda, insisting on an untenable model of truth as revelation. Although this problem was mentioned in the introduction, written by Weber and Matthias Mühling, to the accompanying reader, any such awareness was barely reflected in the show itself. In Hannah Black’s installation Soc or Barb (2017), lemming-like creatures made of unfired clay stare at a video loop of the rising run amidst audio clips on socialism and barbarism, while in John Smith’s White Hole (2014) a single shot of a tunnel becomes a metaphor for its own implication and tunnel-vision. Instead of trying to dissolve the deep dialectical ambiguity between information and propaganda, these were the few works that showed the ways in which such equivocality is an unavoidable paradigm of our times.

Main image: ‘After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century’, 2017, installation view, Lenbachhaus. Courtesy: Lenbachhaus, Munich

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

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