Asier Mendizabal’s Political Movements

At Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna, the artist asks: what does communal political action look like today?

If Asier Mendizabal’s exhibition, ‘Process and Chance’, asks one question, it is: what does communal political action look like today? It is a question deployed to illustrate that, if we seek an answer in earlier images of ‘the people’, we will end up with a distorted idea of what the revolutionary collective subject might be.

The titular series, ‘Process and Chance’ (2014), comprises eight tall pieces of sandblasted chipboard that have been digitally printed with several found wood carvings of industrial and agricultural labourers working together – one is the work of Basque artist Augustin Ibarrola from the 1960s; another two, also from the 1960s, depict scenes from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Mendizabal’s series reflects Walter Benjamin’s claim, in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility’ (1936), that technological developments fundamentally change the way the ‘masses’ perceive things. Mendizabal uses cheap, mass-produced material to present images of earlier forms of manual labour that were eradicated by mechanisation. His digital prints also resemble cheap 19th century woodblock prints, the kind that, until they became obsolete with the advent of photography, were consumed by the very labourers depicted here.

The relationship between perception and mechanized labour is also explored in Cut Ibarrola (2015): three thin strips of wood made by reenacting the repetitive movements of an artisanal woodcarver. Mendizabal’s movements were deliberately imprecise, the resulting lines slightly uneven, but still there are signs that the artist internalized the process, making machine-like movements.

Asier Mendizabal, Process and Chance 6, 2014, sandblasted melamine chipboard dimensions table, 74 × 210 × 84 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna; photograph: Anna Konrath

The political reference points are more explicit in Not All That Moves Is Red (Tangram) #2 (2012). This huge, sewn fabric flag, hung on the wall of the main space and visible from the street, is made of four smaller black and red flags cut to standard measurements. These colours are associated with disparate political movements – communism, anarchism and fascism alike. Here, however, Mendizabal ensures that they represent nothing specific. As a whole, the piece resembles an arrow pointing to the right, but as the bottom left flag has vertical stripes, the design appears incomplete.

This arrow shape re-appears in Untitled (Weft #5), Untitled (Weft #7) and Untitled (Weft #8) (all 2012), three angular silkscreens cutouts depicting crowds gathering at unspecified points in the 1900s. Similar imagery re-emerges in Rotation (Moiré, Brussels) (2012),  a quartet of prints on paper that shares the four-quarter format of Not All That Moves Is Red. Mendizabal’s use of moiré patterning not only renders the colouration of each image slightly uneven, but also blurs the faces in the gathered crowd, just like the featureless workers captured in ‘Process and Chance’.

Asier Mendizabal, 'Process and Chance', 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna; photograph: Anna Konrath

Le Trou (2009), a sculpture made of ceramic tiles and Styrofoam that resembles a sample from a store selling bathroom interiors, takes the implications of Mendizabal’s flag in a new direction. The title refers to Jacques Becker’s 1960 prison-break movie of the same name, itself based on José Giovanni’s eponymous 1957 book. In the film, four cellmates, all expecting long sentences or execution, plan to escape by digging a tunnel, each utilizing their own specific talents. Le Trou re-routes the desire for political progress into DIY, a different kind of grubby work in which older forms of technical labour re-emerge in leisure time.

Mendizabal’s oblique look at the meaning and visual representation of ‘the people’ joins a long history of similar reflections, including anxious images from 19th-century newspapers that showed not crowds but rather hysterical mobs, whose uncontrollable desire for political representation threatened to disrupt order. This ambivalence appears in Point de Caption (Hodja) (2016), for which Mendizabal has bolted plush PVC canvas onto a galvanized steel structure that has then been pinned with a photograph of an explosion. The work suggests that the question is not just what political action looks like today, but how you can build strong movements with ersatz materials.

Asier Mendizabal, 'Process and Chance' was on view at Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna, from 24 October until 1 December 2018. 

Main image: Asier Mendizabal, Process and Chance, 2014 sandblasted melamine chipboard installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna; photograph: Anna Konrath

Max L. Feldman is a writer and art critic based in Vienna, Austria.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019

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