The pursuit of public happiness?

Arratia Beer, Berlin, Germany

Michael Baers, Concerning Matters to Be Left for  a Later Date, Part 4, 2009, pen and ink on paper, 30 × 42 cm

Michael Baers, Concerning Matters to Be Left for a Later Date, Part 4, 2009, pen and ink on paper, 30 × 42 cm

A man who belonged to an experimental commune paces the very room where this experiment took place. He describes the sexual freedom he experienced there as a collective, political act. Yet, the man appears much too young – a teenager, really – to have lived through what he describes. Annika Eriksson’s video It Did Happen Soon (2012) presents a staged version of a fictional memoir, prompting an examination of our attitudes toward past revolutions through the eyes of the present generation.

‘The Pursuit of Public Happiness?’, a group exhibition at Arratia Beer – which emerged from the 'Hannah Arendt Working Group', a reading group in Berlin led by writer Fred Dewey that has fostered a committed discourse around Arendt's writing and its relevance to artistic and cultural practices in Berlin – brought together works by seven artists themed around Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book On Revolution. According to Arendt, the notion of the pursuit of happiness expounded by the American Revolution contains one crucial flaw: it excludes ‘public happiness’. Reduced to private space, this ideal entitles the citizen to only ‘the ghastly privilege of […] embracing a delusion’. Curator Christine Würmell’s reintroduction of a ‘public’ into the formula for happiness critically re-examined the collapse of the personal and the political in art.

Personal freedom was at the heart of Berlin’s short-lived Commune I (1967–9), the subject of Eriksson’s video. Commune I rebelled against the nuclear family, pioneering a hedonistic lifestyle for young people passionately interested only in themselves. Michael Baers’s Concerning Matters To Be Left for a Later Date, Part 4 (2009), likewise pits contemporary scepticism against the idealism of the past. Here, the intimate address of the cartoonist’s pen takes us to Folkets Park in Malmö, once home to Sweden’s radical social democratic movement and now a bastion for softcore lefties. In both works, the revolution has already taken place, without leaving a sustainable structure behind.

Martha Rosler glares out from the vituperative kitsch of her series of Christmas cards (‘From Our House to Your House’, 1974–78), in which the artist is photographed amidst kitchen implements that could easily become weapons, reminding us that the sexual revolution played out on a scale both intimate and societal. Jeremiah Day’s installation, If You Want Blood (2013), which references a section of the former ‘death strip’ between East and West Berlin now occupied by a supermarket, grapples with the fact that though we have the freedom to shift the co-ordinates of our private happiness, public happiness is a notion onto which we can only project our desires.

For Arendt, too, ‘public happiness […] consisted in the citizen’s right of access to the public realm […] to be a participator in [what Thomas Jefferson called] the government of affairs.’ Peter Friedl’s video Liberty City (2007) presents the staged reassertion of violence, documenting a reenactment of the deadly beating of a black motorcyclist by white policemen in Miami, Florida in 1979. The twist: in Liberty City, the victim is white and the perpetrators are black, a cynical and brutal comment on past and present inequalities. Carlos Amorales’s film Supprimer, Modifier et Preserver (Erase, Modify and Preserve, 2012) presents a more subtle experiment. Amorales approaches lawyers with the French Civil Code written in pencil and an eraser. One lawyer erases an obscure law about stealing, replacing it with the word ‘INDIVIDUALISM’. Later, a second lawyer removes this word, emphasizing instead the importance of shared responsibility.

It is curious – although becoming increasingly less so – to see a private gallery mount a carefully curated exhibition around a premise one might expect a public institution to address. Under the spell of an ongoing obsession with the act of revolution, contemporary art often situates itself in the same esteemed lineage as those ‘men of letters’ who conceived of the French Revolution. Arendt observes that these revolutionaries worked from ‘the secluded obscurity of privacy’; undisturbed, they would ‘nourish their passion for significance and freedom.’ Privacy was a space from which a new concept of the public might be born. The works presented in this exhibition provided a framework to think through such possibilities today. Perhaps it is a cold comfort.

Issue 165

First published in Issue 165

September 2014

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