Uprisings

Jeu de Paume, Paris, France

In May 2016, a group of 16 black female cadets, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, partook of a tradition dating back to the 19th century. They produced what’s known as ‘Old Corps’ photographs, a re-enactment of a historical genre of military portraiture, which they then posted on social media. In one of these pictures, each of the women displays an upraised fist. An ensuing media firestorm alleged that they may have violated military code by publicly aligning themselves, while in uniform, with specific political struggles, namely the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s and the present-day Black Lives Matter campaign. One advocate scoffed that they were merely referencing Beyoncé. A military inquiry eventually cleared the women of any subversive activity and recognized their picture as a celebration of accomplishment. But the women’s gesture stayed in the headlines for breaching notions of institutional, racial and gender decorum. Their claims to pride were acceptable; any claims to power not. 

Raoul Hausmann, Portrait d’Herwarth Walden à Bonset, carte postale envoyée à Théo Van Doesburg (Portrait of Herwarth Walden in Bonset, postcard sent to Theo Van Doesburg), 1921. Courtesy: Archives Theo and Nelly van Doesburg; photograph: RKD collection -

Raoul Hausmann, Portrait d’Herwarth Walden à Bonset, carte postale envoyée à Théo Van Doesburg (Portrait of Herwarth Walden in Bonset, postcard sent to Theo Van Doesburg), 1921. Courtesy: Archives Theo and Nelly van Doesburg; photograph: RKD collection -

Raoul Hausmann, Portrait d’Herwarth Walden à Bonset, carte postale envoyée à Théo Van Doesburg (Portrait of Herwarth Walden in Bonset, postcard sent to Theo Van Doesburg), 1921. Courtesy: Archives Theo and Nelly van Doesburg; photograph: RKD collection - Netherlands Institute for Art History / © ADAGP, Paris, 2016

One of the most poignantly relevant images (and there are so many) in Georges Didi-Huberman’s exhibition, ‘Uprisings’, is Black Panthers Rally (1969) taken in Chicago by the Japanese photographer Hiroji Kubota. Shot from quite a height and distance, it shows three figures standing in the smudged winter landscape of an empty train yard. Backs to the camera, the men stand with their fists upraised. When I stopped in front of this 1960s triad, I thought instantly of today’s cadets. We’re now so accustomed to making snap, analogous visual connections that there is a risk we lose our sense of historical specificity and, with it, critical understanding. I left ‘Uprisings’ with the hope that the exhibition might offer an antidote. Its hypothesis is that gestures of social, political and cultural uprising act as inscriptions, and their entangled transmission and survival across human cultures – in documents, objects and images – instruct us about our values. It’s a hypothesis that is indebted to the art historian Aby Warburg, one of Didi-Huberman’s greatest influences, whose legacy featured in the marvelous exhibition he previously curated, ‘Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back’ (2010–11).

chen_chieh-jen_the_road_2006_film_still._courtesy_gallery_lily_robert_c_chen_chieh-jen

Chen Chieh-Jen, The Road, 2006, film still. Courtesy: Gallery Lily Robert; © Chen Chieh-Jen

Chen Chieh-Jen, The Road, 2006, film still. Courtesy: Gallery Lily Robert; © Chen Chieh-Jen

We’re now so accustomed to making snap, analogous visual connections that there is a risk we lose our sense of historical specificity and with it, critical understanding. I left ‘Uprisings’ with the hope that this exhibition might offer an antidote. The hypothesis of the exhibition is that gestures of social, political and cultural uprising (however conceptually, geographically, temporally related or relatable) act as inscriptions and their entangled transmission and survival across human cultures – in documents, objects, and images instruct us about our values. It’s a hypothesis that is deeply indebted to the work of the art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), one of Didi-Huberman’s greatest influences, whose legacy featured in the marvelous exhibition he previously curated, ‘Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back’ (2010–11).‘Uprisings’ operates like an atlas: the exhibition, the online platform, the film program and the substantial catalogue exhaustively chart gestures of uprisings and their  traces across an extraordinary range of documents, objects, and still and moving images from the 19th century to the present by some 100 artists, filmmakers and activists, including Antonin Artaud, Gustav Courbet, Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza and Tina Modotti. These would be uncomfortable bedfellows in a linear or teleologically driven art history, but Didi-Huberman’s method is montage, the cinematic qualities of which are manifest in the exhibition’s penumbral mood and muted, coherent soundscape. Voices and tunes that carry from the relatively modest quantity of video works do not jostle or interfere with the comparatively immodest quantity of everything else. For example, the hummed tune in Lorna Simpson’s Easy to Remember (2001) melodically tempers Art & Language’s sloganeering print Shouting Men (1975), thus allowing this image and text laden exhibition to offer an experience of much more than meets the eye if one lingers.

art_and_language_shouting_men_detail_1975_silkscreen_and_felt_on_paper._courtesy_macba_museu_of_contemporary_art_in_barcelona_photograph_angela_gallego_c_art_and_language

Art and Language, Shouting Men (detail), 1975, silkscreen and felt on paper. Courtesy: MACBA Museu of Contemporary Art in Barcelona; photograph: Àngela Gallego © Art and Language

Art & Language, Shouting Men (detail), 1975, silkscreen and felt on paper. Courtesy: MACBA Museu of Contemporary Art in Barcelona; photograph: Àngela Gallego © Art & Language

‘Uprisings’ operates like an atlas: the exhibition, the online platform, the film programme and the catalogue exhaustively chart gestures of uprisings and their traces across
an extraordinary range of documents, objects and still and moving images from the 19th century to the present by some 100 artists, filmmakers and activists, including Antonin Artaud, Gustav Courbet, Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza and Tina Modotti. These would be uncomfortable bedfellows in a teleologically driven art history, but Didi-Huberman’s method is montage, the cinematic qualities of which are manifest in the exhibition’s penumbral mood and soundscape. Voices and tunes that carry from the modest quantity of video works do not interfere with the comparatively immodest quantity of everything else. For example, the hummed tune in Lorna Simpson’s Easy to Remember (2001) melodically tempers Art & Language’s sloganeering print Shouting Men (1975).

‘Uprisings’ has been produced during an era that Didi-Huberman refers to as ‘dark times, leaden times’. Can the individual and collective agency represented so effectively in the exhibition promote civic engagement, civil disobedience and creative negation in the present? ‘Uprisings’ embraces its own contradictions: it offers hope yet does not gloss over
violence or injustice. But, in Didi-Huberman’s curatorial rendering, even the darkest images can become ‘guiding figures of venturing beyond the limits’, by which he means the limits of our political imaginations. His gathering of evidence testifies that the movement, the timing, the spontaneity, the planning and the remnants of uprisings are ‘gestures without end’. As a gesture itself, his exhibition uplifts, and that uplifting lasts.

Lead image: Wolf Vostell, Dutschke, 1968, polymer painting on canvas. Courtesy: Haus der Geschichte der Bundensrepublik Deutschland, Bonn © ADAGP, Paris, 2016

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze and course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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