Wilhelm Sasnal

Hauser & Wirth, Zurich

The contrast could hardly be starker between the upper and ground floors of the Löwenbräu-Areal in Zurich. On the upper is the Luma Foundation’s Prix Pictet exhibition. The 12 finalists for this ‘global award for photography and sustainability’ reveal long-known harrowing facts bluntly and self-evidently: in Africa, elephants are being hunted and people mutilated; sea levels are rising; the world is choking on plastic waste; the Chinese are plastering their country with hypercapitalist architecture; refugees are drowning. A concerned, uneasy visitor might vow to dispose of their waste properly and to donate to charity. On the other hand all this misery still generates aesthetically pleasing technically impressive images that can be put in nice frames and contemplated with no strings attached on a guilt-free afternoon.

killing-an-arab-1-160-x-200-cm-2016_sasna74347.jpg

Wilhelm Sasnal, Killing an Arab 1, 2016, oil on canvas, 160 x 200 x 3 cm  

Wilhelm Sasnal, Killing an Arab 1, 2016, oil on canvas, 160 x 200 x 3 cm. All images: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Wilhelm Sasnal  

On the ground floor, at Hauser & Wirth, is an exhibition of recent and new work by Wilhelm Sasnal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Polish painter, graphic artist and filmmaker oscillated between Communism and consumerism, pop and academia, and became a star of the Polish art scene with his laconic and subtly critical works. As with the Prix Pictet exhibition he, too, often focuses on world events that have caused hardship or foretell danger. Whereas many of the Prix Pictet entrants take a documentary, allegorical or didactic approach, Sasnal deliberately keeps his subject matter at an ambivalent distance. Instead of representation, documentation and communication Sasnal works in hints, vagueness and gaps. In his austere, aloof style, his small- and medium-format paintings show a pile of tyres (Untitled, 2016), or two men strung up by invisible nooses (Untitled, 2015), or a dark figure on a frozen coastline (Killing an Arab 1, 2016). In the two-channel film installation Killing an Arab (2015), which contains excerpts from Sasnal’s still-unreleased film project The Sun, The Sun Blinded Me, a white man gratuitously bludgeons a black man lying on a beach.

01172016001_mg_4512_sasna73806.jpg

Wilhelm Sasnal, Palm Bay, 2013, oil on canvas, 87 x 107 x 4 cm  

Wilhelm Sasnal, Palm Bay, 2013, oil on canvas, 87 x 107 x 4 cm  

Sasnal is concerned less with ‘the reality out there’ than with examining the media artefacts that have come to constitute our primary source of such experiences. Most of these paintings are based on Googled or found images; the titles of several works, and that of the show, refers to The Cure’s song Killing an Arab (1978) which in turn is based on Albert Camus’ novel L’Étranger (1942) with its description of the disturbingly unmotivated murder of an Arab by a Frenchman. All the while, of course, Sasnal is addressing the reporting on the current refugee crisis – a subject he began dealing with as early as 2013. Perhaps the most striking work in the show is an unassuming oil painting titled Palm Bay (2013): abstracted and stylized, it shows an inflatable dinghy carrying two dozen cowering figures, rendered in loose brushstrokes.

sasna74356_2.jpg

Wilhelm Sasnal, Killing an Arab, 2015, 16 mm transferred to HD film still from 2-channel video installation 

Wilhelm Sasnal, Killing an Arab, 2015, 16 mm transferred to HD film still from 2-channel video installation 

While the African refugees in the Prix Pictet show look the viewer straight in the eye, Sasnal offers no opportunity for pseudo-identification, for compassionate pity, or for dressing misery up in a glossy aesthetic. Where others might claim to shed light, he instead creates an enigma. As Theodor Adorno put it writing in his 1970 Aesthetic Theory: ‘The enigmaticalness of artworks remains bound up with history.’

In a recent interview, Sasnal stated: ‘I don’t think you can change the world with a painting.’ He distinguishes between a citizen with an interest in politics who might articulate a clear, critical position, and his far more delicate role as an artist. The two are linked, but ultimately incommensurable. For Sasnal, art is not an extension of politics, but an intermediate zone where politics can be dealt with beyond the reach of pragmatic and moral imperatives. It’s precisely this precarious, fragile social role of art that he highlights.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist and musician. He teaches at Zurich University of the Arts.

Issue 24

First published in Issue 24

Summer 2016

Most Read

Remembering the pioneering composer, visionary thinker, multimedia artist and techno-utopian, who died in May
Jennifer Piejko's guide to the best current shows in LA
Ei Arakawa work stolen from Skulptur Projekte Münster; Richard Mosse arrested; three men charged over counterfeit...
Joyce Pensato, Landscape Mickey, 2017. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London
Lisson Gallery, London, UK
Coinciding with Refugee Week, and her film Hear Her Singing screening at the Southbank Centre, the artist shares some...
Gilda Williams visits the first edition of the ARoS Triennial in Aarhus, Denmark
The Haitian Revolution as a lesson in corporate leadership and meeting the 'prophet of the Anthropocene': what to read...
Creative Time launches series of protest flags; photographer Khadija Saye reported as a victim of London's Grenfell...
A recent retrospective at the Museo Ettore Fico in Turin establishes the overlooked importance of a ‘total artist’
The third edition of the London performance festival makes the case for collective action in an age of political...
A past winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize, Zoe Pilger on the books and experiences that have influenced her as a writer
A guide to the best projects included in Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017
For the first in a series of our editors’ initial impressions from documenta 14 Kassel, Pablo Larios on the Neue...
Art sees itself as facing a crisis of legitimation – can this account for claims to 'authenticity' being made in shows...

An interview with the late artist on the unique classification system he devised to organize his books
The independent curator on 25 years in the arts

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017