Featuring twenty-seven artists hailing from six countries and representing eight nationalities, different convictions, socio-cultural backgrounds and varying artistic practices, the international group exhibition ‘Fragile Hands’ in Austria’s capital Vienna was incredibly rich and interesting.
‘Fragile Hands’ presented an eclectic range of contextually completely differing art works ranging from digital prints to traditional oil paintings and from vitrine collages to video documentaries and in situ installations. What these works had in common is that the artists addressed society from a shared perspective: that of the participant observer, who is subjectively and objectively critical at the same time. What the audience was presented with was a fair representation of both local and global interpretations of, identifications with and reflections on pressing socio-cultural, political and environmental themes, which offer a surprisingly consonant chord altogether. The latter is to the credit of the renowned Indian-British curator Shaheen Merali, who succeeded in braiding the seminal strands of the last seven years of his geographically meandering curatorial practice whilst starting off the artist/curator in residence policy of the exhibition’s host, the University of Applied Arts Vienna.
Merali invited both young and aspiring and acclaimed artists from Argentina, Austria, China, India, Iran and Palestine to participate in this project. In 2013, al.arte attended the opening of a group exhibition curated by Merali in Amsterdam. Gerald Bast, Rector of the University of Applied Arts aka Die Angewandte in Vienna, was present at its finissage in 2013 and showed interest to host a similar group exhibition in Vienna. But the intended exhibition in Vienna in 2014 went far beyond the works of most of the Iranian artists whose work was shown in Amsterdam.
“Geography is important in how we understand art today,” said Merali during the press conference at the exhibition space, a 12th century former monastery at the Heiligenkreuzer Hof in Vienna. “We have seen new subjectivities emerging and new areas of discourse developing. Nowadays, there are art centres everywhere. Art is being exported and imported worldwide, from Europe and the West in general to other countries and regions and vice versa. As a curator I consider it important to find a proper context, a shared language, to establish a relationship with the audience. The audience might have never been exposed to the often complex realities of the artists whose work they come to visit, let alone the identities expressed in their work.” With so many nationalities and socio-cultural affiliations involved, Merali presented the art works in ‘Fragile Hands’ as in dialogue with each other, inviting the visitor to ponder upon the differences and similarities in how the artists expressed their views and identities.
Themes and context
Though the main context and title Fragile Hands is derived from the oeuvre of the late French essay filmmaker Chris Marker and the evocative, performance-related notion of eurhythmy (expressive dance aiming at harmony) as developed by the Austrian godfather of anthroposophy (literally: the wisdom of being human) Rudolph Steiner plays a thematic role as well, another important aspect of the exhibition was geographical concerns. In his opening speech at the vernissage in Vienna 11 March 2014, Merali referred to the late Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said with a quote also included in Merali’s curatorial essay. In Culture and Imperialism, which appeared more than a decade after his acclaimed Orientalism, Edward Said said: “Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” Fragile Hands is in a way a true testimony to such geographical concerns on a global scale, which inform and suffuse each of the art works exhibited in their own right –in Vienna not in mono, as was the case in the Amsterdam exhibition, but in crystal clear stereo.
As Merali notes in his essay: “The range of emotional and mental compositions within the contemporary arts is partly construed from its relationship to the narratives of torment, of citizens in flight, as so much of what we absorb as the contemporary condition is based on arduous scenes of brutality, resulting from the machinations of nation states and corporations. Their performance with laconic cruelty has resulted in a grossly imbalanced waste of key resources in our austere times.” With this in mind, Merali’s choice to include work of the Berlin-based Argentinian video artist Charly Nijensohn, the Austrian multimedia artist Oliver Ressler and the provocative performance artist JJ XI (who lives and works in both Beijing and London) becomes evident. Digital prints and installations of the discerning (originally) Indian artists Leena Kejriwal, Binu Bhaskar, Debesh Goswami, Probir Gupta and Simit Raveshia provided eloquent food for thought in various regards as well.
Whereas most of the work of the Iranian artists featuring in Fragile Hands may be viewed as a means of aesthetic opposition to the previous regime and socio-political developments in Iran between 2009 and 2011, the work of video artists Amir Mobed (Iran) and Natasha de Betak (born in Spain, living and working in France and India) touches upon the depths of the personal psychological realm when profound trauma is experienced. Works of other artists relate to the Arab and/or Muslim world and its interaction with ‘the West’, such as the Indian Muslim folk artists Madhu (a Hindu name) and his wife Hazra Chitrakar, who depicted their understanding of 9/11 and the mass hysteria about 21-12-2012 in the particular hybrid style of the rural Bengal pat chitrakars on a cartoon-like news scroll of over 3 meters in height.
Moreover, four Palestinian artists drew attention to the ungoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the harsh and restrictive conditions of daily life in the occupied territories. ‘Infiltrators’, the award-winning documentary film of Khaled Jarrar was screened in the Sala Terrena together with his short testimonial-like film ‘Bus Stop Sep 5’, whereas three film posters of the identical twins Tarzan & Arab Nasser from their acclaimed project ‘Gazawood’ could be viewed in the Refektorium. There, a selection of digital prints by Mohammed Al Hawajri fused imagery of old paintings of well-known masters with photographs of the harsh reality of life in the Gaza Strip in a series entitled ‘Guernica-Gaza’. Its theme refers to the Basque town of Guernica, which was destroyed as a testing ground for the German airforce in 1937.
The Tehran-born Austrian artist Ramesch Daha disclosed the little-explored relationship between the Nazis and the regime of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in the years preceding, during and after the Second World War. Her featured collage-like work is based upon archival research and exerts an almost charm-like effect upon the visitor; intriguing facts draw one’s attention again and again to the scraps of information, old letters, booklets, carbon copies and personal documents on display.
Doing justice to the creative language of 27 artists in two different spaces of one incredible venue is a challenging undertaking. The spatial limitations of the venue made themselves slightly felt in one instance. The featured works of the distinct Austrian artist Lisl Ponger dissolved somewhat in the presence of the many other inviting works displayed in the first room of the Refektorium as one enters the exhibition. A pity, for one may easily pass by Ponger’s work affording it only a slight glance, whereas the subject matter addressed in Ponger’s work deserves more than a second thought consideration. Ponger addresses important aspects of the often overlooked, generalised Western relationship with (white) art and culture, its own self-infatuated image and experience of life and the non-white Other.
In conclusion, ‘Fragile Hands’ offered a thoroughly refreshing, thought-provoking and much-needed international discourse fully in line with Merali’s own research, (re)presenting the artistic expressions of minority groups in order to disclose the “shifting perspectives of geopolitical narration” in the world of arts.
‘Fragile Hands – A Curatorial Essay on Stated Subjectivities’ was exhibited from 12 March to 11 April 2014 at the exhibition center of the Vienna University of Applied Arts in the Heiligenkreuzer Hof (Refektorium & Sala Terrena), Schönlaterngasse 5, A-1010 Wien / Vienna, Austria.
The exhibition came with an extensive catalogue which provides an elaborate essay by curator Shaheen Merali and 54 multicolour images of the art works involved, still available (ISBN 978-3-9503563-4-2).
Mohammed Al-Hawajri (Palestine), Masoumeh Bakhtiary (Iran), Binu Bhaskar (India), Madhu and Hazra Chitrakar (India), Rajib Chowdhury (India), Ramesch Daha (Iran /Austrian), Natasha de Betak (France, India), Majid Fathizadeh (Iran), Debesh Goswami (India, France), Probir Gupta (India), Ghazaleh Hedayat (Iran), Taha Heydary (Iran), Khaled Jarrar (Palestine), Rajkamal Kahlon (USA, India, Germany), Katayoun Karami (Iran), Leena Kejriwal (India), Amir Mobed (Iran), Masoumeh Mozafari (Iran), Tarzan and Arab Nasser (Palestine), Charley Nijensohn (Argentina, Germany), Amin Nourani (Iran), Lisl Ponger (Austria), Simit Raveshia (India), Oliver Ressler (Austria), Atefeh Samaei (Iran), Rozita Sharafjahan (Iran), JJ Xi (China, UK).
This post is also available in: Dutch