Aernout Mik @ The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
May 6, 2009 through July 27, 2009
37 W 57th Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10019
May 7 through June 26, 2009
If Repressive Tolerance, Herbert Marcuse’s ground-breaking 1965 essay lambasting liberal society’s seemingly infinite tolerance for the unacceptable, had a contemporary equivalent it wouldn’t be an opus by Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein, it would be the current Aernout Mik exhibition at MoMA. Refashioning the repressive environments which have become pervasive in so-called “advanced” Western societies (such as administrative detention centers, absurdist tribunals, inhuman bureaucracies, and even schools), Mik does a better job of plundering the myth of liberty, equality, and fraternity than any contemporary critical essay. Marcuse, the most influential philosopher (with Theodor Adorno) to emerge from the Frankfurt School, stated that “Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence.”
In the multi-channel video installations visible both at MoMA and at The Project gallery, Mik very precisely breaks down the appearance of good, or of necessity, which accompanies systemic torture. Victims of this practice are not high-profile terrorism detainees, but cohorts of anonymous individuals representing entire pans of contemporary civil society. By placing real people who are anything but professional actors or performance artists in coercive, reconstructed environments (including the most banal theatres of daily life, such as airports, offices, and even dance clubs), Mik demystifies our repressive foundations to devastating effect.
Training Ground (2006) is a two-channel projection that depicts immigrants being smuggled into Western Europe. Intercepted at a truck stop, they are brought to a gated outdoor area to be identified, screened, frisked, and variously manipulated by police officers wearing latex gloves. The looped images overlap, achieving perfect synchronicity at odd, jarring moments before drifting back into discontinuity. The scene is set in Germany, which isn’t entirely anodyne - but Mik likes to throw a monkey-wrench into all his plots. (Those who argue that his work lacks a narrative element simply because it avoids typical cinematic techniques like reaction shots, overlook the fact that the multiple timelines don’t merely overlap, and that Mik makes ample use of parallel editing). In Training Ground, a strange virus wreaks havoc in the plans of the authorities, and the guards who blithely ignore the seizure of an African immigrant fall prey to the same debilitating ailment - one that transforms them into helpless, frothing zombies. Twitching and convulsing, they in turn become prisoners. A similar dialectical reversal occurs in Vacuum Room (2005), a six screen loop which shows detainees, many of whom are Middle Eastern, inside a courthouse that features jocular officials waiving ballots, applauding, and bantering casually amongst themselves. The judges and clerks become increasingly despondent, however, as the individuals they are supposed to judge in some way take control, not with violence, but by committing such acts of passive resistance as lifting their shirts above their heads to hide their faces or crushing eggs on bronze sculptures depicting eminent public officials.
Mik builds on the codas of political dissent that are prevalent in Western Europe, where high-school students take to the streets to protest unpopular policies, disenfranchised third-generation immigrants set fire to cars in response to police brutality, and workers routinely occupy factories. It is a vocabulary that, in America, has been lost, relegated to a small activist fringe. Judging from the bewildered comments I heard at MoMA, it is legitimate to ask if more than a tiny percentage of contemporary American viewers could even understand Mik’s work, lacking as they do the culture of dissent that constitutes the very foundation of his artistic corpus.
Mik isn’t the only artist in recent years to have delved into the repressive backlash that is transforming Western society. William Betts, citing Michel Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish, has crafted an entire language, in paint, devoted to rendering the notion of camera surveillance. (His Overseen show at Margaret Thatcher Projects was a good example). Kon Trubkovich, like Mik, places individuals in coercive, debasing environments, or makes them perform meaningless menial tasks. In her video Operation Atropos (2006), which was featured at the Whitney Biennial, Coco Fusco asked six female volunteers to sign up for the Prisoner of War Interrogation Resistance Program, and filmed their travails. These artists, and others—such as the photographer Richard Ross with his staggering “Architecture of Authority” series—have created highly pertinent, visually compelling takes on collective dynamics, the herd mentality, and authoritarianism, and they have molded powerful indictments in their respective mediums. However, none of these comes close to the arresting complexity, to the rich, articulate panoply Mik brings to bear on the security myth. He is a plunderer of the whole modern “homeland defense” and vested affluence apparatus. With Osmosis and Excess (2005), he morphs into a disemboweler of rabid consumerism and its toxic byproducts such as engulfing pharmacopeias and automobile graveyards scattered across entire mountain ranges. Mik’s works, or at least those which came after Bush and 9/11, are deliberately subversive. As in Schoolyard (2009), which was commissioned by MoMA, these multi-channeled videos could almost be said to provide a recipe for revolt through forced ‘prise de conscience’. The French term denotes a heightened awareness or a sudden understanding of an unacceptable condition, in this case the foul, degrading mechanisms at play in modern society, “the entity which possesses the monopoly on legitimate violence,” to quote Foucault. In an era still defined by George Bush and Guantanamo Bay (names which may as well be synonyms), constraining “legitimate” violence and the other travesties which Mik decorticates have become the norm, and are surreptitiously sucking the very humanity out of our collective soul. Mik is the first artist to make that radical appreciation the foundation of his oeuvre.
My only criticism of the MoMA exhibition (and it is a minor one) is the use of the term “survey” to qualify its selection of video installations. By focusing on works made after 2001, which marked a drastic turning point in Mik’s career, the show fails to highlight the distance covered by the artist. Only one work is representative of the type of work Mik was doing before 2001: Fluff (1996), a 16mm film in which passive protagonists are belted with sticky cakes by invisible assailants. Territorium (1999), which features patrons inside a disco, either jumping around frantically or else ambling about listlessly, or Float (1998), which features a man and a woman being bounced around violently on an elastic floor (the rhythmic undulations mimicking a sexual encounter) would have completed the picture. But my point is a semantic one: even though “Aernout Mik” is neither a survey nor a retrospective, it is essential viewing.
Noah Marcel Sudarsky grew up in France, Switzerland, and New York. He is a freelance writer and correspondent based in NYC. His articles and reviews have appeared in The NY Press, The Village Voice, The Onion, New York magazine, Salon.com, Citimag, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, and other publication. firstname.lastname@example.org all articles from this author