Crack Up - Crack Down
The 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts
Crack Up - Crack DownMGLC (International Centre of Graphic Arts)
June 7 – September 29
Guarding the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, are four dragons perched on each corner of the Dragon Bridge, built in the beginning of the 20th century during the Austro-Hungarian Empire rule. The quartet of beasts, with their grotesque postures and spine-chilling jaws, now symbolize the city of 300,000 inhabitants. Indicators of the city’s burgeoning tourism following the bloody separation from former Yugoslavia in 1991, numerous souvenir shops sell adorable stuffed dolls of the terrifying dragons, whose menacing roars are replaced by comical grins and harmless teeth. Ridiculous, water-downed, and trivial, the plush replicas of the despotic figures accidentally manifest the workings of satirical humor, which bends the hoisted arm of the authoritarian discourse, stripping off its imperious clothes to ridicule its hyperbolic command with slipperiness of the mundane.
Befittingly, the 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts assumes satire as its central theme under the curation of Berlin-based art collective Slavs and Tatars, who have long subverted despotic decrees of power with open-ended wit and an array of transcultural references. En par with the collective’s practical focus on “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China” in visual art, printed matter, and lecture-performances, the roster they bring together foremost spans a similar geography, benefiting from the key location of Slovenia—the first previously communist republic to enter the eurozone—for a Eurasia-centric statement on the zeitgeist. Entitled Crack Up - Crack Down, the exhibition occupies a total of nine institutions and galleries around the city, starting with the International Center of Graphic Arts (MGLC), where Slavs and Tatars intertwines an eclectic narrative on subtleties of farce. Bulgarian painter Martina Vacheva’s lush paintings mash pop-culture rituals of beauty pageants and car washes with depictions of overtly sexual women surrounding her native country’s everyman comic figure Bay Ganjo, which has thus been adopted for propaganda by the left and the right alike. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s series Disputed Utterances (2018) breaks down seven real-life legal cases in which the defendant’s potential innocence results from unclear verdicts on how certain words were pronounced. Abu Hamdan pairs wall texts of such slippery utterances with a three-dimensional, laser-cut plexiglass sculpture of a zoomed-in mouth with its tongue covered in charcoal and olive oil, referencing a speech-therapy method of studying the mouth’s functions in making certain sounds. Arguably the closest visual and thematic lexicon to Slavs and Tatars’s own practice in the show belongs to German multimedia artist KRIWET (born Ferdinand Kriwet), whose circular text pieces twist, bend, and transform phonetic and ideological potentials of words and sounds. The late artist’s experiments with English tend to shake words from their cores, making them slowly morph into “nonlogical” sounds, remotely familiar yet distinctly foreign. Words such as “Marylinkman,” “Incestimate,” or “Heteroclyde” sound and seem almost legitimate at first sight but dissolve into obscurity. Spanning an entire room at the vicarija Creative Centre, located steps away from the International Centre of Creative Arts, is No More Fuchs Left to Give (2019), a collaboration between Arthur Fournier and Raphael Koenig, saluting the biennial’s history on graphic arts and gnarly parts of dissemination of printed matter. 20thcentury Marxist historian and publisher Eduard Fuch’s influence on Walter Benjamin, particularly for his seminal 1935 text The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, is showcased with a densely researched display of ephemera, limited editions, and, comically, Walmart.com prints of Fuch’s illustrations taken out of their context and placed into generic “European-looking” decorative images to grace suburban homes. DobraVaga, an exhibition space located by the Ljubljana River amidst the city’s street market, brings the biennial into the street. Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova’s sells ceramic replicas of fruits, vegetables, and fish for one Euro per gram, saluting everyday commerce and disrupting the fluctuating values of the art market. Touchable and accessible with ease, the sculptures parody rituals of exchange for high art and everyday consumables.
Equrna Gallery, tucked inside the city’s modest business center, offers a marvelous mini exhibition, tapping into the biennial’s overall themes with unabashed humor, graphic eloquence, and subversive thinking. Beijing-based artist XIYADIE’s paper cutouts captivatingly depict gay sex drenched in pastel hues of pinks, greens, and reds. Reminiscing miniature painting traditions with their twist on perspective, bodies contorted in a serpentine grace stem from the scissors’ meticulous path through paper, yielding unexpectedly erotic renditions of lust held together through cutout penises and lips. Next to XIYADIE’s multiple men with bare phalluses is the protagonist in Tala Madani’s painterly animation Overhead Projection (Digger) (2018), in which a man solemnly sits at a movie theater and beats himself with his elongated penis to the point of passing out. In another short animation, Cats and Cat Men (2018), half-cat and half-man beings roam dark alleys at night, crawling on their four legs and marking territories with urine. Echoing Madani’s phantasmagorical paintings of men in wildly bizarre scenarios that challenge their bodily capacities, the works throw punches at the tropes of masculinity, poking at subliminal phallic anxieties through absurdist scenarios.
Nicole Wermers’s Givers & Takers sculptures (2016), pointedly installed onto pristine walls of ISIS Gallery, sharply encapsulate the workings of satire, both for the rhetorician and the recipient, with their absurdly austere juxtapositions of social dynamics. Readymade domestic stainless-steel kitchen fans are paired with upside-down hand-driers. The utilitarian devices, one real and one made-up in each pair, are devoid of electrical power or the loud noise they both otherwise generate. The encounter between the public and private, real and fake, and provider and receiver contains humor and animation—with a dose of sexuality—grasping the satire’s indirect subversion of social constructs, behind polished facades for the sculptures and words for the satirist.