With a shaved head and fierce eyes, his hands in constant motion, Barragán embodies the migratory spirit of the contemporary art world: while living in Madrid, he is constantly on the move across Europe and Latin America, and he is also the associate editor of Artpulse, an international art magazine published out of Miami. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto and the Cobra Museum in Amsterdam, Barragán’s show “¡Patria o Libertad!: On Patriotism, Immigration and Populism” is anything but geographically bound. Including artists from Iraq, Bosnia, Turkey, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan, Scotland, Russia, the United States and Canada, in no special order, its governing theme is nationalism and patriotism in a postmodern, globalized era in which affection for one’s native land has often become a divisive, and dangerous, political stance.
“Aggravated by a destabilizing social and political globalization,” Barragán writes of nationalism and patriotism in an exhibition essay, “it becomes one of the major challenges in contemporary times: patriotism and nationalism promote ethnic conflicts; it instigates referendums for self-determination within democratic and non-democratic nations; it mystifies unreal historical personae; it spreads false readings of history; it channels frustrations and religious fundamentalism.”
Most of us are, whether we acknowledge it or not, deeply ambivalent about both nationalism and patriotism: we are moved by it when it arrives in the form of what appears to be a liberation movement, like the recent revolts in Egypt and Libya, and are indignant when it devolves into a dark, violent, reactionary force, as with the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s and some right-wing groups in Europe and the United States today. With such a complex, volatile and potentially controversial theme, one would expect Barragán’s approach to be densely conceptual and equipped with an underlying political agenda, but in fact the chief virtue of “¡Patria o Libertad!” is its high humour and biting sense of irony.
The exhibit is divided into four thematic sections: “Love Thy Anthem,” “Fly Your Flag,” “Honour the Hero,” and “Tell Us a Story.” “Love Thy Anthem” opens with Iraqi-Finnish artist Adel Abidin’s deadpan and slyly subtle Jihad. Dressed in a traditional white robe, a checkered scarf wrapped around his head and face, Abidin stands in front of an American flag and, after haltingly reciting verses from the Koran, picks up a guitar and launches into a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” In Jihad, the Islamic suicide bomber and the American Christian fundamentalist seem to literally intermingle. What isn’t clear is whether the artist, or the curator, was aware that the song in its intended form was a socialist workers’ ballad by Woody Guthrie. In Turkish artist Nezaket Ekici’s unsettling National Anthems, she sings the German national anthem to the melody of the Turkish one, and the Turkish national anthem to the tune of the German one. The effect is eerie, as though the easy, pat national emotions are squirming within an unfamiliar melodic shape. For Walking Song, Japanese artist Kaoru Katayama did some research on the beloved anthem of the Asturias region of northern Spain, where she has lived since 1992, and discovered that the melody evolved from a song sung by visiting Polish miners and the words come from a Cuban poet lamenting the death of his father. Her video has the tune performed by a Polish bagpipe player, the lyrics belted out by a Cuban singer, reminding us that national history is almost always complex and the result of the chance workings of history. Canadians Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay and Pascal Lièvre’s devastating, laugh-out-loud Patriotic has the artists singing the US Patriot Act to the tune of, and in the swooning, torch-song style of, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
Spanish collective Democracia’s contribution to “Honour the Hero,” Ne vous laissez pas consoler, involved working with the Ultramarines, hooligans of French soccer team Girondins from Bordeaux, to create audience banners at a game spelling out revolutionary slogans from Hegel and the French Revolution, while Scottish artist Katri Walker’s elegant video Sometimes it makes me wonder what I fought for documents the musings and invectives of a former British paratrooper who served in Palestine during the Arab-Israeli War of the late 1940s.The most compelling piece in “Fly Your Flag” is young German artist Johanna Reich’s Monument. Dressed in a black sweater, red skirt and tights, and high yellow rain boots, she slathers a Rothko-like painting in black, red, and yellow onto the wall, and then, leaning back, literally melds into it.
One of the exhibition’s most illuminating videos is Russian artist Elena Kovylina’s Love After the Cold War, in which she staged screen tests in Hollywood for an imaginary Russian-American co-production, asking hopeful actors and actresses what they most loved about America. Offered while sitting in front of an American flag, their responses are by turns amusing, embarrassing and troubling. One young woman hailing from the American South describes what a revelation it was in college when she realized that it was possible to disagree with the American government, and a fairly macho guy praises American liberty because it allows him to buy things he knows he doesn’t need, like a $700 cellphone.
“I’m not ageist or anything,” Barragán told me as we strolled through the show, “but I like to put lesser known, younger artists into my shows. I think that’s more interesting for what I do—the stars are for the big, fancy institutions!” Indeed, “¡Patria o Libertad!” is largely devoid of the usual suspects on the global art circuit; Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, Bosnian artist Maja Bajevic and Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander are the only relatively big names in the exhibit. One consequence of Barragán’s eschewal of the star system—I don’t think his choice here is either purely philosophical or purely pragmantic; he is an intuitive curator who enjoys working with artists whose careers are still developing—is that there is no single work in “¡Patria o Libertad!” that commands sustained attention; the works in the show are discrete but limited forays into the theme rather than deep explorations.
If one is looking for a darker rumination on nationalism and patriotism, however, one need only cross MOCCA’s lobby and view Artur Zmijewski’s harrowing Them, which is on view as part of MOCCA’s ongoing collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada. Them documents a process where Zmijewski asked various groups in contemporary Polish life—conservative and progressive, religious and secular—to create a kind of coat of arms for the nation. Then, he allowed each group to amend what the others had created. By the end, all devolved into chaos, and someone simply torched the canvas festooned with conflicting images of Poland.
Though concerned with issues specific to Poland, Them is in many ways prescient. Just 10 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we are living in an era of uncertainty and disintegration: a failed attempt at nation building in Iraq, an ongoing debacle in Afghanistan, a deep recession in North America and a crisis in the European Union whose end is far from clear. While academics have gleefully proclaimed the death of the nation-state and pundits have argued the glories of globalization, neither has provided so much as a prospect of the kind of rootedness and stability that the nation-state, with its stirring anthems and bright flags, once provided. We have a lot of thinking to do at this point about the kind of political order we want to live in—and how it relates to our private lives and identities—and we don’t have a whole lot of time for theoretical discussions. For those who are in Toronto over the next month, the exhibits at MOCCA are a good place to start. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself doubled over in laughter (and despair) in the process.