Can Art Really Make a Difference?

02/25/2017 12:42 am ET

Art + Activism: Making a Real Impact in the Real World

SUPERFLEX, <em>Hospital Equipment</em>, 2014. Courtesy the artists. Photo: PalMedSuperflex.
SUPERFLEX, Hospital Equipment, 2014. Courtesy the artists. Photo: PalMedSuperflex.

In this heated political climate, art for art’s sake feels ever more like an indefensible position—maybe a guilty pleasure. Even within the relative privilege of the art establishment, activist ideals are increasingly surfacing, while political statements made by artists have become de rigeur. Just this week, 200 prominent contemporary artists, curators, writers, musicians, and filmmakers have announced the formation of a global coalition to combat the rise of “right-wing populism, fascism and the increasingly stark expressions of xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia and unapologetic intolerance” with art exhibitions, actions, and programming. Defiantly titled “Hands Off Our Revolution,” signers-on include the likes of Alfredo Jaar, Okwui Enwezor, David Byrne, Hank Willis Thomas, Rosalind Krauss, Tacita Dean, Wilhelm Sasnal, Pierre Huyghe, Martha Rosler, and Miranda July. The perennial question faced by such artist-activists is whether or not the activities performed in the rarefied world of the art exhibition and symposium can truly make an impact in the so-called “real world.” To investigate this question, we take a look at recent activist actions by international artists and current exhibitions that aim to effect material change in the world. 

Cedrick Tamasala, <em>Untitled</em>, 2016, ink and graphite on paper, 39.4 x 27.6 inches (100 x 70 cm). Courtesy the Cercle d
Cedrick Tamasala, Untitled, 2016, ink and graphite on paper, 39.4 x 27.6 inches (100 x 70 cm). Courtesy the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise; Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; and KOW, Berlin.

The truth is that there is a huge range of what constitutes activist art actions, from those operating on the level of individual interaction, to broad-based efforts focused on practical goals, like fundraising, or more intangible ones, like awareness-raising. The effectiveness of these actions likewise varies greatly. Recently, Anish Kapoor, upon receiving the $1 million Genesis Prize, announced that the prize money would go toward helping refugees, a constituency the artist has worked, and walked, for in the past. Mark Bradford, who co-founded an art non-profit for foster children in his local community in Los Angeles, recently reported that his participation in the upcoming Venice Biennale would include an initiative supporting the rehabilitation of local female ex-convicts. On the other hand, Christo’s surprise abandonment of his and Jeanne-Claude’s long-fought-for Over the River project under the vague auspices of anti-Trumpism probably amounted to no more than a mere blip on the radar of its target. All of these artists hold high profiles in the art world, and their decisions invariably attracted much media attention, but the objective and impact of their actions fall on a wide spectrum.

Tomorrow Girls Troop, <em>Girl Power Café</em>, 2017. Installation view, <em>Socially Engaged Art,</em> 3331 Arts Chiyoda, To
Tomorrow Girls Troop, Girl Power Café, 2017. Installation view, Socially Engaged Art, 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo, 2017. Photo: Tomorrow Girls Troop.

Most artists, however, don’t have the benefit of a high profile name or art event like the Venice Biennale to enact change in their communities. Some must even use the protection of anonymity to challenge the status quo. Feminist art collective Tomorrow Girls Troop, founded in 2015, wear pink bunny masks, à la the Guerrilla Girls, to deliver their message of gender equality to young people in Japan, Korea, and beyond. Promoting feminism in a hostile patriarchal system necessitates the use of the masks, to protect against the often violent threat of backlash; the veil of anonymity empowers the Tomorrow Girls Troop to spread their message without fear. While much of their activity takes place on the internet and social media channels, their most recent action saw them marching in unison in front of the Japanese Diet building, part of an extended campaign to raise awareness of sexual violence and Japan’s outdated laws regarding rape. A video and artifacts of the Tomorrow Girls Troop’s Believe march are on display, along with a Girl Power Café serving up feminist library books and discussion of gender issues, in the exhibition Socially Engaged Art: A New Wave of Art for Social Change at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, in Tokyo.

Pedro Reyes, <em>Guns for Shovels</em>, 2008 -. Installation view, <em>Socially Engaged Art</em>, 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo, 2
Pedro Reyes, Guns for Shovels, 2008 -. Installation view, Socially Engaged Art, 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo, 2017. Photo: Haruhiko Muda.

Socially Engaged Art, on view until March 5, is the first exhibition to feature social practice art in Japan, with international artists like Ai Weiwei, Suzanne Lacy, and Pedro Reyes, shown alongside Japanese artists Yoshinari Nishio, Kazuya Takagawa, Kurumi Wakaki, and projects and collectives like Park Fiction and Mammalian Diving Reflex. Like other exhibitions of socially engaged art, the tension between the aesthetic object and the activist aim is evident in many of the works. A line of 10 identical shovels, part of Pedro Reyes’s Guns for Shovels project (2008 - ), perhaps is the work that deals best with the problem of representing social change through art objects. Reyes’s shovels were forged from the metal extracted from surrendered firearms. The shovels then are used to plant olive trees—embodying a literal transformation from a violent weapon to a tool for planting a symbol of peace.

SUPERFLEX, <em>Hospital Equipment</em>, 2014. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
SUPERFLEX, Hospital Equipment, 2014. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

The shovel has a precedent in art history, of course: Marcel Duchamp’s famous ready-made sculpture In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964). Rather than serve as a functional object, the ready-made retreats into the realm of art, and therefore into the realm of the useless—completely the opposite of the socially engaged art under discussion here. Danish art collective SUPERFLEX, however, explores the idea of a ready-made art object that is life saving rather than utterly useless, “a ready-made, upside down,” as they term it. In Hospital Equipment (2014 - ), now showing at Galerie von Bartha, the art object consists of a collection of vital instruments and surgical tools. After the exhibition closes, the art object becomes simply its own photographic documentation, while the actual tools will be shipped out to be made useful in a hospital environment, where they are crucially necessary—specifically, to the Salamieh Hospital in Hawarti, Syria.

Installation view, <em>Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise</em>, SculptureCenter, New York, 2017. Photo: K
Installation view, Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, SculptureCenter, New York, 2017. Photo: Kyle Knodell.

A project that purports to make art useful begs the question, however: does it even need to be art to begin with? Consider another exhibition, on view now at SculptureCenter in New York, which places art at the center of its program of social change. The Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League or CATPC) is a collective of Congo-based sculptors who use art as a vehicle to create wealth and opportunity in an area suffering from the aftermath of colonial exploitation. While palm oil and cacao farmers in the Congo are still paid a pittance for the raw materials they produce, the CATPC divert those same materials into their sculptures, sold on the art market, thereby “occupy[ing] another place in the global value chain.” In turn, the CATPC shine a light on the systems and structures that continue to disproportionately benefit from exploitative labor and the remains of colonial rule, particularly corporations that also have a large stake in the art world, such as Unilever (a sponsor of the Tate Turbine Hall commissions). In collaboration with Dutch artist Renzo Martens’ project Institute for Human Activities, the CATPC will be opening a research center and white cube art space in their native Lusanga, Congo, formerly the site of a Unilever plantation and known in the past as “Leverville.”  Martens commented, “I feel that there’s so much inequality in this world I can’t just make politically critical art and show it in places of power.” With the site about as far away from the traditional centers of the art world as you can get, the project truly tests the limits of art’s impact in the real world.

Jérémie Mabiala reflecting on his work, 2015. Courtesy the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise.
Jérémie Mabiala reflecting on his work, 2015. Courtesy the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise.

Socially Engaged Art: A New Wave of Art for Social Change is on view at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, in Tokyo, from February 18 to March 5, 2017.

SUPERFLEX: Hospital Equipment is showing at Galerie von Bartha, S-chanf, from February 17 to March 18, 2017.

Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League) are showing at New York’s SculptureCenter from January 29 to March 27, 2017.

—Natalie Hegert

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS