Political art so often shouts too loudly. Like most political poems, it knows where it’s going long before it gets there, so there is no element of real surprise or genuine imaginative engagement. This choice new group show at Modern Art Oxford, which exhibits works by fourteen young artists from around the world, is quiet and nuanced by comparison. This is political art as it should be made, wheedlingly purposeful, skilful, quietly memorable.
Take ‘Timeline: Romanian Culture from 55BC until today’ by Lia Perjovschi, for example. This piece runs riot around the walls of one of the first floor galleries, a kind of crazy, seething mass of scribbled notations on 40 sheets of paper, randomly placed photographs and incomprehensible crowdings in of information. It makes you laugh out loud to see it because it mocks the kinds of absurdities that historians and cultural commentators indulge in all the time, the rapid, pat analysis of the complexities of national history. Another equally engaging piece is an assemblage of objects displayed on a long, curving table by Michael Rakowitz called ‘The invisible enemy should not exist (recovered, missing, stolen series)’. Rakovitz has re-made a selection from the thousands of object that went missing – and remain missing - from the Iraq National Museum after the invasion of 2003. Except that he has made them out of trash – Middle Eastern product packaging, sheets of newspapers, glue. They are all solemnly displayed chronologically, as they might be in the British Museum. They are a powerful reminder of absent, priceless things, re-made out of trash.
We impose meanings from outside when we deal with cultures other than our own. What do we make of Mircea Cantor’s ‘Monument for the end of the world’? Once again, this piece works its way with use through humour. A table-top display shows us what resembles a scale model of something that looks somewhat akin to Macchu Picchu. Wooden blocks stand in for built structures – yes, it is a kind of scale model. Tiers of steps ascend to nothing more meaningful than a wind chime, gently stirring in the breeze, and suspended in the air by the arm of a crane. It has all the trappings, and all the strange atmosphere, of a sequestered place of hidden ritual, but its meaning is completely opaque to us, if not absurd. Once again, we are forced to stand on the outside and look in, abandoning our clever games of cultural appropriation even before we begin.
Downstairs, one entire gallery is occupied by the giant hulk of a blackened, burnt out car – except that it has been made in terracotta by Adel Abdessemed. This object which, out in the street, would create a frisson of fear has been tamed into a monumental piece for a museum of modern art. Some trace of a street war has been pleasingly aestheticised. No one need worry any more.