Politician or Civil Servant

Issue no1
Feb-Mar 2019

In the last issue, Anna Tilroe wrote a letter to Domeniek Ruyters on the dubious quality of today’s engagement in international art. Here’s his reaction.

Things occasionally go wrong at this magazine. With Urgent (No. 6, 2009), the issue that set the tone for our present discussion on engagement, we were delighted that Marlene Dumas was one of the contributors. She had jotted down some observations about the mammoth deterrent wall that has become a symbol for the Israeli government's heavy-handed suppression of the Palestinian pe0ple. After the issue came out, she was immediately on the phone, irritated by the fact that the photograph of the wall that she had submitted with her article had been printed in a very tiny format. Dumas had wanted the wall spread across the entire width of the page, as a blockade, sparing nothing and no-one. The reader was supposed to have felt the presence of the wall, and then have to uncomfortably read around it.

In the March issue of Artforum, she showed how she had actually conceived the piece. Spread across the full width of two pages, an advertisement from her gallery presented a painting of the wall with some Jewish people praying in front of it, as a new style of Wailing Wall. In Artforum, the wall functioned as a divisive element. There, in the middle of all those colourful ads, it completely obstructed the reader's view for a moment, all-encompassing as it was.

I thought of it a strong gesture. Particularly in the context she had chosen: New York, the Capital of Art and the heart of the Jewish lobby that has held American politics hostage for decades. Dumas is mobilizing the debate in a place that has not been very receptive to it in the last few years: the New York artworld. And not just with the ad, but of course also with the exhibition at David Zwirner’s for which the advertisement was placed. I am curious to know for which cocktail party on the Upper East Side the painting of that bloody awful wall will soon be providing the decor.

With this painting Dumas will not stand the test of political bravery that Jonas Staal imposes upon the artworld in his essay Post-Propaganda (2009). The moral crusader from Rotterdam, who argues in his pamphlet that art and politics are ideological companions in their common plea for freedom and diversity, will have little liking for the political ambiguity Dumas incorporates in her work. In interviews about the exhibition, she takes a distance from all-too-quick political conclusions. ‘I am not against the state of Israel or the state of Palestine, but I am against the wall,’ she says, apparently afraid of becoming embroiled in what has so far seemed to be an insolvable political dispute.

Activism without a sting, you might think upon reading this. Just as Dumas with her high-income New York target group is a perfect case of radical chic. And yet I like Dumas’s action, particularly because of that political slipperiness which leaves room for other viewpoints that sidestep the confrontation between good and bad. Putting the issue on the agenda in this politically sensitive context is sufficient in this case. Mind you: as spectators, we are standing on the Jewish side of the wall. That in itself raises questions. I don’t want to stand there, I find myself thinking, even as Dumas is making me an accessory.

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Read on in METROPOLIS M No. 3 / 2010
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2019