Art as a political weapon? Schirn Gallery presents ′Power to the People′ | Arts | DW | 22.03.2018
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Art as a political weapon? Schirn Gallery presents 'Power to the People'

Art with a message is in demand at exhibitions and biennials around the world. Until the end of May, Frankfurt's Schirn Gallery is presenting a collection of political art raising plenty of questions.

Men in white shirts are seated around a conference table. Their heads and torsos are bent over their knees, their hands slack against the floor. The wall-sized oil painting by Adelita Husni-Bey hangs at the entrance to the new exhibition at the Schirn Gallery.

With her work, entitled "The Sleepers," the New York-based artist criticizes the inaction of world leaders. In another piece, an installation by Guillaume Bijl, election booths from Finland, Azerbaijan, Austria, Japan, Morocco and China have been recreated. The Belgian artist suggests thinking about the significance of elections in a "post-democracy" world.

From anti-Trump demonstrations to the Occupy movement and the #MeToo debate, the latest protest movements are sure to find their way into art. "We are experiencing a return of art to the political," said Philipp Demandt, the director of the Schirn Gallery. In such turbulent times, art has once again become a cultural barometer.

The exhibition consists of 43 works from countries around the world. With installations, photographs, drawings, paintings and videos, curator Martina Weinhart attempts to take stock of political art.

'Power to the People' exhibition (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt/G. Gerster)

Curator Martina Weinhart organized the new exhibition

In the thick of it

Works on display include the ironic work of Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt, who converted two police shields into saloon doors. The photographic work of his London-based compatriot Osman Bozkurt is equally arresting. In a large format photo, he portrays 10 fingers smeared with purple ink — a reminder of dubious the parliamentary elections that took place on the Bosporus in 2002.

The video project of documenta-14 artist Hiwa K, "This Lemon Tastes of Apple," shows hectic scenes from a demonstration in Iraq, where participants used lemons against tear gas before fleeing. 

Visitors to the gallery may feel greeted by political propaganda. Is art a suitable political weapon these days, anyway? Is it a useful tool to combat a cruel world? What does its use mean for the quality of art? Such questions are also raised by the Frankfurt exhibition, as in many others of late.

A still from the video 'Ballerinas and Police' by artist Halil Altindere (Halil Altındere/PİLOT Galeri, Istanbul)

A still from the video 'Ballerinas and Police,' by artist Halil Altindere, is on display in Frankfurt

Political art is popular

Recently, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans campaigned against Brexit and the looming departure of the UK from the European Union with a poster campaign in London in the tradition of German poster artist Klaus Staeck. The Berlin Center for Political Beauty has been focusing on the refugee tragedy in the Mediterranean for years. Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson even opened a lamp-making workshop at the Venice Biennale last May to "shine a light" on the refugee crisis. At the documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, a street was renamed after a victim of an act of terrorism committed by a Nazi group.

Art with a political message is definitely in demand, but can it change the world for the better? For Picasso, who created an icon of political art with his painting, "Guernica," art was also a weapon. When a German occupying soldier in Paris asked Picasso if he had painted the picture, he replied: "You painted this picture, not me." The fact that the work was even necessary was the fault of the Germans.

The exhibition "Power to the People" is on show at Frankfurt's Schirn Gallery until May 27.

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