We are often reminded that history repeats itself. Sometimes in reflection of what has come before, but at other times as the feeble justification of present affairs and acceptance of their supposed inevitability. This is not the case in Akademie der Künste’s exhibition ‘Uncertain States,’ which presents an extensive collection of artistic resistance against human struggle. Compiling a remarkable selection of archival material alongside contemporary visual arts, a vivid dialogue is formed between old and new stories of migration and states of emergency. The exhibition provides bearings for waves of worldwide crisis, beginning with archives documenting ‘Art and Migration 1933-1945.’ From these dates emerges a continuous timeline mapping those forced into flight, stripped of their homes, belongings and humanity.
While ‘Uncertain States’ captures artistic resistance in the face of emergency, it asserts the stark reminder that migration is usually characterised by peril and despair. The archival objects (including belongings of Anna Seghers, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky) establish a contextual point of return for the contemporary works, clinically presented in museum-like glass boxes as if provoking dissection. What can be found is a tension between human fragility and remarkable strength, embodied in trinkets, drawings, and letters of both desperation and hope.
In a letter to Theodor W. Adorno dated 1940, philosopher Walter Benjamin expresses the “complete uncertainty about what the next day and even the next hour will bring,” which dominated his experience of life in exile. German novelist Heinrich Mann’s pocket calendar lies open to show February 21st, 1933, the beginning of his abrupt migration from Berlin, reduced to a one-word entry of abgereist: departed. The panic and haste embodied in these pieces is reiterated in Shilpa Gupta‘s departure board installation, ‘Untitled’ (2008), hung from the ceiling as if watching over the grid of artefacts. It echoes the fast-forward tick of a clock around the room as the letters continually flip, revealing broken messages of statistics and fleeting thoughts. Gupta captures the erratic and unreliable nature of transit zones as experienced by those in flight, encompassing the space with a reminder of incessant waiting and confusion.
The ambiguity of transit is approached frequently in the exhibition, manifested in ‘The Fact of the Matter’ (2009) by William Forsythe. This interactive installation resembles gym apparatus, comprised of polycarbonate rings hanging unevenly from polyester belts. Forsythe has established a space for performance, in which the audience-as-performer creates their own choreography. A route is made through unforgiving territory as the body is sent into full swing, putting a focus on endurance and the physicality of migration.
The immersion of performance in encouragement of empathy is also explored in Arkadi Zaides’s ‘Capture Practice’ (2014). The two-channel video installation presents Human Rights video archives of Israelis in the West Bank, running alongside studio footage of the artist’s own performance. Zaides commits his body to the attentive imitation of a chosen individual’s movements from the adjoining screen: the result is a bizarre but extremely thoughtful form of physical documentation, creating a new definition of muscle memory.
Another emotive response to the documentation of migration is stirred through Arnold Dreyblatt’s exposure of identity distortion and violations of personal rights. In ‘Innocent Questions: Dark Numbers’ (2016), Dreyblatt presents on a lightbox table archival documents used to register individuals and monitor their journeys. A similar literal approach occurs in the work of Richard Mosse, in his photographic conservation of places that become left behind. ‘Come Out’ (2011-14) is a series of 16 digital C-print images depicting destroyed homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They retain a conceptual depth through his decision to capture them using Kodak Aerochrome: a discontinued format of infrared film used for military reconnaissance. It is hard to imagine the foliage, now bright pink and fuchsia, as the green once observed by Mosse through the viewfinder. The film’s uncanny manipulation of colour creates a unnerving visual effect, meditating on the mass displacement in DR Congo as a result of conflict.
Incongruities caused through displacement are also explored by Reza Aramesh, visible in his large silver gelatin triptych ‘Action 117’ (2011). The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles is spread across the three panels, but the central panel is interrupted by the presence of a Viet Cong prisoner, on his knees with hands behind his back. The beauty of the French Baroque interior as a setting for human suffering forms a striking juxtaposition. Through this, Aramesh questions symbolic contextual associations of Versailles and colonialism, with the piece providing sincere reverence for the integrity of a human suppressed.
The mirrors in Aramesh’s work exist with a function that analogises the exhibition as a whole: ‘Uncertain States’ intercepts passive voyeurism in traumatic world affairs. The visitor is pressed to consider their own opinions in such matters, with a level of immersion that ambushes the disengaged scrolling past headlines in red boxes. To journey through these contemporary and archival pieces is to find yourself within a dystopian World Fair, where the realities of colonialism, xenophobia and conflict are bursting at their badly-welded seams.