This fall, the Phillips is host to a tribute exhibition in memory of Anita Reiner, one of DC’s most active art collectors. The installation includes works by renowned contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Wangechi Mutu, Robert Mapplethorpe, El Anatsui, Shilpa Gupta, and Shirin Neshat, among others.
On October 27, artist Pedro Lasch will premiere his work Abstract Nationalism/National Abstraction: Anthems for Four Voices at The Phillips Collection as part of the International Forum Weekend in Washington. In this audio-visual performance, national anthems of specific countries are sung in the language of the country listed alphabetically after it in the World Almanac.
In a six part blog series, Curatorial Intern Lauren Reuter asks the artist about this work and how it fits into the Phillips, art, and politics. Read Part 1 here.
How do national symbols play into artistic representation?
I’m interested in promoting multilingualism and a multinational identity and fighting against monolingual and monocultural constructs. I think many of our countries and many of our policymakers, internationally speaking, are still too caught up with the past version of culture where you only speak one language, you only belong to one nation, etc. This work is an attempt to represent the complexity of who we are nowadays.
In the 1990s, I observed a really paradoxical and kind of troubling phenomenon: artists are assumed to be very critical of nationalism. Very few artists would stand and sing the anthem in front of a crowd. In sports, it’s normal. If you represent your national team, you just sing the anthem! Imagine you ask all artists who represent their country to sing the anthem before their show opens. It would be hilarious, right? Half of them would refuse to do it because we don’t like to be pigeon-holed into ethnic or national identities. The nation-state has been the topic of a lot of the most critical artworks in art history.
And so I thought it was really fascinating that while artists still maintain these critical perspectives, they all agree to represent their countries at events like the Venice Biennale. Some countries do have people who are not their national subjects represent their country at a biennial, but that is a small and newly emerging trend. Up until about 10 years ago, when I was coming up with this project, if you wanted to be in any of the international biennials you had to agree to be there because your country chose you. So it was a very bizarre thing to me as an artist. It seemed so out of place, like we’re working with cultural constructs that don’t really match how we operate. And of course as artists, we want to say, well no that’s not how it really is, you were chosen because you were a good artist.
I wanted to do work that was able to confront these contradictions, and so as I was thinking of the cultural complexity of nationalism, I realized that the anthem is actually the deepest-entrenched national symbol or cultural construct. The moment you hear your anthem, something happens in your head. I think it’s even more powerful than seeing a flag. We may be critical of it, but it’s still there. And I think it has to do with childhood; we were taught these things, we were asked to sing them. I am fascinated by the historical use of flags and anthems and the kind of deep sentimental attachment they can create toward the nation-state. That’s another reason for me to propose this multilingual, multinational performance: it becomes harder to create totalitarian structures when you have people actually considering themselves a mixture of specific things.
This month, The Phillips Collection awarded its second Emerging Artist Prize, again selected from works on display at the (e)merge art fair, which closed October 5. This year’s winner is the 40-year-old Polish-born German artist Justine Otto, whose works were on view at the Hamburg-based gallery polarraum. Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenovič, and myself selected two small paintings by the artist: O.T. (Strich) and Ophto.
Justine Otto’s figurative paintings show some affinities with the so-called New Leipzig School of painting, although Otto studied at the Städelschule, the prestigious art academy in Frankfurt, and lives and works in Hamburg. Like the most prominent protagonist of the Leipzig school, Neo Rauch, Otto’s paintings, most of which are based on found photographs, owe some debt to both social realist painting and surrealism. However, Otto paints in a more expressionist style, with looser brushstrokes, and her paintings mostly depict women, children, and animals, creating narratives that are both puzzling and intriguing.
The oval–shaped painting O.T. (Strich) (Untitled, Line) depicts a group of children working on a long table suggestive of a classroom. The subtitle may refer to series of lines that frequently appear in Ottos’s paintings, giving her work a touch of conceptualism. Ophto features a young woman holding up an ophthalmological instrument to her right eye while standing in a forest. Both paintings evoke the style of German photographs from the 1940s.
Otto’s works are welcome additions to our growing holdings of contemporary German art, which include recent acquisitions by Wolfgang Laib, Walther Dahn, Franz Erhard Walther, Georg Baselitz, and Markus Lüpertz.
As in the previous year, the Phillips Emerging Artist Prize was made possible by the generous support of Hank and Carol Brown Goldberg.