Autumn reading

A roundup of new and recent publications in art, propaganda and moon architecture

By Oliver Basciano

Most artists, even the most ardently political or outspoken, are unlikely to have a petrol bomb thrown at their studio. But then most artists don’t lead a country or make their work in the seat of its government. Edi Rama’s artmaking predates his political career as mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011 and then, from 2013, as prime minister of Albania. The bomb came earlier this year from opposition supporters protesting government corruption, but Rama’s day job proves more than just a dramatic hook to his drawing and sculpture, as his new monograph, Work (Hatje Cantz, €29), proves. With a nod to biomorphic surrealism, colourful watercolours are joined by abstract sketches frequently doodled during meetings, often over working documents: records, perhaps, of the subconscious that sit uneasily alongside the official minutes.

Rama’s work as an artist certainly gains him positive media attention (well, it counts in his favour in ArtReview, at least), which by Jonas Staal’s reckoning means mission accomplished. The Dutch artist’s Propaganda Art in the 21st Century (MIT Press, $29.95/£22.50) dislodges any belief that this kind of art is only to be found in obviously totalitarian regimes. ‘The very idea that one could stand outside of propaganda, recognize it, and as such resist it, merely because one lives in a democracy, is itself the product of propaganda,’ Staal writes. This is an engrossing overview from an artist whose projects include the New World Summit, a ‘parliament’ in which blacklisted organisations including the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Kurdish Women’s Movement are given space for discussion. Along the way we encounter figures such as Phil Strub, an ‘entertainment liaison’ at the US Department of Defense since 1989 whose credits include the TV series 24 (2001–14) and the Transformers franchise (2007–), and Vladimir Surkov, a theatre director and adviser to Russia’s President Putin.

The economic precarity of socially engaged art is the subject of Leigh Claire La Berge’s Wages Against Artwork (Duke University Press, $26.95), an analysis of alternative economic systems set up by artists (with an odd digression into the use of animals and children as fee-free performers). Among them is Renzo Martens’s provocation, in his 2008 film Enjoy Poverty, that the poor of Congo should benefit from their destitution by selling their own images of it rather than giving away this ‘resource’ free to Western photographers. This led ArtReview, not unnaturally, to a more critical evaluation of a new photobook by Ivor Prickett, End of the Caliphate (Steidl, €45), in which the New York Times photojournalist documents his time on the ground in Iraq and Syria as the ISIS regime crumbled. His images however remain incredibly powerful, showing a society, but crucially not a people, in desolation.

Voyaging Out by Carolyn Trant (Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pictured below) fills the gaps in a British art history written by men (as we are on the topic of not being paid enough and operating outside the dominant order) by profiling women in the artworld, stretching from the fight for suffrage and the ‘noisy feminists’ of surrealism to artists such as Sheila Fell who refused to be defined by gender. What would they have made of a new compendium titled, in have-cake-and-eat-it fashion, Great Women Artists (Phaidon, £39.95)? Standard coffee-table fare, it provides big images and small blurbs for 500 artists across a broad generational and geographical range, from Tomma Abts to Fahrelnissa Zeid. It also includes Liliane Lijn, Ana Mendieta and Lygia Pape, but for a much more in-depth study of their work, alongside that of Javier Téllez, Gego and Aubrey Williams, among others, turn to The Crossing of Innumerable Paths (Ridinghouse, £25/$30), a new collection of essays by Guy Brett. The driving force behind the groundbreaking Signals gallery and magazine during the early 1960s, the British curator has long been a champion of artists from Africa and, particularly, Latin America.

Brett was ahead of the curve. Today, ‘a Eurocentric view in a major international art event or exhibition… would be, if not a downright embarrassment, then certainly a point of consternation and critique’, writes curator Simon Sheikh in Curating after the Global: Roadmaps for the Present (MIT Press, $39.95/£30.00), a new reader tackling the pitfalls of the globalised artworld. Yet, given this necessary internationalism, how does art stop itself from being sucked into the homogenising systems of global capital? Not a new question (in his book, Brett argues for an ‘individuality in collectivity’), but one made urgent as disorientated and uprooted communities turn to strongmen offering to restore ‘the lure of the local’ (as Lucy Lippard, who is quoted by Sheikh, had it). Among those offering a route out of this conundrum is Hajnalka Somogyi of Budapest’s grassroots OFF-Biennale, the first of which was staged without any state or corporate funding. The curator notes wryly that ‘self-exploitation never felt so good’. A celebration of the local is behind Paris and Santiago (both Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities, £4.50 and £10.90), anthologies of stories edited by Andrew Hodgson and Jessica Sequeira respectively. They are the latest in a so-far 22- strong list of works related to particular cities and gathered through open submissions. ‘What is a city?’ asks Sequeira in her introduction. ‘It is built up of desire, horror, dream, tranquillity, memory, domesticity, grit…’

If this imprint seeks to map the literature of a place (and a place in literature), then a new series of foldout maps from a Romania-based group of architecture enthusiasts provide expert introductions to a city’s Soviet-era built environment. The latest, Socialist Modernist Architecture in Chișinău (Bureau for Art and Urban Research, €20.20), follows an earlier guide to Bucharest. On its next visit to Moldova, ArtReview looks forward to checking into the once-grand Hotel Cosmos, with its ‘expressive’ facade, even if ‘today it no longer functions at full capacity nor answers the requirements of a comfortable stay’. If you think the Cosmos’s ‘dire state, in urgent need of repairs’ doesn’t sound particularly hospitable (lightweights, where’s your sense of adventure?), it might still be more relaxing than a trip into the actual cosmos. If a journey into space appeals to you, however, make sure to pack Architecture Guide: Moon (DOM publishers, €38) by Berlin-based ‘3D artist, Roboticist, illustrator, neighborhood painter, outer space expert’ Paul Meuser, which charts every human-designed object to have landed by the Sea of Tranquillity in the last 60 years. Cosmic.  

From the October 2019 issue of ArtReview