In the first section of this large room, artists are addressing issues of politics and history. The accordion-like album, Sitting-in-the-closet-Primakov 1972, is one of a cycle of albums called 10 Characters by Ukraine-born artist Ilya Kabakov. Within the isolation and mistrust of the Soviet system, Kabakov created an alternative order, a world seen through the eyes of his fictional characters, which unfolds before the viewer like a film.
Other artists used images of real figures from the media or history books to address systems of publicity and celebrity, and to explore ways in which public information and image can be manipulated. American artist Andy Warhol’s Mao Tse-Tung dates from 1972, the year of President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing. Warhol takes a contemporary icon, repeating the face in varying garish colours, just as the media relentlessly bombards the public with instant, superficial images of celebrity. German artist Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits 1972, is a series of heads based on photographs of famous men found in an old encyclopaedia. The symmetrical layout of the portraits, and the uniformity of the images, combine to convey what Richter has called ‘the neutrality of the encyclopaedia, which neutralises everything and all ideology.’ He adds, ‘It is a fact: we make everything the same.’ By basing his paintings on these photographs, Richter unravels the credibility of the encyclopaedia and photography as two systems assumed to stand for ‘truth’.
Braco Dimitrijevic, a Yugoslavian artist based in Paris, emphasises our subjective view of history in his Casual Passer-By series, in which he documents his meetings with strangers, recording the exact time and place but not the date on which they met. He takes the resulting photographs, reproduces them in a large format, and pastes them up in public places, raising questions about the nature of portraiture and of public and private identity. Cildo Meireles challenges common perceptions about the world we inhabit. His Virtual Spaces 1967-68, subverts our expectations of the fundamental concepts of Euclidian geometry. Viewed from a certain position, the sculpture looks like the corner of a room where two walls meet. In fact this is an illusion, as becomes apparent if it is seen from a different angle.
The two large works in the wide, open end of the room also have the effect of disorienting the viewer. Taking a Minimalist structure as its starting point, Public Space/Two Audiences 1976, by the American Dan Graham, consists of two adjoining rooms, whose walls have different surfaces – glass, mirror and blank white – offering unexpected opportunities for observing oneself and others, and in turn being observed. The work of Los Angeles-based Charles Ray demands a double take. Untitled (Glass Chair) 1976, is a deadpan manipulation of Minimalist iconography. His geometric art object – a six feet square horizontal glass plane – is intersected by a banal item from everyday life: a chair, apparently hovering in space. In his photographs, Plank Piece I and II 1973, he uses his own body as the art object, creating absurd variations on abstract sculptures. Ray has described his work as so abstract it becomes real and so real it becomes abstract. The games he plays with perception coerce the viewer into investigating and responding.
In the last section of this room, artists are engaging with the world in a less literal, more poetic way. Croatian artist Mangelos developed his own ‘anti-art’ practice, inspired more by philosophy than traditional visual art. His ideas revolve around ‘functional thinking’, a concept inspired by a post-war world dominated by technology. His series of globes, referencing thinkers from Pythagoras to Hegel, carry brief manifestos summing up his conclusions. Mangelos uses a range of descriptive systems, including alphabets and mathematical proofs; but the manifestos’ apparent rationalism is undermined by their obscurity of meaning: they are logic taken to the level of the absurd.
In Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti’s map of the world, Mappa 1971, each country is embroidered with the design of its national flag, emphasising the political systems that divide nations. Embroidered by craft workers in Afghanistan, Mappa reveals Boetti’s democratic approach. Using materials not traditionally associated with art, and trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, Boetti sought to blur the boundaries between art and life.
The staged and documented actions of Dutch-born artist Bas Jan Ader often seem to be systematic records of failure. Films and photographs showing the artist falling out of a tree or into a canal foretell his last work, In Search of the Miraculous, in which he attempted to cross the Atlantic and was lost at sea in his one man boat. In one work, On the Road to a New Neo Plasticism Westkapelle Holland 1971, Ader bids a poetic farewell to abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s utopian vision of order and control. For Ader, as for other artists in this exhibition, any system is a human construction and thus fallible and imperfect.