Art from Abroad: Cameron Ewing’s review of “Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art”

When it comes to works of art, frames are invaluable tools; the way in which an artist crops a painting or photograph contextualizes it and allows the viewer to understand what the artist is trying to say. Through what he chooses to include and not include within the confines of the frame, through the point of view from which he captures his subject, and through his aesthetic treatment of the subject, an artist creates significance and meaning, transforming the unruly, evanescent world into an image or object that is coherent and enduring. In a similar way, national borders create artfully constructed states whose idealized vision of structured, orderly unity is often at odds with the lived reality of people within their boundaries. National borders are, like the frames of works of art, ways of mediating reality, and an exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, in Florence, explores the tension between the nation-state ideal of self-contained, impermeable monolithic units and the frequent reality of internal strife and conflict within, and exchange between, their territorial frames.


London-based artists Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin address the theme of Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art by exposing how Israel’s framing of itself as a nation differs from the reality within its borders. The subject of their video Mini Israel is an automated model of the country partially built with funds from the Israeli Tourism Office whose slogan is, “See it all – small”. The complex covers 14.8 acres and features replicas of 350 buildings and landmarks of national importance, as well as 30,000 figures and real cultivated bonsai trees. As the eerie, surreal video shows, however, this model Israel is an idealized and simplified symbolic construction of the country; Mini Israel is devoid of the wall, checkpoints, and observation tower that the government has erected in response to internal conflict, and the Arab population these have been built to confine and survey are transformed into unthreatening extras, bowed in positions of permanent prayer or statically standing watch over their livestock. The uncertainty and instability that characterize the real Israel are cropped out of the frame in Mini Israel, where the cars move back and forth on the single tracks to which they are attached and people sunbathe on the roofs of buildings forever.

Where Broomberg & Chanarin’s work displays Israel’s surreal, neatly framed image of itself, Richard Mosse’s video and sound installation, The Enclave, reveals the fractured, incoherent reality of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a region whose borders frame a hollow simulacra of a country. In a dark, enclosed room, video fragments playing simultaneously on six screens and accompanied by Ben Frost’s ambient audio composition comprised of recordings gathered in the war zone create a landscape that evokes the region’s reality of chaos. The installation sprawls out in all directions, overwhelming and disorienting the viewer by resisting any efforts to compartmentalize or frame the work. What Mosse seems to be unsettling is not so much efforts of the DRC government (such as it is) to fashion itself as the international community’s attempts to package the country’s conflicts, creating a narrative with coherence and clear moral guidelines through documentary practice and reportage photography. As the wall text accompanying his installation states, “Mosse in fact attempts to invalidate various characteristics typical of reportage photography, like the recognisability of the subjects or the matching of the subject represented and the aesthetic language”. One way in which he accomplishes this is by shooting his footage with Aerochrome film, which was developed in the 1940s to allow the U.S. army to detect armaments concealed by vegetation by rendering shades of green in shocking, fluorescent pink hues. With this technology, the DRC landscape is transformed into a sublime, otherworldly landscape, a kind of fantasy war zone or beautiful nightmare that offers no clear moral guidance for the viewer. Stripped of the frames placed around war-ravaged countries in conventional reporting and documentation, The Enclave defies viewers’ expectations for meaning or a safe perspective from which to view and understand the conflict, instead sucking them into the swirling, uncircumscribable chaos that characterizes life for citizens of the “country”.

Frames are an essential component of art and of life: they focus and direct our attention while simultaneously granting us the physical and psychological distance required for contemplation. As Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art shows, however, there is danger in mistaking the mediated, simplified fragments the frame presents for reality. 

By Cameron Ewing, Class of 2015


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