Statecraft (and beyond)

This review of a group show at EMST, Athens, appeared in the November issue of Artforum:

Liu Chuang, Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (detail), 2018, three-channel video installation, 
6K video, color, sound, 40 minutes 10 seconds. From “Statecraft (and beyond),” 2022.

Liu Chuang, Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (detail), 2018, three-channel video installation, from “Statecraft (and beyond),” 2022.

Inaugurating her exhibition program as the newly appointed director at the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMST), curator Katerina Gregos’s multifaceted group show “Statecraft (and beyond)” revisited some of the themes she previously explored and even some of the same works that were featured in “The State Is Not a Work of Art” at the Tallinn Art Hall in 2018, conceived with the centennial of Estonian independence in mind. The bicentenary of Greece’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire celebrated last year similarly lent itself to a critical examination of the stuff nation-states are made of and the infinitely perfectible art of governance.

Greek and Athens-based artists made up a quarter of the thirty-nine artists included in “Statecraft”—the most notable distinction from the previous iteration. This exhibition took its title from Stockholm- and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia–based artist Loulou Cherinet’s film Statecraft (2017), which was also shown in Tallinn. But the artworks presented in both exhibitions took on a new meaning four years later and in radically changed circumstances. Consider Tanja Muravskaja’s sequence of color portraits, Ours, 2017–18, juxtaposing NATO soldiers and Estonian Girl Scouts wearing their respective uniforms. The work felt especially timely in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has put neighboring countries on alert and compelled formerly neutral states such as Finland and Sweden to join the US-led military alliance.

Spread over three levels of the iconic modernist building (a former brewery) in which EMST is housed, the exhibition unfolded in an airy and formally varied presentation, which included several complex multimedia installations. Projected in a viewing room fitted to its three-channel video installation, Liu Chuang’s Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities, 2018, stood out from the many, often lengthy video works on view, in part for the cinematic qualities with which it portrays, among other things, cryptocurrency mining sites located in disused hydroelectric plants in Southwestern China. These sites are often in or near land inhabited by ethnically and linguistically diverse Zomia minorities, who live within the confines of several Asian nation-states but remain stateless by design, so as to avoid being governed and forced to give up their traditional yet arguably freer and more egalitarian way of life.

Far from an afterthought, the parenthetical “and beyond” in the show’s title accounted for a good many of the works on view. The more utopian proposals were presented on the uppermost of the exhibition’s three levels, as if to end the show on a hopeful note with more inclusive models of civic (as opposed to ethnic and often chauvinistic) nationalism. For her video Constitution for the Chorus of Poles, 2016, documenting a musical performance staged at the height of Poland’s constitutional crisis, theater director Marta Górnicka sought out people from all walks of life, as well as from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, to interpret the constitution according to their disparate and sometimes conflicting concerns. Maria Varela’s video essay one piece of cloth—an “invented” emblem, 2020, meanwhile, charts the making of the alternative Greek flag, which the artist fashioned from vintage garments dating back to the formation of the Greek state. Embroidered with golden thread (nodding to a Byzantine technique), its central, rather abstract motif was compiled by means of an algorithm from the “liberty flags” of the various revolutionary factions fighting for Greek independence two centuries ago.