‘How to Read an Art Journal.’ This was the title of an impromptu seminar I gave, some ten years ago, at an art academy in a rarely visited part of Scandinavia. The students wanted to know how they might avoid catching mild forms of attention deficit disorder as they leafed through the journals of their nicely appointed school library. Looking at the pictures, reading a caption here and there, intuiting likes and dislikes but not quite remembering the names of the artists featured: these are the kind of things we are all guilty of but which art students are not yet ashamed to admit to. And since I knew one or two things about art journals, I accepted the challenge and showed up at the agreed-upon time with a pile of publications that will remain unnamed here.
As I remember it, the difficult part was deciding how cynical — or perhaps I should say honest — to be when pointing out the strategy and tactics at play in the composition of an art journal, which is really just another trade journal. If we know which galleries represent which artists we will see the connections between advertising and editorial content; if we know what exhibitions have just taken place, or are being planned, we will understand why certain curators or artists were asked to contribute: the kind of things that demonstrate how improving contextual knowledge does not automatically cure cultural anxiety. Yet I hope I conveyed the message that, despite their flaws, art journals are necessary tools for anyone who wants to live in the art world, and that they should be consumed cunningly but with as little cynicism or opportunism as possible.
My colleagues and I like to believe that Afterall promotes values other than easy recognition or quick return on investment, and we do what we can to make it more than a trade journal. We also like to believe that the quality of the material featured in our journal reflects the quality of the choices we make to structure each issue around a set of concerns. And we certainly like to believe that these pages offer writing that not only enhances understanding of the subject matter it conveys but also has intrinsic aesthetic qualities. Ambitious goals, I admit, but they make us aspire for the best, and I must say I’m glad to write the foreword to this 35th issue of Afterall, which delivers goods of a kind that we can really be proud of.
I don’t mean to be self-congratulatory, only to pay respect to the artists and writers who have given us such good value. (One of the contributors, Tony Chakar, occupies both positions, which earns him our gratitude twice over.) I also want to indicate some connections among the diverse topics this issue covers. Any act of composition involves both design and chance, predictability and contingency, and to us this seems to be particularly true of putting together Afterall three times a year. We aim at always presenting three kinds of texts: contextual essays; essays that portray an artist’s practice or oeuvre; and essays that discuss particular works, exhibitions or events. In the end these categories are not always obvious, just as clear distinctions among context, oeuvre, work and event cannot always be upheld outside the covers of our journal. Quite a few of the choices we make are preprogrammed with ambiguity or transgression.
That, to be sure, is also true this time. In the contextual essay, Shepherd Steiner analyses a recent posthumous exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler’s early works at Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea venue in New York. He provides thorough, uncompromising description and judgement of how today’s high-end contemporary art market works (context), but also of the works on display (oeuvre, exhibition), how they have been theorised throughout the decades (context again, but also another aspect of the oeuvre) and what Frankenthaler’s art and this exhibition tell us about different kinds of value, including the ‘aesthetic value’ championed by Clement Greenberg (who was her partner in the 1950s) and what Steiner calls ‘face value’ (a notion that touches on context, oeuvre, work, exhibition and event).
Steiner’s essay indicates how we might read the other contributions to this issue as testimonies of how value – in the economic sense, but also as an ethical distinction or as the premise or outcome of judgements on history — determines our understanding of the world and our response to it. The artists featured reflect this in different ways, of course, and so do the essays on their work. I have already mentioned Tony Chakar, whose richly layered storytelling is captivatingly introduced by fellow Beiruti Haig Aivazian, and who articulates his own judgement of the darkness that continues to radiate from Lebanon’s recent past — which, he insists, it is all but impossible to keep away from its present. In her essay on Russian artist Olga Chernysheva (who, incidentally, spent part of her childhood in Syria), Ekaterina Degot reminds us of the much reviled but often misunderstood ‘anti-formalist’ school of Soviet art criticism, and stresses its humanism and resistance to narrowly economic definitions of value. This attitude is also evident in Chernysheva’s art, which unites the pictorial and the socially engaged. The cinematic aspects of her oeuvre are insightfully discussed by Robert Bird, an authority on Soviet and post-Soviet film-making. Teatro da Vertigem’s Bom Retiro 958 metros (2012) was a recent immersive performance in a garment district of São Paulo, generating visceral yet analytical theatrical images of the megacity as a circuit that creates, flaunts and destroys value. Diana Taylor’s first-hand account of this Gesamtkunstwerk seamlessly joins description to analysis, while Marco Moraes gives an insider’s view of the collective’s activities since its foundation in 1991.
One image that emerges is that of the economy as an organism, and of the individual organism — whether the work or its author, protagonist or viewer — as a commodity conditioned by a larger system of exchange. The four texts of the ‘works, exhibitions, events’ section may also be read with this thought-figure in mind. Laura Mulvey’s essay about Max Ophüls’s last film, Lola Montès (1955) — essentially about a woman forced to sell herself to the circus — is a generous gift of knowledge and interpretation, as is Brigid Doherty’s appraisal of one of the key exhibitions of the last years, Rosemarie Trockel’s ‘A Cosmos’ (2012—13), which proposed a counter-image to commodification: that of sharing creative agency with others, sometimes even with anonymous objects. Filipa Oliveira allows us to grasp the value shifts implied in Ângela Ferreira’s project Zip Zap Circus School (2000—02). Based on an unbuilt design for a community circus school in South Africa by another Portuguese-Mozambican, the architect Pancho Guedes, her travelling piece was eventually set up in Cape Town as a temporary home for the Zip Zap NGO. Finally, Eric Golo Stone succinctly revisits the concept of ‘artistic service provision’ as it was formulated in Helmut Draxler and Andrea Fraser’s exhibition project ‘Services’ (1994—97), denouncing demands that artists work for free.
This is just one way of reading the latest issue of Afterall. What distinguishes our journal is, I want to believe, a specific quality of its voice, which is best characterised as unity in multiplicity — or even better, as unity and multiplicity.