After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer

The year 1989, filled with pivotal planetary changes, has come to symbolize a point of distinction between two historical eras, drawing a line as it were between the Cold War period and the globalized, neoliberal future to come. Tapping into the momentum, American philosopher and political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” in his infamous 1989 essay, claiming that there would be no new conceptions of freedom and equality, no political work, and no horizon to strive toward, as we had arrived at “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In what he expects to be a “sad time,” he concludes in his essay that “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history,” as “the struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” The notion of “posthistory,” with its uncritical celebration of the superiority of the free market and western ideals, has since been unmasked by recent world affairs as an inaccurate prophecy. Yet, as the field of Contemporary Art continues to echo the ramifications of this historically falsified social consciousness, this influential paradigm requires a critical reexamination if we desire to move beyond it.

To support his argument, Fukuyama repeatedly invokes the thoughts of Alexandre Kojeve (1902–1968). Kojeve was a Russian- born philosopher and politician, who, after WWII, made the startling shift from studying and teaching the work of Hegel to being employed as a diplomat in the service of the French government. Decades before Fukuyama formulated his end-of-history thesis, Kojeve equally observed that we were living in post-historical times, but with history coming to a stand-still in a far more distant past, namely through the events of the French Revolution. As there was no place left for ideological struggle, the world could only continue its existence through the administration of mundane tasks.

The post-historical condition, if we agree with Kojeve, rids humans of their humanity, so that people become resigned to the world the way it is. Kojeve poignantly shows this through the images that he created during his extensive world travels in the 1950s and 1960s. This ambitious amount of photographs that emerged from Kojeve’s own artistic practice—and the large assembly of postcards that informed and inspired it—captures an empty, quietly deserted, and in some ways sad and hollow western world after its history has come to a close. Through these images, Kojeve meticulously registered the world as he understood it: philosophically, politically, and— by extension—aesthetically. Kojeve believed that under this condition a human can either become an animal or an artist. During his travels through Asia, Kojeve observed that the post-historical subject, no longer seeking a different tomorrow, can escape animality by artistically turning the present moment— through the sheer appropriation of that moment—into a solid, fixed work of art, a ready-made of sorts. After the end of history, the artist, desiring a source of hope and purpose having lost all teleological instruments, becomes a contemporary pur sang, stepping outside of the here and now only to rewrite his own history.

Counter to such propositions, the core endeavour of BAK’s longterm project FORMER WEST, of which this is a research exhibition— locating its research in the post-1989 period in order to enable speculation about other global futures—is to imagine things otherwise. In a critical refusal to obediently embrace the present, we question what could lie ahead of the contemporary moment that is often blind to its imperfections. It was through this framework that art historian, philosopher, and curator Boris Groys discovered Kojeve’s immense visual collection in the archives of the Bibliotheque nationale de France in the summer of 2011. The exhibition that resulted from this discovery unfolds as an experiment of what an artist can be, and what art can mean, in an age that is free of the settled satisfaction and stupefying sense of achievement that has been our condition over the last two decades.

Through its premiere and unique public presentation, the unveiling of this long-hidden treasure has the potential to not only help us rethink our recent past, but also to challenge the completion of the present, and crucially imagine how we could collectively shape our “post-contemporary” futures. If anything, Kojeve’s photographical lens shows us a post-national, global stage for such transformative opportunities. It is therefore not without significance that after its premiere presentation at BAK, the remarkable project is scheduled to travel across the world over the course of 2012 and 2013, being shown at the following venues: 9th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; CUNY, New York; OCAT, Shenzhen; and Moscow House of Photography, Moscow.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank FORMER WEST research advisor and exhibition curator Boris Groys. We are also much indebted to Nina Kousnetzoff; Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris, in particular to Bruno Racine, Sylvie Aubenas, and Thomas Cazentre; and Institut Francais, Amsterdam, in particular to Isabelle Mallez.

An essay written by Maria Hlavajova on the occasion of the exhibition, After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, curated by art historian and philosopher Boris Groys and on view at BAK from 20 May till 15 July 2012.