Spacecraft Icarus 13, Narratives of Progress from Elsewhere

“Icarus 13” is the name of the first space journey to the sun, led by an Angolan mission. Such a statement strikes us as absurd, perhaps even more because of the improbable flag flown by the mission than by its inhospitable destination. It is nonetheless the subject of a work by artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, Icarus 13 (2007), a photographic series that appears to document a successful space mission (one bearing the unpromising name of the Greek anti-hero who tried to fly and was punished for his hubris when his wax wings melted upon coming too close to the sun). But beyond irony, poetry, and a mix of pure fiction and real historical landmarks, the work speaks volumes about a history of dreams of progress, disillusion, resilience, and resistance that has characterized the post-independence decades in Angola. This history is closely linked to the experience of being one of the countries that fell both outside and in the middle of the dueling US and Soviet blocs during the Cold War. In Henda’s work, the set of the “mission” is not a set at all, but is rather comprised of real places and venues throughout Angola: “Icarus 13” is in fact an unfinished mausoleum built by the Soviets during the Cold War era, when Angola was one of the battlefields in a proxy war between the two superpowers; the “Astronomy Observatory” is another unfinished structure, this time a cinema from the colonial era; and the setting of the launch scene is actually an image from celebrations that erupted when Angola’s national football team qualified for the 2006 World Cup. This playful amalgamation of different eras, historical intensities from tragedy to celebration, and high and low brow contexts is a powerful foray into key aspects of varied understandings of progress from the post-war era up to today, from diverse past sources of articulation to different narratives that center around it, and from disbelief to an insistence in claiming its urgency. This work thus forms the basis of the exhibition, as well as lends it its title.

But there is another image—a ghost from another era—that hovers over the exhibition. It graces the cover of this newsletter, and perhaps can be seen as a skeleton in the exhibition’s closet. It is an imposing bluestone figure, an allegory of Europe by Hendrik van den Eijnde made in 1924 as part of a series of sculptures representing the five inhabited continents that are placed along the columns in the main hall of Utrecht’s Post Office. The representation stems from an era when Europe was confident about its historical march towards ever-greater progress and world domination (the figure of Europe is holding its hands firmly on the globe), but was at the same time in constant need of finding and representing a backward, uncivilized, and ahistorical “Other” in order for its own progress to appear evident by contrast. This mirroring game has survived in many discourses about culture and geopolitics, but what has changed dramatically is the position of the subjects and their placement around the “mirrors.” Tellingly, even as this exhibition is on view, the Post Office in Utrecht is being closed down as part of a nationwide program of privatization. This is only part of an even larger program of dismantling the welfare state model that has been the pride of the West’s self-representation as a beacon of prosperity during the Cold War era. The West’s amnesia about this fact is only comparable to its historical blindness in embellishing this slow but steady process of decay as a sign of a new and different kind of progress, one that is animating neoliberal thinking.

Progress became a key drive and an ideologically charged instrument during the Cold War era, often being the main aim and declared purpose of politics and of thinking about society. It was however spelled out in very different terms depending which side of the Cold War divide one was on: in the West, progress was articulated as the push for economic growth, reconstruction in Western Europe, and the consolidation of American imperial power in the wake of World War II; in the East, one pointed to advancement towards a communist future across the Soviet bloc; and in the “rest” of the world, non-aligned or different theories of development could be found. Whatever the ideological formulation, this modern ethos of gazing towards a future that would necessarily have to be an improvement over the present had a particular impact on the world, and especially on that part of the globe that was not clearly integrated in one of the two competing blocs.

Spacecraft Icarus 13 opens with four references to this pre-1989 articulation of progress. On view are fragments of cinematographic productions that each contain ideas, language, or formulations that the end of the Cold War rendered obsolete to different degrees: the 1964 film I am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov; Glauber Rocha’s_ The Age of the Earth_ (1980); Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973); and Yasuzo Masumura’s_ Blind Beast_ (1969). These films hint at a range of discourses and systems of representation, from Marxist inspired development theories to indigenous nationalism, from autarchic notions of progress that emerged as resistant alternatives to western prerequisites of modernization, to the role of art as a sign and instrument of modernity, and so on. The presence of these film excerpts in the exhibition also illustrates that Cold War history made particular use of cinema in expressing, visualizing, and propagating ideas of progress in the decades following decolonization.

The post-89 reality removed many of the certainties about the directions along which progress was imagined. The demise of communism as well as the marginalization of politics in favor of an economy-centered discourse performed by ever-more powerful neoliberal regimes fractured previously dominant articulations of progress into a kaleidoscope of narratives, visions, constructions, and discourses, often ambivalent and ideologically hybrid. The Soviet bloc and its particular version of state socialism collapsed the most dramatically, of course, but the shock waves it sent reverberated in various ways not just in the former Eastern bloc, but also in the West and in the rest of the world. The Soviet-inspired models of progress adopted in many recently independent countries, with their centralized economies and “import substitution” industrial policies, were the first to crumble. Different so-called Third Ways were suspended by the dead-end of the Second Way and the emergence of the Only Way of neoliberal capitalism. And the perceived victory of this version of progress made neoliberalism, with its dubious ideas of trickle-down economics and the dismantling of the welfare state, the default choice for most of the world.

This historical transition can be noted in the exhibition through two positions. Take for example Omar Meneses’s striking 1994 documentary photograph of housekeeping staff taking over a lavish villa adorned with iconic Andy Warhol silk-screened prints in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The image clearly references the massive revolts in Mexico against the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a landmark treaty in the worldwide expansion of the neoliberal system. But it also speaks about the enormous class contradictions still marking our world, in spite of political attempts to label these conflicts as things of the past. The image also exposes the class-based character of culture and reminds us of the imperfect tools we deal with in our games of representation and critique. Another example is Federico Herrero’s_ in situ_ abstract mural work, which references a different kind of emancipation, this time more in the realm of art. Herrero remains within the rules of the art game while revealing its contradictions in his rejection of representation and realism, devices that are overused in contemporary art in spite of their many limitations in actually qualifying reality.

This leads us closer to the present, when after the end of the first post-89 decade, in the face of rising questions about the viability of the neoliberal model and its status as a tool for western hegemony, a handful of different, oppositional models multiplied yet again. From the state-directed capitalist development of China to various attempts in a number of Latin America countries to re-imagine social justice in a more accommodating relationship with global capitalism, ideas of progress today are being put forward with a stronger drive and confidence than in the “former West,” in spite of their often problematic formulation. For example, Patty Chang and David Kelley’s Route 3 (2011) presents us with a model for an atlas describing the geography where these energies are unfolding. The three-channel video is a road movie along Route 3, built by the Chinese in northern Laos to streamline commercial traffic between China, Laos, and Thailand. Along this highway, as if on a stage, a striking image of humanity on the edge of a new era is revealed—here the remains of the past undiscernibly mix with prospects and perils of the future. The ghosts of the formidable powers of the market that are drawing these new landscapes seem to haunt the still mostly quiet scenes along the road, portending upheavals ahead.

Similarly Lin Yilin’s work, The Result of a lot of Pieces (1994), a heavy, rough wall with banknotes stuck in between bricks and the shape of a human body marking a hole in the wall, dwells on the ambiguity of progress understood as economic expansion, with particular attention to his native China. A sign of growth, of progress, of material presence and accomplishment, the heavy wall is also a symbol of oppression, divisions, and of framing the human individual through economic measures. It destabilizes while also rendering immobile a paradoxical view of our dystopian present. The ambivalence of this process of construction is mirrored in the exhibition by Cristina Lucas’s video _Habla _(2008), which shows an act of destruction. The artist, a white woman with a confident air, hammers away at a cheap replica of Michelangelo’s Moses. This feminist act of breaking with a dominant, male, European art cannon ends however with exhaustion and melancholy, when the artist rests on the remains of the statue.

Another image of a potential future is conveyed in Mauro Restiffe’s striking photographic series taken at two separate inaugurations (though in many ways related in their messianic and celebratory atmosphere) of the Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003 (Empossamento, 2003) and US president Barack Obama in 2008 (Inauguration, 2009). The former exposes the conflicts and contradictions of the massive popular celebration caused by the inauguration of the first president from a working class background against the backdrop of the capital Brasilia, the great failure of organized modernist progress seen from the perspective of its urban realization. The latter allows for a certain analysis of masses and individuals and their respective historical agencies on the backdrop of the Washington Monument.

By contrast, Neil Beloufa’s video installation Kempinski _(2007) can be read in the same vein of the highly poetic and fictional approach found in Icarus 13_. It features people in a town in Mali revealing their individual hopes and dreams of the future, while speaking about the future in the present tense. _Kempinski _is a unique mixture of science fiction and documentary where people’s visions of the future are hopeful and poetic, sometimes spiritual and sometimes fantastic. It cleverly challenges our cliché expectation of a lack of imagination for the future in Africa, while at the same time exposing the difficulty of finding a unifying framework for articulating a common vision for such a future.

Yet certain visions of progress do not become narratives and do not always succeed in crossing the barriers of language and representation, with all the power relations and hierarchies a communication act entails, even between agents mastering seemingly common codes. The discipline of postcolonial studies has extensively debated the question of speech and communication, describing different models of agency; however these abstractions were more fitting of a world described solely through the narrow lens of the postcolonial narrative, which has a tendency to exclude other historical phenomena and ideological discourses. But in the rapidly changing configurations of the post-89 world, strict hierarchies of subordination have been replaced—in a parallel process with the shift of the monolithic hegemony of the West—by an entangled set of relations. In reality, of course, signs, codes, and language and ultimately, class, power, and entitlement are distributed in a more complex manner across borders and historical divisions. A short film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul ironically entitled Thirdworld (1998) is a play on the question of language, on who is expected to talk about what, and how, and who is authorized to do so. The film montages scenes filmed over several days on one of Thailand’s southern islands, mixing different moments and overlapping them with various sounds and fragments of conversations between different people, all recorded secretly. With regard to the choice of title, Weerasethakul considers the gesture as a parody of the term and of the exoticized reality that the West projects onto the part of the world for which it (still) uses this label.

But let us go back, finally, to van den Eijnde’s allegory of Europe. In the age when the sculpture was created, Europe was representing itself and the rest of the world through narratives of progress that were meant to underline its own preeminence. Today, in the very moment when the building that houses this representation is losing its original (public) function, Europe as such has long ceased to be the world’s hegemonic center, having dissolved in the post-war era into the “West,” an entity borrowing many aspects of Europe’s former sense of entitlement, but corresponding to a different geography, a specific ideology, and a new epoch. This “West” is, after 1989, in the process of becoming former. But like Europe in 1924 or the West of the Cold War, today’s former West still needs to represent itself in contrast to the rest of the world in order to convince itself and others that it remains at the forefront of progress. But unlike in 1924, today’s neoliberal brand of progress is repackaging decay and confusion throughout the former West. The exhibition Spacecraft Icarus 13tries to point to this contradiction by repeating the strategy of the builders of Utrecht’s Post Office in placing the ghost of Europe in a mirroring game with images, energies, and representations from the rest of the world, those that have emerged from that vague “elsewhere” when viewed from the (still) condescending vantage point of Europe. Through such a constellation, the path of this long-suspect notion of progress becomes less clear, and the distribution of winners and losers across the globe even less so.

Part of Spacecraft Icarus 13: Narratives of Progress from Elsewhere, an exhibition curated by Cosmin Costinas.