Börsianer / The Operators, diagram – Mario Asef © 2009
Mario Asef’s first studio visit with Node’s resident curators was, for me, one of the most motivating
moments of these ultimate months. It was the last studio visit of a long rainy Berlin day. The eight
of us were exhausted and immediately ‘occupied’ the green carpet of Mario’s studio. What could
have been an awkward meeting (because of our tiredness), instantly turned into an extraordinarily
appealing talk. Every piece of work he showed us led to a conversation about several topics,
sometimes related to art, sometimes to philosophy, politics or social relations. When the visit
finished most of us felt the need to somehow try to work with him. We wanted “more Asef”.
For Faraway, So Close! we selected three pieces from Mario Asef’s video series History is now:
Börsianer/The Operators, Man’s on Moon, and Revolution after Revolution.
In his videos, Asef brings us back to the concept of intra-history, introduced in 1895 by the Spanish
philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in his book En torno al casticismo or to the most recent vision of
micro-history by the Italian Carlo Ginzburg. For Asef, history should be interested in the routes
whose principle leading roles are played by its peripheral actors; that is to say, the paths followed by
those men who make history in an unconscious manner, by those who do not aspire to the title of
heroes. The historical event is not the monumental fresco that encourages the mythification of
politicians, military men and priests, the traditional heroes of history… Mario Asef decodes these
concepts, recovering “micro-historical moments” (as he points out) in order to reveal the present as
Börsianer/The Operators juxtaposes the apparently sterile composure of the Frankfurt Stock
Exchange with the life of homeless people from the suburbs of the city. What at first sight could be
regarded as two antagonistic worlds become the two sides of the same instinct of survival. Abstract
values versus reality? Civilized world versus wilderness? Every downturn of the financial market
becomes crucial to our lives, as nature is experienced as an all-embracing fact and dictator of
reality…like the bucolic backdrop shown through the glass of an aquarium.
man’s on moon, diagram – Mario Asef © 2006
Man’s on Moon looks back to 1969, when Commander Neil Armstrong became the first man on the
moon. This scene, broadcasted to every television of the Western world, incarnated the faith of our
civilization in technology and science during the Cold War era. In the same year, one of the most
feared serial killers of America, Charles Manson, was arrested. His arrest marked the milestone of
the end of the hippie-era, the end of Martin Luther King’s dream… In Man’s on Moon, Asef cuts
together sequences from the Apollo 17 Mission and audio extracts from Charles Manson interviews,
reflecting on the social dynamics that lead to an ontological discussion of truth and reality.
In the words of Asef, “when a staged revolution is part of a country’s historical reality it shapes the
direction of everyday life”. Filmed in three Romanian towns (Sibiu, Pitesti and Bucharest),
Revolution after Revolution examines how advertising strategies of the post-Communist era are
digested as part of Romanians’ everyday lives. The modern architecture of the sixties and its dead
ideology forms the background where citizens become actors (or heroes?) and revolution turns into
Revolution after Revolution, video still – Mario Asef © 2006
The illusion of security
“We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instance of death we cannot permit any deviation… we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.”
George Orwell, 1984
Priorities seem clear: first learn, then understand, and finally accept. The whole purpose here is not repetitive or blind obedience but disciplined and controlled minds… George Orwell could not anticipate the economic globalization and the sophistication of information technology in the Western world, but he formed the basis for understanding some of the most serious problems we face today.
Living in a contemporary world means to be surrounded by a multiplicity of electronic devices that gradually shape new borders of our personality. We expand and consider our private space to be inside our iPhones, computers and mailboxes. This unreal and imaginary possession of information can lead to manipulations, performed not only at an individual level. In particular, the lack of corporate and governmental transparency has been a topic of much controversy in recent years, yet the only tool for encouraging greater openness is the slow, tedious process of policy reform.
The Transparency Grenade by Julian Oliver for Studio Weise 7 was the central pivot on which the exhibition in the Fichte-Bunker turned around. It represented two actions: firstly, the invention and construction of an electronic device, and secondly, a situation. The Grenade itself was a replica of Soviet F1 Hand Grenade with a different mechanism of destruction, equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna. It was also a situation, because it made the viewer directly responsible for pulling the ripcord to detonate the Grenade in order to unmask the decision-making processes of any corporate or Governmental Institution. Email fragments, HTML pages, images will be revealed, reminding the occasional user of his weaknesses and strengths. As stated by Michel Foucault, the individual is a part of the power structure’s cogs and secures it with his own attitudes and behaviors. However, and it may seem contradictory, this power (as read in George Orwell’s1984) is omnipresent and omniscient, a power that is constantly being apprehended, but which never answers. State institutions are mechanisms that seem to obey their own laws and rules, they are bureaucratic labyrinths completely unknown by us. Thus, we find depersonalized individuals facing an apparatus against which there is no way to oppose. Numerous references were forwarded about this in Faraway, So Close! by Argentinean artist Mario Asef, especially in the video piece Börsianer / The Operators, which juxtaposed the apparently sterile composure of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange with the life of homeless people from the suburbs of the city. What at first sight could be regarded as two antithetical worlds became the two sides of the same reality. Every downturn of the financial markets becomes crucial in our own lives…
The viewer inside the Fichte-Bunker was confronted with a dystopic reality, a world not desirable, but conceivable. John Stuart Mill coined in the last years of the nineteenth century the term “dystopia” to refer to an unwanted society, opposed to utopia. Mill described an oppressive and closed-on-itself society, usually under an authoritarian government, but presented to its citizens as a utopia. George Orwell’s 1984 was one of the most refined examples of dystopia. It insisted, in a very persuasive way, on the power of technology as a basic tool for social control and the end of privacy. Orwell portrayed a society that to survive, created a perverse, permanent monitoring system from which originated an increasingly imperceptible but ever-present control, a subtle and not clearly coercive method that left citizens with the permanent doubt of whether they were being watched. It is through the uncertainty of not knowing how to maintain the subordination of being under surveillance, through a large and always-on screen, receiving and transmitting information, that individuals were handcuffed by their actions. All this, centralized by the everpresent Ministry of Truth, which was a pyramidal structure of white concrete over three hundred meters high. The Ministry of Truth acted as a vast Jeremy Bentham style panopticon that distinguished, watched and controlled all of what happened in that society.
According to Zygmunt Bauman, uncertainty about the future, the fragility of our social position and the anxiety of our own existence are persistent elements of our society. Therefore, one of the basic actions of human beings has been to preserve the order and to ensure its durability from incursions coming from the outside: an “outside” characterized by disorder and insecurity; an exterior that, in each historical moment has had different characteristics and traits, but always an enemy, an enemy that has always been the “other”. Against this “other”, that represents the fragility and the precariousness of daily life, all societies have been provided with multiple defensive tricks and tools that allow us to preserve, keep the acquired and make it our own. In this way, any risk must be eliminated in order to procure a comfortable place in a world that shows itself as threatening and hazardous. Uncertainty and confusion have increased with the rapid changes in recent decades of new information technologies and globalization. Cities, urban areas and transport are no longer safe places and have become a major cause of worry and insecurity. Now spatial structures conceived to isolate, exclude, reject, resist, camouflage, and absorb have been encouraged.
The need and desire to feel safe in today’s world has become a handy justification for the implementation of measures that threaten the foundations of democracy and social life. It is odd that cities had never before counted on so many security measures, but never before the feeling of insecurity has been so present. Agreements have been made, according to city planner Peter Marcuse , in order to promote the physical 1 “bunkerization” of space (controlled indoors, such as shopping malls or office buildings, containing within them all the facilities necessary to
work, eat or relax) up to the social “bunkerization” of all democratic activity (the limitation of movement, freedom and action, the decline in social and political participation, the growth of exclusion…). This creates new sociopolitical realities where security is exchanged for a restriction of freedoms. Power needs a fearful, insecure and vulnerable society. To keep it, people have to be submissive and in this way consolidate the power’s efficiency. However, we cannot forget that the expression of power is becoming less and less visible, and therefore its influence is difficult to recognize, to anticipate and bear up. The exercise of power is gradually more elusive and insidious, it is everywhere and nowhere, it is ubiquitous, absent, invisible… To this wicked and endless game, that creates fear and creates, at the same time, many and various systems to control it, also referred Faraway, So Close!.
1) Peter Marcuse, After the World Trade Center. Cuadernos de arquitectura y urbanismo, Barcelona. 2002
Carolina Jiménez, (Madrid, 1983). Journalist and cultural manager. Lives and works in Berlin. As a political journalist, she has worked in Spanish media like Cadena SER, Agencia EFE and Temas magazines. In the cultural sector she collaborated with contemporary art centers such as Matadero Madrid or La Casa Encendida in Spain. In 2012 he moved to Berlin after being selected to participate in the residency for curators of Node Center for Curatorial Studies. In Berlin she has curated the exhibitions Faraway, So Close! at Fichte-Bunker, We Can Draw It in GlogauAir and Coversation With Alice in Altes Finanzamt. He has been coordinator and manager of SAVVY Contemporary, award for best independent space Projekträume 2013 by the Senate of Berlin (Berliner Senat). She is currently in charge of the communication at Node Center for Curatorial Studies-Berlin.
Beschreibungen, artist book, ink and pencil on paper, 38,7 x 30 cm, 67 pages – Mario Asef © 2012
Raumprothesen – Diagram, Mario Asef © 2012
Urban space and its appropriation by the people who use it is the source of Mario Asef’s artistic work. In his videos, photographs, sound installations, and interventions the artist deals with architectonic as well as socio-political discourse and investigates how they are represented spatially. Like a researcher he examines the constructions of public life by working against the dominant order in subtle ways. This occurs by reordering things without notice or by removing elements specific to the location and adapting them to the art context. Accordingly, these urban objects are first apprehended as artworks when they are documented in photographs or written about in texts.
Asef’s group of works Empirien (1998-2006) presents an entire series of interventions documented in this way. For instance, in the work Fragile—handle with care/appropriation (2004), the artist placed cardboard boxes in front of the Covent Garden Theater Museum in London, which were then taken over by individuals and used as sleeping spots. By converting packaging into housing, Asef indirectly draws attention to the negative spaces of the city, which make life (survival) possible, but also to the present absence of the homeless. Like illegal immigrants or street musicians, the homeless also count among the—for the most part—undesirable users of public space.1 The artist stages this situation like an experiment. That vagrants then make use of it in practical ways undermines the efforts of local authorities.
In and of themselves the unforeseen and the ephemeral are inherent to Mario Asef’s interventions. He never knows how long his rearrangements will last or whether or how passersby will take them over and put them to use. This participation is the trigger for a non-verbal communication outside of cultural institutions. For the most part the users of the locations involved quickly grasp the initiative, deconstruct the intervention, and reestablish the usual “normal order” of things.
Raumprothesen (spatial prosthetics) can be viewed in many respects as a further development of this creative process. In this case, urban phenomena are actually translocated into the art establishment. Here Asef manifests his socio-critical stance by inviting street musicians to play at his opening. The performative evening was consciously designed to provoke interaction between the art-going public and individuals who operate primarily within the urban locations outside of cultural institutions.
In contrast to Empirien, the participation of everyone involved takes place within the exhibition space. As a result of this appropriation beer bottles, cigarette butts, and trash pile up on the floor and imprints from fingers and people sitting are pressed into the sculptural elements—the “Raumprothesen”—that the artist has integrated into the exhibition. “Prothese” (prosthetics) means here, so to speak, the artificial extension of the room that fulfills a specific function. As such the objects don’t even stand out at first. Rather, their white color and inconspicuous positioning on the margins allows them to be seen as a fixed component of the exhibition space.
A central aspect of this work involves returning the purported sculptures to the public locations where the elements that inspired them formally are found. For his work Asef initially pilfers material from the city. In this case polystyrene insulation board for acoustically isolating homes is used. In the context of his exhibition this building material is transformed into sculptures. Through their use (disintegration), mostly by the musicians to whom the sculptural elements were assigned as stages, they are, in turn, viewed as everyday objects. Throughout the entire duration of the show the viewer can observe the process of using the space along with its Prothesen. In addition the brief musical performances have been captured in a documentary video as staged memory, and are continuously on view. Here the quality of the recording plays a secondary role. Asef films more like an anthropologist who attempts to understand the circumstances from a distance. After the presentation in the art context is over, the objects and musicians alike make their way back onto the streets. Once there, people will again use the “Raumprothesen” as seating and eventually dispose of them. With this, a cycle of varying translocations and ascribing of meanings apparently comes to its end.
Whether in urban public space or within the space of an exhibition, the experience of those involved in Mario Asef’s interventions go far beyond the actual participation. Rather, through his subtle interventions, the viewer is sensitized to the processes at work in urban, social surroundings.
1 Asef’s socio-critical stance goes back to the artist’s own personal experiences. He himself migrated from Argentina to Germany twelve years ago.
Susanne Trasberger (formerly Köhler) studied cultural sciences and aesthetics at the University of Hildesheim. She curated several exhibitions in Berlin (e.g. NGBK), Worpswede and at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. She was director of Kunstverein Junge Kunst, Wolfsburg, production manager for the exhibition XIII. Rohkunstbau in Berlin and published various art catalogues. She currently lives in Berlin and works for Texte zur Kunst.
Sabeth Buchmann – Mario Asef about EMPIRIEN a series of interventions in public space
Sabeth Buchmann: It would be relevant to discuss your work in relation to so-called social minimalism. This term refers to standardized forms of work with an industrial aesthetic that is based on historical minimalism and that-as in so-called institutional critique and the so-called context art of the eighties and nineties-is loaded with socio-cultural significance. Examples include the works of Janine Antoni, Angela Bulloch, Tom Burr, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Henrik Olesen, Christian Philipp-Müller, Heimo Zobernig, etc. In my opinion, one certainly can make these associations, alone due to the apparently alinear structuring of the concepts of your work-which are rooted in the work world and everyday life-according to typologies that are more or less randomly compiled according to letters of the alphabet.
Mario Asef: From the very start the interventions were conceived as a kind of journal, in which chronology played a deciding role. In retrospect, I discovered that the series contained very specific themes, in which the intervention assumed a specific position and which, to a certain extent, demonstrated a continuity within the timeframe of a year or longer.
Naturally these themes do not need to be organized in a linear manner. There is no reason why one theme should come before or after another. The format of the book as a medium does favor a linear reading of the works. For this reason I resorted to a random classification of these themes, in order to refer to and create awareness for the non-linear coexistence of the different thematic areas.
On the one hand, this highlights the fact that a certain kind of knowledge that one acquires through experience (Empirien) is not stored chronologically in the memory. It is abstracted in a way that space and time exist independently of one another. On the other hand, herein lies a negation of conventional historiography, which always runs counter to psycho-physical element of memory in order to represent a constructed, linear xobjectivity towards events-which ultimately only serves a political aim.
Take your Time, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006
S B: The kind of terminology you bring into play –Empirie and the notion of experience-seems to formulate an opposing stance to the minimalist tradition related to conceptualism, in which the artwork is based on ideas or theoretical propositions. At the same time, one is not given the impression that you are interested in the aesthetic or phenomenological experience in your work but in experience as a form of information about the specific context in which the works are placed. My question is whether you are concerned here with opposing moments in the perception of the xobjects and situations you construct?
M A: Yes, I do try to clearly separate different stages of perceiving the work. I think there are different levels of experience. This term is normally reduced to a sensitive level, in which an immediate effect is ostensibly generated through confrontations with the material world, without an impact on other mental levels. However, there is also a level of “mental experience,” in which material is charged with certain signifiers that strongly influence experience and that can generate different kinds of perception, depending on the possibility of interpretation in socio-cultural contexts. [All such knowledge can be confirmed as true or false, so that one single experience can be associated with multiple, and perhaps even contradictory, meanings.]
My working process consists of setting up a hypothesis in mental space and then looking for an experience in actual space that can confirm this hypothesis. In other words, this reverses the empirical process through which knowledge is gained, and thereby the function of a “contemplative action” is artificially generated and pursued ad absurdum.
Thus, an idea is not created from experience but implanted within experience as an abstract thought. Idea and experience thus becom e a systematic construction of a thought experiment that aims to produce an unpredictable effect.
Brownie Ranch, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006
S B: To what extent would you say your approach is related to project formats that circulate under the term artistic research? This includes an almost scientific investigation of locations, contexts and discourses. I am asking this, because, on the one hand, you often work with text and commentary; on the other, you seem to place value on the literary and poetic quality of your xobjects and projects-a quality that analytical research projects sometimes lack. So here are two questions in one.
M A: These works are not based on any kind of research project. This analysis normally develops as a kind of assimilation process. We know that the analysis cannot continue to exist independent of an xobject of investigation. This means that the analysis exists as a whole and can therefore very quickly lose its relationship to empirical reality and remain unaffected by it. In order to disempower the analysis, one can use analysis itself as a means of establishing a critique of the analysis. In this sense, humor plays an important role in my work.
The basic idea is to create a system within which one can move more or less freely. For this purpose I often fall back on pseudo-scientific methods, always in the hope of achieving a poetic sensibility that lies beyond this methodology.
This might sound paradoxical. However it is true that science (particularly since the beginning of the 20th century) has strongly influenced the cultural imaginarium of the Occident (here one could include Cubism or Futurism in conjunction with numerous science fiction visions, etc.). In other words, it is fertile ground for poetry. New scientific discoveries open up new perspectives on life and also new fantasies.
S B: Maybe we can use this point to delve more concretely into the sculptural aspect of your work. I have the impression that you-although your works could best be described with the term “situation” or “situative intervention”-still hold onto what one could call a classical approach to the xobject. For example, in the intervention Europe Towers, which you realized in a Bausch & Lomb warehouse, you bring together the aspect of a new order within European norms and a reference to modular typological forms of modern architecture, and at the same time you use cardboard boxes. The association with Warhol’s serial xobjects and minimalism is obvious. Are you interested in pointing to the frame of reference in which you are operating, i.e. the institution of “art?” At the same time, you interventions are apparently always located outside of this frame of reference, in the factory, on the street and in contexts that impact “other” social levels and realities in order to engage there with genre-like conditions of artistic production.
M A: Although a clear reference to the art context is implied in my interventions and precisely because the transformative significance of xobjects play an important role in my work-xobjects that are taken from everyday life into a gallery and museum and are then again returned to the street-I do not want to define the formal element of my work as sculpture but as structure in public space, as converted elements of this public realm that have taken on artistic reference through a “shift in order.”
One should also consider the fact that precisely these references function contextually. That is to say that once the documentation has been put together, the works must be shown in an institutional space in order for them to evoke the artistic references that were a consideration in the working process but do not play a role in the initial confrontation with the intervention.
It is really important to me that all xobjects undergo an additional process of transformation. Only in this way do such interventions have meaning.
Sleeping Policeman and Hole, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006
S B: A conspicuous element of all the concepts of your work is that they always contain a moment of retroactive impact that is mediated through the documentation: that means that different sites of intervention-such as in Brownie Ranch, Job Center, etc.-always function as a mediated site for the production of signs. However, this is exactly what seems to make it possible for you to integrate an act of chance in a specific way-an act that embodies the moment the work is perceived. In this context I am thinking of the work Mudança. This raises the question of whom you want to address in your work.
M A: In the first phase of the process the addressees are always passersby. Later the work shifts more in the direction of addressing the viewers and consumers of art. They all represent the corpus of the social, and in this way they all represent the intended audience. In other words, the interventions consist of reorganizing elements in social space. The passersby, users, clients or workers who happen to be at the places I have selected rearrange these elements or simply destroy them.
Initially this kind of participation is the catalyst for nonverbal communication outside cultural institutions, and it represents a kind of transgression of the artistic context. Later the works are documented, and this documentation is shown as art in an institutional context. As a result, the range of addressees becomes wider, and the relationship to the work is changed, because the reorganized elements have already vanished and they only remain as a kind of “staged memory” (documentation) in the gallery or museum.
S B: In conjunction with my previous questions I am interested to know whether you have certain specific artistic conventions in mind when you take photographs, or whether you tend more towards a journalistic style.
M A: All interventions were documented with an analogue pocket camera. Personally, I have no photographic ambitions. My position resembles that of tourists who are always outside of the contexts in which they find themselves and who try to make sense of the given situation from a distance. This distance resembles the rhetorical distance of a poet, the mathematical distance of a scientist, the structural distance of an observer. At the same time, I try to engage with the paradoxical realm of the photograph. As in Dead Policeman and Hole, in which the significant motif within the context remains positioned behind the camera. The location was namely a US military base, and, as is the case at such sites, one is not allowed to take photographs.
Or in Fragile, in which a comedian placed himself in front of the intervention after it had already been taken over by homeless people. The public photographed the show and also the appropriated intervention in the background, which remained “invisible” to people because they didn’t know about it. This means that the motif of my intervention was reproduced dozens of times, but it remained invisible to people.
This phenomenon is repeated in the many interventions of Type L, in which people simply shoot photos in a museological context in order to look at them in peace and quiet at home. However, when they get home, they realize that these locations where they have been did not correspond to what was represented in the photographs. In other words, some elements take up previously unsuspected positions, although everything still looks completely ordinary.
S B: It is almost a banal cliché to say that the function of art consists of making something visible. As if the field of visibility were a privileged field of work. Your work seems to be concerned with opening up other possibilities of perception. We talked about this initially in reference to the notion of information, which targets cognitive or intellectual elements. Here, I primarily mean your work with literary texts, such as those of Borges, which deal with a transformation of language itself in a way that is more or less implied in all of your interventions.
That brings us to Marcel Duchamp, who comes to the fore in Type L, your act of donation: here information and language refer to the museum’s classification of apparently non-aesthetically coded xobjects. One could also draw other parallels, for example to Beuys and Broodthears, in the sense of a reflection on the meaning of exhibiting and the associated institutionalization process of modes of production and understanding. What would you like to add to this reflection?
M A: These kinds of references to Duchamp or Broodthaers are certainly an aspect of my intentions, although my interest is more concentrated on the aspect of the classification systems for xobjects in our environment. Thus, these interventions represent a parameter for the classification of private xobjects, which generate an absurd moment when combined with the predominant value parameters of our culture. That is the reason that we laugh when we think about choosing to make a differentiation, and it recalls Jorge Luis Borges story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, in which he presents a list of the classifications of animals in a Chinese encyclopedia.
So my works speculate with the notion of creating a Museum of the Absurd, in which the exhibited items provoke new chains of reactions due to specific constellations, such as those of museological grammar.
Over the course of the history of art we have learned that every xobject is a carrier of meaning for cultural signifiers. Why not rethink the traditional encyclopedic structure of our museums and reconceive it as a porous organism in which public interaction is a source of a continual reconstruction of the institution?
Fox Fur, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006
Sabeth Buchmann is an Austrian art historian and art critic. Currently she is Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art and the Head of the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. She contributes to books, magazines and catalogues. Her publications include Film, Avantgarde und Biopolitik (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, 2009) and Art After Conceptual Art (The MIT Press, 2006).
Mario Asef is a visual artist born in Córdoba, Argentina and currently works and lives in Berlin, Germany. He studied architecture and art in Argentina, Germany, and England. His work has been exhibited worldwide most recently at Junge Kust e.V. (Wolfsburg, Germany), Kasa Galerie (Istanbul), Abandoned Gallery (Malmö, Sweden) SSamzie Space (Seoul), Nouvel Organon (Paris). Recent museum exhibitions include Hamburger Kunsthalle, Villa Merkel, Kunstlerhaus Bregenz (Austria), and the Akademie der Künste Berlin.
Office Incidence, sketch book – Mario Asef @ 2010
Mario Asef’s camera simply observes—it does not monitor (by recording everything in a blanket manner), it does not stare (by focusing unscrupulously), it does not gather (by picking up everything that passes before its lens), but it is just there, it observes what is happening, very directly, in the margins of goings-on and locations. It seems completely natural when a plastic bag catches its attention, following it as the wind buffets it about on a square in Buenos Aires (Edad de hielo / Ice Age, 2011). Or when it beholds a preacher for world peace at an intersection in London (Pass Over, 2003-5). Or it sits as a silent guest behind the visitor’s window at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, registering the activities on the dreary floor in front of it and what is happening on the other side of the door outside (Börsianer / The Operators, 2009): the operators are working in the cut-throat field of global speculative trading as if in a semi-public cage, whereas those stranded on the streets are left to face its consequences with their own bodies. Images of artificial nature mediate between the agonal spheres.
The attentive gaze of Mario Asef’s camera quietly watches the everyday details of the world, thereby making it possible to draw conclusions about farther reaching injustices. Because of this his videos are not image apparatuses that produce big dramatic impressions, seduce through beauty, or seek to overwhelm the intellect. For Asef, video is first and foremost a simple technological possibility for splicing together observations of daily life, recording visual sketches, and later for tying these together artistically into complex layers of meaning. Inherent to the pensive observing of goings-on in public space is a claim to the public sphere. His videos not only address spaces and instances of authority or conquest, such as stock exchanges, revolutions, war, post-colonialism, or global trade, but they also undermine their appeal to power by showing the somewhat peripheral moments of everyday life and portraying the emptiness with signs of thoughtfulness and helplessness, with empathy, but also with humor and a sensibility for the small pleasures on the margins. In a certain sense, Asef’s particular narratives of daily experience perforate the ideal texture of a world conceived as a coherent actuality. Idea and reality are related together in a thought experiment that Asef, elsewhere, calls History Is Now.1 According to this motto, history would not be viewed as a resolved occurrence of the past, but seen as a process characterized by various temporal experiences that takes place in the here and now, without knowing what is next. It is the conception of a history that is continually transformed by stories. With Asef the historical occurrence becomes an open situation that evokes a “third text” between the signs.
Edad de Hielo, video still – Mario Asef © 2011
“Bolsa de comercio” means stock exchange in Spanish, but an ordinary plastic bag is also called a “bolsa.” With this commerce-bag double meaning in mind, Asef follows the movements of a plastic bag in a pedestrian zone in Buenos Aires in his video Ice Age. Like a tumbleweed in the Wild West, the bag careens around the square. During the eight-minute long video the object comes to life for the viewer, becomes a lung that inhales and exhales, is stepped on, pauses, and with the next burst of wind becomes active again—what existential happenstance! What’s more, a voice-over in Spanish talks about nature as the only corrective factor in man’s striving for objectivity and ends with the rhetorical question: What remains after all the acquired knowledge and various prognostications other than concrete experience? Asef observes what’s happening with the camera in order to create a situation out of them in which the viewer is able to move or think more or less freely. Therefore it is necessary to leave the stories open-ended, to not tell them all the way, to not dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, or provide them with an ending. Asef’s videos are based on detailed observations on a sculptural level. They do not provide an overview. They present modest materials in the streets of Buenos Aires or in post-revolutionary Bucharest (Revolution after Revolution, 2005), they portray desperate moments on the alleys of Frankfurt, or dogmatic monologues from jail. The scenes of underdogs, be it people or things, are spliced together with centers of power such as the stock exchange or the lunar conquest. In Man’s on Moon (2006), for example, one sees images of the moon landing, astronauts in spacesuits and their vehicles, while Charles Manson raps in staccato against society in his typical nagging voice. Both spheres, the extraterrestrial and the outcast, are in need of a survival capsule and thus Manson sees eye to eye with the man on the moon: “I am a mechanical man.” It is about the big questions, about the spirit that animates.
Bothered by the Border, video still – Mario Asef © 2007
Bothered by the Border (2006-8) creates an entirely difference situation. The camera shows a man singing karaoke music live on a square in the middle of people. Mario Asef had been invited to South Korea. There he visits in a park a karaoke meeting point for war veteran retirees and spontaneously sings a song. The camera is located in the crowd and shows him at times as the singer and at times the dancers beside him. Asef heightens his exotic foreigner status by singing in overtone in a foreign language. He imitates a Tuvan song from Mongolia newly set to music by the folk rock band Yat-Kha. No one understands what Asef is singing and no one is bothered by this, on the contrary, everyone is quite amused. Even a few women join in among the large number of older men. Asef later recounts that they are prostitutes who visit the meeting place regularly and are paired with the elderly gentlemen by younger men behind the scenes. Nearly all the seniors were soldiers in the Korean War, which sealed the split between North and South Korea in 1953. It is their meeting point in Seoul and Asef seeks out this particular situation. After the fact, he dedicates the lyrics of his song Bothered by the Border on the split through Korean society to this generation of fighters. The subtitles, added later, construct for us viewers a narrative space in which anecdotes are combined with tragic history in a light-handed manner.
Asef is not so interested in sociological milieu-studies or the psychological intimacy of individuals, which are often tritely put forward especially in art these days. Instead, in his videos he compiles meta-stories on the formation of narratives and history itself. Sabeth Buchmann, in conversation with the artist, coined the designation “social Minimalism”2 for his three-dimensional work, insofar as traits of historical Minimalism of the 1960s to the 90s (so-called object-based art, concept art, institutional critique, contextual art) are recognizable but are underpinned with socio-cultural meaning. During the course of this discussion it becomes clear that classifications or genre-specific categorizations are in fact possible, but for Asef (as perhaps for every artist) not really applicable. This is because he himself is always questioning art-critical categorizations as well as conventional histories, forsaking market-oriented genres, and breaking apart clichés.
Mario Asef’s video works demonstrate that history and stories belong together. In them, an artistic method is developed that makes use of oppositions to create new images in the viewer, a “third text” of open-ended interpretation, a sentiment or a mood, rather than explaining in alternation. In talking about the science of history Hayden White said: “Also Clio composes poetry,”3meaning that in representing facts analytically science also employs poetry, but its methodology does not disclose this, thus concealing its literary strategies in explaining events. Mario Asef uses, wittingly or unknowingly, the ideology critical insight of “Metahistory” (Hayden White) by uniting history with contemporary perspectives. He elevates his right to the public sphere not as a bold demand, but by realizing it with artistic methods, thereby creating visual poetry.
Börsianer / The Operators, video still – Mario Asef © 2009
1 Mario Asef, History Is Now, videos: Pass Over, London – 2003/2005 – Revolution after Revolution, Bucharest – 2005 – Man’s on Moon, 2006 – Bothered by the Border, Seoul – 2006/2008 – Börsianer/ The Operators, Frankfurt am Main – 2009 – One-Euro-Land, Bremen – 2010 – Surf, 2010 – Edad de hielo, Buenos Aires – 2011
2 Sabeth Buchmann and Mario Asef, “Dialog,” in Empirien, eds. Mario Asef and BrotfabrikGalerie (Berlin, 2009).
3 Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973).
Dirck Möllmann *1963 in Wetzlar, since June 2012 in Graz,
curator of the Institut für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum Steiermark, Universalmuseum Joanneum.
Curator of the Hamburger Kunsthalle 1996-2009; co-founder of VIDEO Club 99, Hamburger Kunsthalle 1999-2009; Stile der Stadt, Plattform für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum, Hamburg 2006-2012; collaboration with the Galerie für Landschaftskunst, Hamburg.
Exhibitions (selected): “SNAFU. Medien, Mythen Mind Control”, Hamburger Kunsthalle 2007, “MAN SON 1969. Vom Schrecken der Situation”, Hamburger Kunsthalle 2009, “Spring” Kunstfrühling, Gleishalle Bremen 2009; sculpture project “raumsichten” for the binationalen offenen Museum “kunstwegen” Grafschaft Bentheim (DE) and the Provinz Overijssel (NL), 2009-2012.