This Installation is the Political Art We Need in 2017

Image from Manaf Halbouni’s Instagram, used with Halbouni’s permission.

Three buses stand on end in a public square in Dresden. This is Monument, an installation artwork by the 32-year-old Syrian-German artist, Manaf Halbouni.

It’s an engineering feat to be sure, but, in my opinion, it is also the most important work of political art in years. Already Monument has enraged the German far right: about 150 people protested the installation on the day it opened to the public, Tuesday, February 7. For American artists wondering how to respond to the Trump presidency, Halbouni’s installation might be the best model of how a work of art can become powerful political action.

The art world has been engaged in constant battle against Trump throughout his journey from a presidential candidate with little hope of winning his party’s nomination to leader of the free world. Last summer, a life-size nude sculpture of the Donald showed up in Union Square in New York. Alison Jackson staged a performance art march starring a Trump impersonator surrounded by women in skimpy bikinis only days after the publication of the infamous “Grab them by the pussy” video. When Trump was elected, Annette Lemieux asked the Whitney Museum of Art to rehang her “Left Right Left Right” upside-down. Then, Richard Prince returned $36,000 he received for an artwork appropriating an Ivanka Trump Instagram post, and denounced it as “fake art.” Soon after the inauguration, Christo announced he was abandoning a massive project for the Arkansas River in Colorado. He had already spent two decades and $15 million of his own money on the work. When President Trump issued his executive order on immigration, MoMA rehung their permanent collection to feature works by artists affected by the travel ban. These have all been important acts of defiance, but none have raised the ire of the right like Halbouni’s Monument, and none, I think, have been as effective as political art.

Monument takes its inspiration from a photograph of Aleppo showing three bombed out buses stood on their ends being used as a barricade against sniper fire. Halbouni’s installation effectively makes the experience of Aleppo tangible to the residents of Dresden. The vision of three upturned buses in a bustling European city center is surreal, but that’s the point. That it registers as uncanny makes abundantly clear that the viewer is fortunate not to be caught up in the bloody battle. For viewers who have never lived in a war zone, Halbouni makes our privilege palpable. The artist’s message is directed at Syrians, too: the buses are next to Dresden’s Frauenkirche — which was bombed in WWII but is now rebuilt — because, Halbouni’s says, “I wanted to show people that reconstruction is possible.”

Protests of Halbouni’s Monument on February 7, 2017. Image: Sebastian Kahnert / AFP / Getty Images.

The uproar among Dresden’s right wing groups exposes them for their true colors. By protesting an artwork that attempts to make the fight in Aleppo feel physically present, their demonstration is, in effect, espousing a desire to remain ignorant of the situation. The anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), describes Monument as an “abuse of artistic freedom.” But Monument makes the unimaginable horror of war imaginable and this is exactly what art should do. As political art, it works so well because it makes the experience of others real, forces its viewers to adopt an empathetic response and, perhaps most importantly, reaches those on the other side of the debate.

In the art world’s so-called war against Trump, have any of our punches have really landed? Meanwhile, it became clear on Friday that the President will try to cut, maybe eliminate, the N.E.A and N.E.H; this would be a devastating attack. To fight back, artists need to do more than embarrass the President or call attention to his injurious policies like the travel ban. Artists need to make their viewers engage with the most important problems in the world. This is bound to have a profound effect. And when it does, we will need to be courageous in the face of inevitable blowback. There are reports that the organizers of Monument have received death threats, but they are far from deterred. Christiane Mennicke-Schwartz, the artistic director of the Dresden Kunsthaus, told The Art Newspaper: “We have hit a nerve with this project — an important nerve.”