It won’t hurt to begin with a commonplace acknowledgement that art is an arbitrary and fluid realm, which by definition is expected to constantly test and reinstall ethical frameworks and speech vectors. But art is also a realm defined, along with its own boundaries, by particular institutions that function as intense knots of ideologically and economically marked relations. The Paul Huf Photography Award and the organization that bestows it, Foam, are merely two examples.
In order to be able to talk about a strategy of any [art] project, we must embrace its permanent double-bind: it is a strive for innovation, but it is also an affirmation of the established status quo as soon as a project is recognized institutionally and marketed as an artistic practice. Perhaps, in a rather simplifying manner, one could say that any emancipatory affair is sparked by friction between these two predicaments, which, at times, causes tectonic shifts within the status quo.
But we have to keep in mind that by 2017, institutionally safeguarded art is forced to be controversial and appalling, while constantly subject to political censorship, at times “hybrid” and barely visible — as one of more acclaimed cases we could recall the scandal around MACBA exhibition “The Beast and the Sovereign”, though so many more remain smoothed down and normalized on a daily basis.
“By 2017, institutionally safeguarded art is forced to be controversial and appalling, while constantly subject to political censorship…”
Marketable provocation has been welcomed as long as it doesn’t mingle with the relations that allow it. From this point of view, we should equally direct our curiosity to the conditions that have allowed the Paul Huf Award jury, acting on behalf of Foam, to get excited about Romain Mader’s project “Ekaterina” enough to award it — and to the language of the project itself. In order to do that we need to slightly alienate ourselves from the tropes and apparatuses of verification we are instantly offered to operate with and within.
There is no such thing as aesthetic analysis that can be applied to Romain Mader’s project, which is clearly a conceptual work, and clearly it states, starting from the URL of the artist’s website (stereotyp.es), that it is a work dealing with stereotypes, including particular rough stylistic exercises that let photographs appear conventional, amateur or, in some instances, taken stealthily, randomly, from a voyeuristic perspective. It is a lot more interesting to analyze the language of and around the work. The aesthetic analysis included in Foam’s response to the petition as a justification of the work takes form of automatically generated unspecific predicates that can be applied to any material at all: “visually compelling, skillfully photographed, and both provocative and unsettling”. Is there anything visual that can definitely be proven to be non-compelling whenever it is used in art? What makes a photograph skillful in 2017, when the scope of what photography can be is so broad, while hardware and software applied to make it almost anything are getting upgraded daily? Is it fair to call Mader’s work skillful, when his primary goal is to preserve the ordinary, “naive”, unskilled appearance? What does it mean for a work to be provocative and unsettling — just to the right degree that allows it to be recognized and rewarded by an art institution?
“Marketable provocation has been welcomed as long as it doesn’t mingle with the relations that allow it.”
One quote from the jury takes is illuminating: “While we accept that Mader’s work is not for everyone, we the members of the jury also respectfully suggest that not all art has to be subject to broad consensus. Most of the art all of us care about invites disagreement” — that is, any statement generated by what is recognized as an artistic practice automatically gains protection by an elitist apparatus taking pride in protecting its right to be “not for everyone”. Are you seriously telling me that appreciation of a Romain Mader’s oeuvre is an exclusive high-brow entertainment, while those who criticize its conceptual grounds and ethics are the “everyone” to whom any access to intellectual activity is denied? Or does it mean that political and financial benefits of such work belong to the few who can identify with the discursive space of a Romain Mader?
“The art of an era is nothing but the portrait of its patrons. […] Contemporary art mimics the form of its key patrons, that fraction of the rentier class that lives off finance capital,” screams McKenzie Wark. The true skill of Romain Mader’s project is the accuracy it gains in portraying — rather unwittingly — the present regime of sovereignty. Letting go of any stylistic and political control, striving for a “naive” pose (with a sufficient dose of irony, of course, which lets one get into play with distances), presenting pictures that must look as though they could be made by anyone, Mader truly performs and illustrates the power. It is subtle and humorous, because the authority of 2017 is subtle and humorous, apt for memes and gifs: like Trump’s twitter, like Putin’s jokes, like Pepe the Frog standing for the “alt-right”, like Kadyrov’s Instagram. The latter actually featured a video with a couple of comic actors widely popular in Russia imitating Putin and Kadyrov in a satiric dialogue, with Ramzan Kadyrov himself entering the staged scene in the end to paternally finish the joke. This gesture particularly reminds me of the way Romain Mader goes for ironic self-objectification — which is possible only and only if one’s position is ultimately secured within the dominant political (i.e. institutional) language.
“The authority of 2017 is subtle and humorous, apt for memes and gifs: like Trump’s twitter, like Putin’s jokes, like Pepe the Frog standing for the alt-right.”
The present-day power regime works and establishes itself through a politically marked and branded body, thus, the enacting of this regime and portraying it come to be the same thing. When Romain Mader says that “Ekaterina” was planned as a documentary project, which ended up being an ironic fictional one, we should take that as a testimony to the success of the former, as what we have is a distilled depiction of a certain reality: and that’s what is so unsettling — both the kind of marketable “unsettling” that can be conveniently wrapped in normative art discourse, and politically unsettling to those who find themselves oppressed by the very regime depicted and represented.
In this dimension, it is fruitless and tiring to attack Romain Mader, as he is barely conscious of what his work is, though he is highly aware of the cliches he applies, and he is automatically protected by the distance a tool of irony provides him with as well as by the banal statement of art “not for everyone”. Moreover, it is claimed that the work sheds light on the issue of sex tourism, which is a statement that can hardly be confronted, but is not unlike the case of neo-nazis shedding light on the issue of refugees, or Ramzan Kadyrov shedding light on gay rights. It could be more amusing to get thoroughly engaged in Mader’s game in order to take it apart by playing it in a different way.
Therefore, it is indeed rather gratifying to have a closer look at the project’s components.
The cover picture of “Ekaterina” in video format features Romain behind a photo-booth cut-out with painted figures of a bride and groom, the artist provides his face to a groom, while a bride’s face is missing: coincidentally, in an empty space behind the cut-out we see a sign featuring an abbreviation for Ukrainian currency written in Cyrillic. The absence of a female counterpart is deliberate, confirming the politically “unmarked” position of a woman sought for, but also matching binary gender identity with capital. It’s not only a mythical-but-too-real Eastern European female body that is for sale, but also a Western male body that constitutes its own price: you have to buy a woman to be a man, that is, to be allowed to become a decent representation of the dominant power regime and to act within it; and as a woman you have to purchase a man in order to be recognized by this regime as its functional element (Mader’s work mentions visa issues, or — one of the trivial story decorations — a fact that his fictional town resident needs to get married to a Western European man in order to leave the institute she’s been brought up by).
The city of Ekaterina as a metaphor of the Eastern Europe, lacking males, which obviously stands for its being deprived of political sovereignty and subject to “orientalization”, is a trope as uninventive as it can get — but what interests us is the actual state of affairs performed through it.
Ekaterina is a schizophrenic place, in which sex workers, strippers, shy subversive brides, and feminists are all the same. In his video Mader inserts a chant “Ukrainians are not prostitutes” — well, of course they are not, as he states, they are brides and wives, which is the normative and morally legitimate sex work, and they all have the same name, which means they do not have any, that is, they are not recognized as political subjects, while market subjectivity is obligatory for all.
The “feminists” of Ekaterina stand rather for the preservation of a particular moral standard. It is worth noticing that some of the parts in the work are played by a Swiss artist Nadja Kilchhofer: on the one hand, her parody bears a critical potential, but, on the other hand, it is only made possible by her privileged position, though, ultimately, it is only a place of a “promoted Ekaterina”, which the storyline rather transparently asserts.
“Ekaterina is a schizophrenic place, in which sex workers, strippers, shy subversive brides, and feminists are all the same.”
Mader’s work presents many layers of politicized gender in action, including a bilateral metaphor of gendered geopolitics — but it does so non-deliberately, as a product made by a privileged victim of the status quo, the king’s clown. Every statement he makes slips away from critique, as Mader shows, again and again, that he is just a proxy for any act of power, and what is to be criticized is the apparatus he lets himself stand for and illustrate. Mader is a self-proclaimed fool, which prevents anyone else from calling him a fool. From this perspective, there is truly something genius about this fascinating fluidity, but that is not why Foam has awarded the work — at least this is what can be concluded from the jury’s defensive and empty reply to the petition. Foam’s award is a king’s fee to a loyal clown, made through a modernized and liberalized infrastructure of contemporary art.
The second shot in the sequence of “Ekaterina” shows the blurry face of Romain partly covering the bronze face of Lenin in a relief on the wall of Teatralna metro station in Kiev (recently the site has been “decommunized”, and Lenin’s head has been replaced by a kitschy painted backdrop of a theatre stage and hall done as a 3D optical illusion). Later on we will see the artist’s face inserted into roughly cut-out pictures of men in suits posing with dressed-up girls, or photoshopped to exaggerated historical costumes of noblemen, ending with a figure of a pilot holding an airplane model.
Mader appropriates any representation of sovereignty, and transforms it into its present-day condition: it is laughable, swinging from invisibility to synthetic raw presence, constantly avoiding localization, making itself available only through numerous proxies.
The next picture shows Mader sleeping in a third-class compartment of a train, fully integrated in the context, being an everyman. We see him looking through an optical device on a balcony in a hotel room with TV on, a face of a man in a suit on the screen partly distorted by noise — Romain is topless and relaxed, his own face hidden behind what appears to be binoculars, he is the one performing surveillance. A shot that follows is the view on a beach through an optical device. It is a subtly, invisibly militarized realm. The authority is delivered by the instruments of war, a permanent all-permeating war that gains representation only through staged scenes. Actually, the next thing we see is Mader posing next to a tank, obviously, a WWII memorial — his attire and attitude are definitely those of a tourist, and it is one of very few pictures in which he is posing full face and full length rather than appearing in the corner, blurred, or looking distracted.
Finally, he performs the process of becoming invisible — citing, unknowingly or not so, Hito Steyerl’s video “How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” or “The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda)” by Metahaven, in which characters appear with their faces painted green against chroma key backdrops. Romain Mader dances covered in magenta paint against the “magic pink” chroma key screen after telling a story of an embarrassing dance with the girls of Ekaterina. And this is one of the most distinctive features of present-day power: it is continuously embarrassed and unavoidably embarrassing, it dwells on covfefe and diplomatic relations with San-Escobar.
Present-day power gets so uncomfortable that it has to disappear — but if Hito Steyerl develops Peggy Phelan’s famous tactics of the unmarked and calls for guerrilla visibility gained from the deconstruction of the state of not being seen, Romain Mader’s invisibility is all about the white saggy belly left unpainted and being shaken at the camera. Self-conscious and embarrassed, the body leased to the sovereignty asserts itself in abjection — and it pays off by all means, even providing prestigious institutional recognition.
Along with that, the petition published as a call to reconsider the results of the Foam Paul Huf Award 2017 contains certain statements that appear to me rather inefficient in the discussion about Romain Mader’s project. In particular, the demand to recognize “distinctive cultural identities” instead of presented “homogenous post-soviet space” misses a vital point, as Mader deliberately scrapes the surface, generalizes, goes for over-pitched platitudes — illustrating the narrative about Kiev with a picture from Minsk being just one of them. How can we ask Romain Mader to respect the distinction between Ukraine and Belarus if his strategy lies in a complete disrespect of self for the sake of a peculiar and disturbing performance of privilege, enabling him to show places and say things that otherwise wouldn’t enter the artistic discourse?
Mader’s failure to distinguish is not just a way of offensive “Western” ignorance — this is a realistically presented saggy belly of the actual regime of sovereignty shaken at the camera, which profits from a war only nominally justified as a fight for cultural identities. Cultural identities are synthetic signs that create convenient blind spots both over the economic causes of the war and over such realities as sexual exploitation of women by soldiers holding passports of the same country. I do not want a national cultural identity — I want a wide range of rights and an unconditional access to a wide range of possibilities, with no attachment to any of my identities and to any documents I hold or do not hold. And this is what I believe all humans deserve.
The fact that Romain Mader has received the award for “Ekaterina” is a fait accompli. It is a symptomatic venture in many ways, and a telling summary of what artistic establishment stands for at the moment. The conversation on ethics is what follows, even though no one gets 20K EUR for it — and it should be a conversation not on whether Mr. Mader deserves his 20K EUR, but about the systems of relations that unilaterally recognize “Ekaterina” as a valid narrative and a valuable work of art. There is no bad time for questioning these relations and the state of affairs they sustain.
Lesia Prokopenko is a curator and writer from Kyiv, Ukraine.