‘On Hannah Arendt: The Modern Age’ takes its title from the first chapter of Arendt’s 1968 book Between Past and Future. In the preface, Arendt links thinking together with remembrance and storytelling. Remembrance is understood by Arendt to be one of the most important “modes of thought,” one that requires storytelling in order to preserve those “small hidden islands of freedom.” This kind of thinking, which requires imagination, courage and independence, is present in the work of the artists presented in ‘The Modern Age’: Siah ARMAJANI (b. 1939, Iran; d. 2020, USA), Thomas BAYRLE (b. 1937, Germany), Véronique FILOZOF (b. 1904, Switzerland; d. 1977, France), Vivienne KOORLAND (b. 1957, South Africa) and Jo SPENCE (b. 1934; d. 1992, UK).
The first in a 12-month programme dedicated to the writings of the German-born, American political philosopher Hannah Arendt, ‘The Modern Age’ extends Arendt’s examination of tradition and the modern age into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries or what she understood as “the modern world.” We are living through a very difficult period of history marked by a tremendous amount of instability. Driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to radically alter how we educate, socialise, consume and care for one another. This has intensified our dependence on technology and brought with it something that Arendt articulated as “new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with.” The artworks selected offer pause for thought, and in doing so, help us emotionally and intellectually navigate the challenging time in which we find ourselves.
The exhibition is a rare opportunity to see five of Siah Armajani’s Houses made between 1970-1978. These dwellings disregard any design we might be familiar with. Their exteriors call to mind a rustic farmhouse or barn, yet their interiors are empty, devoid of any fixtures, furniture or modern appliances. On closer inspection there is a peculiar treatment by the artist of form and space. Rooms without walls, windows or doors; levels and floors that are cut off from one another and inaccessible. In these sculptures, Armajani confuses our understanding of home as erected to provide comfort and protection, instead raising the possibility that these buildings exist for impractical or sinister purposes.
In the last few decades, we have seen an explosion of technological innovation, mass production and mass marketing. Most recently, the rise of the internet has accelerated the process and opened up new spaces for business to both grab our attention and sell us more products. Thomas Bayrle’s interest in production and consumption links him to theorists such as Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. For the exhibition Baryle has transformed one of the rooms in the gallery with a site-specific installation. The floor-to-ceiling work – for which he has become renowned – foregrounds the artist’s longstanding preoccupation with postwar consumerism, which replaced trauma with a pathological desire for goods and services. This manipulation has since continued, resulting in a global industry with an insanely profitable substitute for actual healing.
Jo Spence’s work has its roots in British conceptual photography of the 1960s and 1970s. At its core is an enquiry into how we think about images. In Remodelling Photo History (1980-82), her carefully staged and often wickedly funny photographs ask us to pay close attention to what we see when presented with a photographic image as opposed to passively absorbing its information. Spence was fascinated with the power of images to construct and encourage particular ways of viewing the world. In her work she reminds us that no image is neutral, on the contrary, everything has an ideological structure that is designed to manipulate and exploit.
Despite her relatively unknown status, Véronique Filozof’s significance can be grasped from the praise and friendship she received from eminent artists and intellectuals including André Bloc, Jean Cocteau, Jean Dubuffet, André Malraux and Jean-Paul Sartre, amongst others. Filozof’s work relates to the theme of the exhibition in that her subject was firmly “Man: his life, his work, his joys, his sorrows” and her commitment to this ¬– what Arendt might describe as the Vita activa or active life – led her to explore the emerging counterculture of the 1960s and produce drawings inspired by the wars in Algeria (1954-1962), Vietnam (1955-1975) and the events surrounding May 1968.
Vivienne Koorland’s large-scale paintings, such Terezin Painting: Josef (1991) and Poland is on Pluto: A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke’s Version) (2017), are included for their ability to contest collective experience and remap history. Terezin Painting is oil on linen set into wood mantel that takes its inspiration from the infamous story of art made within the Terezin ghetto. There, artists were forced to produce propagandistic artworks depicting the town as a model of Nazi hospitality, but they covertly used their art materials to record the actual horrors of life there. Poland is on Pluto combines the lyrics of Cooke’s 1964 civil-rights anthem with Kant’s famous sentence “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,” which together infer that hope – which we so often fear to be lost – is ultimately retrievable.
Finally, Brazilian sound artist and music producer Laima Leyton responds to each chapter in Between Past and Future with a new sound work to accompany each exhibition. Collectively titled Infinite past, infinite future and NOW, listen to the works here.
In partnership with the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, join us each exhibition for the 'On Hannah Arendt: Virtual Reading Group' as scholars, artists and invited guests discuss key themes in Arendt's writing and link it to art and culture. Register to listen here.
A video introduction to 'Tradition and the Modern Age' by Roger Berkowitz, Founder and Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, and an interview with Vivienne Koorland on Hannah Arendt are available to watch here.
With special thanks to the Hannah Arendt Center, Gladstone Gallery and Rossi & Rossi for their support.