Working at Kunsthalle Basel is Berlin-based artist Peter Friedl’s first major exhibition in Switzerland.
By working with different genres, media and forms of display, Peter Friedl (*1960) compels viewers to reflect on their own position as the subjects addressed by contemporary art and politics. Confronted with his art practice, which emphasizes global (counter)history, autobiographical narratives, and unresolved aesthetic issues, viewers are invited to look at images in a different way.
The exhibition focuses on recent work: it includes photographic images, a video, and an installation featuring Friedl’s new book project Working at Copan/Trabalhando no Copan (2005–07). Whereas two earlier book projects, Kromme Elleboog (2000–01) and Four or Five Roses (2001–04) were based on children’s monologues, the new project contains twenty interviews from the working world in Brazil.
Several of the exhibited photographs were taken on location in today’s Honduras at the Copán ruins, a Mayan complex of temples and monuments first described by the “American traveler” John Lloyd Stephens in 1841. In Friedl’s pictures, the crumbling monumental sculptures and stone walls of the Mayan site represent more than a standard image of historical demise – they stand as a foreboding sign of the decline of our own modern era. The images function as a rhetorical reference to Edifício Copan in Sao Paulo, designed in the early 1950s by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1966 — Latin America’s largest residential building.
Working at Copan/Trabalhando no Copan is a series of recorded, transcribed and meticulously edited interviews (English and Portuguese) with some of the 108 employees of the Edifício Copan. In these texts, the building — an icon of Brazilian modernist architecture — appears purely as a workplace. It is portrayed in the testimonies of those whose work makes the architecture function: maintenance workers, doormen and the building manager. We are invited to witness what is usually concealed behind the Copan’s curved façade, thus revealing a clearer view of modernity’s ambiguous face. The questions asked by the artist leave room for a number of different stories, all at a very specific locus of modernity.
A curved wall gives a new shape to the main exhibition space of the Kunsthalle Basel. It is used for displaying the uncut printer’s proofs of Working at Copan/Trabalhando no Copan. Opposite the wall, a series of framed color prints is displayed on one of the “real” Kunsthalle walls. One set of seven prints features scanned and enlarged postcards — sent from Switzerland by the artist’s mother to her young son in 1963 (the titles include the exact dates). The images are pets: dogs and (toy) cats. The other set of seven enlarged postcards shows tourist sites in Europe: castles, harbors, cliffs and historic towns (one postcard is a reproduction of a landscape painting by J. M. W. Turner), sent by Friedl to his mother in 1976. The Postcards series (2007) verge on banality and generalized feelings of nostalgia and loss: images are made public but the written “contents” of the postcards is censored.
Installed in the small room behind the main space is a video piece, Liberty City (2007). Against a backdrop of a nocturnal urban scene, a group of young (black) men beat up a (white) policeman. The looped sequence reminds us of an accidental eyewitness document, recorded with a handheld camera. In fact, it is a meticulously constructed, dramatic study of an urban racist act: the one-minute-long, uncut video refers to the killing of Arthur McDuffie in Miami on the night of December 17, 1979. Following a highspeed chase, the (black) motorcyclist was beaten to death by five (white) police officers at the corner of North Miami Avenue and 38th Street. In May 1980, after the acquittal of the officers by an all-white jury, riots erupted in Liberty City, a predominantly African-American district of Miami. Liberty City was staged and shot in the streets of the Liberty Square Housing Project: a residential complex built for low-income African-American residents in the 1930s during the Roosevelt era. A wall built along the eastern boundary of Liberty Square kept the black and white communities separate (remnants of the structure are still visible). Friedl’s film is an homage to the community of Liberty City — a short piece of epic theater realized in documentary aesthetics.
The exhibition concludes with two photographs on view in the last space. One is a small, black and white photograph of a press clipping from Friedl’s ongoing Theory of Justice project (started in 1992), an archive of newspaper pictures that raises questions concerning originality and historicity and testifies to the persistent struggle against social and political oppression. Against the backdrop of a banner with the word “GREVE” (Portuguese for “strike”) held by protesters, an open hand seen in a close-up shows two coins and a tiny flyer with the word “DIGNIDADE” (Portuguese for “dignity”). Typologically, this untitled photo is the antithesis of Postcards (enlarged facsimiles, scanned from originals). Presented as a mediated and melancholic document of resistance, the photograph of the clipping emphasizes the essentials of dissent. In French, the word “grève” is related to Place de Grève in Paris and its rather complex history. An ancient harbor for unloading Parisian food supplies (a riverside covered with gravel — “grève”), it was also the site of public executions beginning in medieval times, with a guillotine built on the square in 1794. From the 18th century, the square served as a hiring fair for day laborers, mostly for stonemasons from the provinces. The square and the surrounding workers’ boarding houses were branded as a “troubled” neighborhood and a cradle of revolutionary fervor, posing a potential threat to public order and were closely supervised by police throughout the 19th century until the Paris Commune.
The second picture in the room is a color photograph: blades of grass and flowers in a meadow set against the sky. The strangely warm color saturation makes the motif seem slightly unreal and threatening. The indication, Untitled (1962) reveals that the original (slide) is historic or anachronistic. Seen from a frog’s perspective, the dense, oversized vegetation is reminiscent of Richard Dadd’s painterly fairies — although perhaps it is no more than a child’s hideaway embedded within the artist’s autobiography.
Online review and video of the opening at
Working at Copan / Trabalhando no Copan
January 2008, English/Portuguese
14 x 21 cm, 256 pages, 8 b/w illustrations, softcover.
Sternberg Press, Kunsthalle Basel, Extra City, Antwerp.
In collaboration with Exo experimental.org, São Paulo.
Available at Kunsthalle Basel: CHF 20.- / CHF 17.- for members of the Basler Kunstverein.
Peter Friedl‘s work has been exhibited world-wide including documenta X (1997) and documenta 12 (2007), the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), and 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Seville (2006). He has held solo exhibitions at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (1995); Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (1996); LACE, Los Angeles (1998); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (1998); Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin (1999); Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz (1999); Living Art Museum, Reykjavík (1999); Casino Luxembourg, Luxembourg (2001); Chisenhale Gallery, London (2001); Institut d’art contemporain, Villeurbanne-Lyon (2002); Institute for Contemporary Art, Cape Town (2002); Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen (2002); Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt am Main (2004); Witte de With, center for contemporary art, Rotterdam (2004); Midway Contemporary Art, Minneapolis (2006). In 2006, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) produced a retrospective exhibition, that traveled to Miami Art Central/Miami Art Museum and [mac] Musée d’art contemporain in Marseille in 2007. Peter Friedl is nominated for the 2008 Vincent Award in Amsterdam.