The work of Peter Friedl (Oberneukirchen, Austria, 1960) provides an incisive analysis of our political and cultural context, with a particular focus on the contradictions inherent to the practices and methods of contemporary art.
Peter Friedl: Work 1964–2006 was conceived as an atypical retrospective, which deliberately excluded some facets of his artistic production in order to highlight others, while at the same time setting up a fruitful dialogue between what could properly be called the artwork and the documentation that it generates.
The exhibition began chronologically with a series of drawings made by the artist during his childhood, which he later reused in works from the eighties. This was a way of reflecting on the conceptual limits of the genre, and the ways in which the process of museization affects the myths of authorship.
An exhibition catalogue – which included a wide selection of texts by Friedl – was published along with an artist’s book that was part of the project Theory of Justice.
“What interests me about a new concept of genre is how it can create a difference to the old politics of identity. It offers the freedom to look at things more differently, which becomes again interesting in a political and aesthetic prospect. Things become a little strange if their relative autonomy is enforced.”
Peter Friedl’s art practice has made a steady incision in the methods and conventions that contribute to contemporary art’s concepts, facts, function, and appearance. After publishing reviews and essays on contemporary theater for a few years, Friedl (born in Austria, 1960) turned to his own artistic production in the 1980s. Presented today in the form of a retrospective, Friedl’s work—consistently heterogeneous in classical terms of medium, style, and meaning—highlights political awareness, autobiography, permanent displacement, design interventions, potential counter imagery, and the reinvention of genres left over from the history of modernism. His exhibitions present aesthetic models for disarming configurations of power.
Peter Friedl: Work 1964–2006 problematizes the genre of “retrospective,” that is, the musealization of an oeuvre within the framework of institutional logics and through the context of its own history. For this reason, with only very few exceptions, the installations, and also video installations, are not re-staged in their original form or in separate spaces, but instead, are edited and exhibited nearly as documents. In addition, the exhibition brings together a vast selection of drawings on paper, presented chronologically from Friedl’s earliest artistic production to the present.
These drawings offer a glimpse of formal elements (handwriting, motifs, colors) and contents (historical references, signs, and symbols) that often reappear in other works and projects: the poster-piece Map (1969–2005) is based on an early drawing from 1969 assigning the U.S. territory the names of native-American peoples. In Neue Straßenverkehrsordnung (New Traffic Code, 2000), Friedl uses neon to recreate in large-scale a motif from1995. The long timeline running from childhood to 2005 that binds these drawings establishes a rigorous visual simultaneity.
The organizational strategy behind some of Friedl’s projects is both a methodological and aesthetic choice: strict chronology, alphabetical order, and chromatic correspondences generate new forms of narration. By emphasizing and extending creative control to all involved parts of production, Friedl addresses a specific ethical position. Neue Straßenverkehrsordnung describes and depicts the construction of history in the medium of art. In this case, the reference is a RAF document from 1971, which outlined the possibilities and models of revolutionary activity in Western European cities and formulated a kind of political program. The pink New Kurdish Flag (1994–2001) uses color as a category to reflect on objects—the red flag of the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan—and political history.
Started in 1995, Playgrounds takes the form of an ongoing anthological project. Technically, it currently comprises a selection of 600 color slides arranged for various digital wall projections in kid-size format. The pictures—all in landscape format and taken by the artist—show public playgrounds from around the world. Playgrounds deals with an urban typology of modernist planning, which can be seen today as a remnant of twentieth-century utopias. It plays with the genre of conceptual and documentary photography as well as the representation of childhood, a theme that is also present in other works such as Snjókarl (Snowman, 1999), or the book project Four or Five Roses (2001–04), which contains children’s monologues recorded in various cities and townships throughout South Africa.
A singular form of visual and auditory contemplation characterizes the video installation King Kong (2001). Again, the site of action is South Africa, “Triomf Park”—located in Sophiatown on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The film mimics the subtle deconstruction of a video clip, featuring songwriter Daniel Johnston against the backdrop of apartheid history. The artist creates a temporary freed, epic zone where the big story and many little stories come together.
In the form of conceptual aesthetic acts and based on exemplary brief actions, video works such as Dummy (1997, for documenta X) and Tiger oder Löwe (Tiger or Lion, 2000) investigate how art history and social history function. The computer animation No Photography (2004) comes from the larger project OUT OF THE SHADOWS, in which Friedl uses the example of Cyprus to mirror the construction of history and of concepts in an aesthetic of division and borders.
In the 1990s, Friedl created numerous public art contributions, for example, Bellamy & Bellamy (1996), MOB (1997), and Bremer Freiheit (Bremen Freedom, 1998/2003), always with the intention of reassessing the borders of genre and initiating a long overdue genre revision. These types of complex projects present a challenge for a museum. Lotto Continuo (Continuous Lottery, 1997), for example, was an invisible project that traced a linguistic parallel to the Italian left-wing organization Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle). Nothing can stop us (1999) was probably the only car garage in Venice, installed on the occasion of the 48th Biennale in front of the Austrian pavilion. The title is a quote of an imperialistic U.S. slogan of the 1930s, but also the title of a political pop project by Robert Wyatt in 1982. In place of the usual documentary displays, these projects will be exhibited as separately designed, enlarged catalogue pages on the wall in poster form. Also included, as supplement and complement to the global anthropology of Friedl’s Playgrounds, is a homage to the more than 700 children’s playgrounds that Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck designed for Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978.
Another long-term project, Theory of Justice, is presented as both an extensive installation and an artist’s book published by the museum. The title refers to the attempt at renewing social contract theory undertaken by the U.S. philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002). Friedl’s project is based on the collection (since 1992) and selection of newspaper and magazine images on display in specially designed showcases. The chronology of what is depicted (rather than the date of publication) provides a presentation and organizing principle for the newspaper clippings, which stem from diverse sources. In the logic of politics as opposition, conflict replaces consensus. The site of these new pictures of history and pictorial justice can be found between visibility and discourse.
Curator: Bartomeu Marí Production: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).