Rainer Ganahl * Wallach Art Gallery * New York City

Whether as criticism, praise, or simple observation, the works of Rainer Ganahl are often described as intellectual, in the sense that they focus on the rational and interpretive faculties of his subjects. Among the pieces showcased in Ganahl's retrospective last fall at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University, were the ongoing S/L (Seminars/Lectures) series of photographs which depict professional thinkers—ranging from brandname professor-celebrities like Jacques Derrida and Noam Chomsky to more obscure researchers—delivering lectures to bored or rapt audiences; the Basic Language works in which the artist has been creating works relating to his systematic study of various languages; the Reading Seminar series which consists of the artist leading a group of individuals, usually students, through discussions and readings of politically laden texts such as those by Franz Fanon, Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci; and a loosely connected series of dialog works consisting of interviews with individuals such as Antonio Negri and Rudi Gurtin (his Stalinist travel agent), as well as with German/Austrian Holocaust survivors under the title Language of Emigration.

Each of these works manifests Ganahl's commitment to investigating the politics and dialogic dynamics of knowledge and cultural production. Yet, despite his enthusiasm for the methods and institutions of contemporary intellectual discourse and his fascination with the rigours of studying, Ganahl is no professorial wannabe. As the impressively thorough show has presented, Rainer Ganahl's work is inspired by his theoretical insights and an overarching commitment to a radical humanism; he sympathizes with people who are or were marginalized or blatantly victimized by approved, mainstream trends of culture. Through his art, he calls attention to socio-historical issues and minority perspectives that would normally threaten tenures and research grants. His status as an artist legitimizes his ethics and politics so that they are acknowledged by academics.

This retrospective presented how Ganahl’s unique position has enabled him to expose and frame the tensions that arise when different cultural registers and perspectives are juxtaposed. The results range from lyrical to absurd to ironic. Shown together in a single exhibition space, their individual impacts are all the more powerful.

In Homeland Security videos, which are a part of his language study projects, Ganahl puts a fresh spin on stylistic appropriation from subaltern sources by replicating the awkward, poorly lit frontal filming style found in terrorists' video tapes. The artist faces the camera squarely, and slowly, clearly, and insistently repeats phrases such as "I am not a terrorist" and "I don't know how to build bombs" in the eleven languages he has been studying. The deadpan tone betrays no emotion. One might imagine such a nightmarish but controlled scenario unfolding at an interrogation station run by Homeland Security agents. The unsettling nature of the performance is enhanced because the artist makes only negative statements, denying charges directed at him. Furthermore, the artist looks the part of a public menace with his long and stringy hair, a ratty camouflage t-shirt, and his haunted and intense expression. He has managed to attain a universally recognizable aura of suspiciousness. Whether he is an innocent prisoner, or a captured terrorist, he creates a powerful sense of distrust and unease.

The Reading Seminar photographs on the other hand, show fresh-scrubbed youths sitting in circles engaged in a lively discussion about books. Ganahl held these reading circles in locations, and upon occasions, that complicate their academic and idyllic suggestion. For example, he held reading sessions of a passage from Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" in Central Park during the Republican National Convention in New York City (2004), and on a street in Geneva during the anti-G8 protests (2003). There are no laws forbidding people to gather and read together, even if the text is of a radically political nature; the law deems reading safe. Indeed, the photographs do not show the stress level of the greater immediate space, although if one looks closely, a few policemen are visible in Central Park. Understood in full, the images suggest that sharing philosophies is a valid and subversive act of direct social dissent. Still, a cynic might point out that Ganahl's portraits of people in thought ultimately imply that the realm of complex ideas and immediate reality are inherently separate: reading and thinking about revolution is not the same thing as physically starting one. But even this interpretation shows how ideas on the page enliven real individuals—the fluttering of delicate hands, the raising of bushy eyebrows, and the wiry arms folded in concentration indicate how transported these subjects are. Perhaps they will be moved to the point of laying down their books and joining the protests, perhaps not. In either case, viewers are confronted with questions: Where do you stand against the coordinates of thought and action? Can images incite political consequences the way text can? Can the consumption of images stand as an act of rebellion, or is art a realm too gloriously disconnected from reality?

zingmagazine booth at the Armory Art Fair, a week before the Iraq war broke out in 2003, upon which he had asked visitors to write their opinions about US politics. Seen in the gallery space two and a half years later, these writing-filled walls loom with sentiments that have proven prophetic. The disembodied phrases often run over each other, as though they were scrawls on a bathroom wall. The anonymous messages, such as "Save us all from messianic visionaries," are preserved as art. In this instance, the context of art has provided a hallowed, untouchable space for the past's fleeting voices otherwise widely dispersed and mostly forgotten.

Ganahl also experiments with more controlled and channeled forms of collaborative art-making in his Dialogs series. For the Afghan Dialog series, inspired by Alighiero Boetti's tapestries of unsolicited political commentaries by Afghan artisans, Ganahl commissioned silk embroideries featuring American news network logos, headlines, or names of conflicts to be woven in traditional Afghani style by artisans in war zones. He then instructed them to embroider their personal reactions to these symbols of American power. The artist has never personally met the artisans with whom he “dialogs”. The Iraq Dialogs function in the same fashion, with traditional style Iraqi mosaic tiles that feature paintings of American logos, and comments about them in calligraphy by Iraqis. Besides the timeless beauty of these foreign cultures' handiworks, viewers of the Dialog pieces see familiar American slogans and logos in a new context, interpreted purely as form and color. Unlike the Armory wall, the added commentaries are placed thoughtfully in relation to the American logo that they are reacting to, creating the effect of a single, unified and planned surface. Despite the layers of tension, the product of the dialog—one between the American media machine that sells the idea of a “War On Terror” and the people native to countries where the "Terror" is said to arise—are superficially and significantly beautiful. Their decorative appeal contrasts the complex and often bitter nature of relationships between mainstream ideologies and the subaltern, exposing the relationship between handiwork and artwork, collectivity and singularity, and political and artistic discourse.

Ganahl considers language and the study of it central to navigating, and eventually bridging, the various cultural spheres and registers that he traverses. In addition to the Homeland Security performance tapes, the exhibit included Ganahl's Basic Language photo and video projects, and the "Please Teach Me Arabic, 160 Famous Americans" postcard series, in which he explores linguistic variability between cultures. In the Basic Language photo series, Ganahl juxtaposes an image of a foreign country with a phrase from a textbook of that country’s language and its English translation. With an image of a condom dispenser in a barren hotel room in Korea, he includes the sentence, written in Hangul and English, "We won't be late if we get up early.”

Another example is a shot of two African women conversing in front of a bar in Italy. There are several phrases written in both English and Italian in two columns over the image, enclosing the women between them. The phrases read, "To travel around", "Money has no import", etc. The captions printed over such quotidian images transform ordinary moments into scenes that deserve not only commentary but also subtitles. This juxtaposition attests to how language differences make even unremarkable everyday realities mysterious to an outsider; the unknown is seen as open for reinterpretation. Ganahl claims he added sentences from his textbooks to his travel photos as a practical way to make art while he studied. Indeed, most of the images depict anonymous places and people and have a spontaneous quality, as though each frame was shot in random and impersonal circumstances that only the photographer will fully appreciate. Yet adding the impersonal sentences accentuates the objective (and thus systematically learnable) quality of language, and in turn implies that through effort and diligence, real cross-cultural understanding is possible.

This hopeful message is tempered against the stack of videotapes piled neatly at the center of one of the exhibit's rooms. These videotapes comprise the "My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese", "My Second 500 Hours Basic Chinese", "My First 500 Hours Basic Arabic", and "My Second 500 Hours Basic Arabic" series, that are a part of Ganahl's ongoing Basic Language Videos series, in which the artist videotapes himself studying a chosen language in increments of five hundred hours each. The sheer physical volume of the tapes evinces the sobering fact that a politically correct and open attitude is not enough to ensure real global communication. Although globalization has made the same commodities and mass cultural references available in most parts of the world, a true lingua franca has yet to arise. At the immediate and interpersonal level, linguistic variability remains a fact of life. As Ganahl's awkward attempts at mastering foreign scripts attest, it requires a mindset of humility and patience that stand at odds with the immediate gratification and access promised by the "Anytime, Anywhere" reach of global marketing schemes.

Ganahl further explores instances of cultural crossing in the "Please, teach me Arabic, 160 Famous Americans" project. The series consists of 160 postcards that depict either a statue of the Persian hero Saladin, or the Damascus Martyrs Plaza, and are emblazoned with the message "Please teach me Arabic", which Ganahl had sent from Syria in 2004 to 160 famous Americans in care of the Wallach Gallery. The cards are addressed to figures as disparate as 50 Cent, Walt Disney, and Condolezza Rice. The mechanically serial nature of the identical postcards contrasts strongly with how every card is addressed to a different public personality, each of whom is widely renowned or notorious in his or her own rite. The postcard, sent through the postal system, serves everyone, from the anonymously average to the legendarily unique. Whether or not the intangible nuances, references, and signification manage to traverse the cultural walls between Damascus and New York, the cards themselves have spatially crossed these borders of culture and language, and politics and agendas.

Taken together, these and the other works that were featured in Ganahl's retrospective reveal that throughout his career, the artist has been examining absurd dominant political ideologies and the voices they try to override and the individual ideals and realities of human communication converging or colliding. Through his personal experiences in linguistically and culturally discrete spheres, Ganahl has arrived at an insistent faith in cultural subjectivity and relativity. Using art, a framework bracketed off from the baggage of politics, he crosses borders of countries, political affiliations, and cultural contexts with an almost schizophrenic drive. Self-conscious compulsion to define one's artistic mission is a characteristic of modernist artwork, but Ganahl's focus on local aesthetics and values seems, if not a direct reaction against viewing art as a reserve for elite consumers with specific tastes, then an inquiry into other modes of art-making and viewing. Ganahl's way of immersing himself in the different communities he examines shows more than an intellectual or moral desire to excavate and categorize. The work doesn’t require further justification because his more politically fraught projects leave him dangerously exposed and the time and energy taken shows pure and organic passion for these pursuits. The lyrical and pithy sensibilities manifest in the conjoining of verbal phrases with visual imagery, and the quotidian but quietly absurd nature of the images used, offer a testament to Ganahl's whimsical aesthetic, as characteristic of his oeuvre as its gravity.