Rainer Ganahl at Baumgartner, New York January, February 2005


Rainer Ganahl, WHY DO THEY HATE US?/AXIS OF EVIL/MANFRED BAUMGARTNER (front and back) 2004, work on paper

With his latest exhibition at Baumgartner Gallery, Rainer Ganahl's commitment to lo-fi political activity takes sharp relief against the ongoing geo-political fallout from 2001's September 11 attacks and subsequent US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Ganahl employs tactics of media appropriation, performance documentation, and third-party commissions to produce a series of projects agitating against the current U.S. government's reactionary terror policies that typecast Arabic people and their various cultures as terroristic or terror-promoting. As such, the works on display, which sympathize with the Middle Eastern and émigré communities most affected by 'the War on Terror,' constitute an expression of radical humanism, focusing on the intersections between the sensational and the quotidian aspects of the current global climate.

Ganahl uses language study as both the actual and metaphorical entrepot into the painful, awkward process of cross-cultural understanding. “Homeland Security,” a video piece from 2003, mimics the hasty, low-production values of terrorist video testimonials. Foregrounded facing the camera, the artist, unkempt and haggard-looking, utters phrases such as “I am not a terrorist,” or “I am not a religious fanatic” in 11 different languages while one of his “Afghan dialogue”banners, a series of commissioned silk textiles embroidered with news network logos, is visible in the background. “Homeland Security” neatly underscores the existing conflations between corporate and guerilla media aesthetics, presenting the viewer with a number of compelling questions-is the video-taped figure a terrorist? Is the video-taped figure a hostage? Is the video-taped figure a newscaster? The suggestion of violent threat is present throughout, making the performance a powerful study of psychological intimidation and human will.

Similarly, a recent trip the artist took to Damascus, Syria, ostensibly to study Arabic, provides rich material. “Please, teach me Arabic (2005)”, is a group of postcards sent to 10 conservative American pundits care of Brooklyn's Momenta Art, each card stamped with the text “Please, teach me Arabic,” which is also transcribed in Arabic script by pen. These are accompanied by a series of study sheets, “Basic Arabic, (2004)” consisting of Ganahl's obsessive scrawling of Arabic phrases interspersed by text doodles in English borrowed from American media headlines, such as “4 U.S. troops killed in ambush.” A small photographic self-portrait of the artist studying in his room in Damascus provides a brief, lyric respite from the visual intensity of the other work, but here again the studious calm evoked by the image conveys a sense of deliberate, determined withdrawal and absorption. This mental resolve finds ultimate form in the exhibition show-stopper, a second video piece, “Damascus Bicycling (2004)”which records a harrowing, handless bicycle ride against the flow of Damascus traffic. As Ganahl plunges kamikaze-like between weaving trucks and cars, the video captures everything from imposing soldiers to the carpet vendors that populate the Damascus sidewalks. Combined, these works present a unique interpretation of a foreign experience where the alien is both incomprehensible and familiar and chaos and order collapse upon each other.

Internet culture has of course enabled the worldwide media audience to follow events in the Middle East at almost real time. Two commissioned paintings, large, unstretched canvases depicting internet news headlines, draw attention to the local realities tickling the peripheries of American mainstream consciousness. One headline, taken from Yahoo's AP slideshows, presents a Palestinian boy balancing on a bicycle mocking an approaching Israeli tank. The second headline, from CNN, announces the explosion of a bicycle bomb in Afghanistan. These complex works, and a wall painting depicting the top ten Google search results for 'Terrorism,' express both the perverse detachment of internet culture wherein reality and agency are subsumed into a kind of random dream-machine generator and individual voices or concerns echo disembodied from specific loci and context. Additionally compelling, these works reference religious traditions of calligraphy and the ritualistic transcription of sacred texts, exercises requiring the artist (as Ganahl does here) to assume an enforced anonymity and selflessness. This association between the textuality of the internet and the textuality of religious texts, as well as the specific divergences distinguishing the two-a pragmatic ephemerality on the one hand and a transcendent eternality on the other-is powerfully incisive in its recognition of how values can be transferred so easily from one entity to the next in the viral rhetoric of 21st century politics.

Altogether, these and the other works exhibited in the show suggest both the absurdly humorous aspects of current politics while also addressing the mechanics of idealogical coercion and its effects on human motivation. Ganahl, one of few international artists working on the Middle East situation, quite unabashedly inserts himself, or his persona, into these greater themes, reveling too in pushing the limits of personal safety and legal boundary. Ultimately, it is his provocative combination of performance and language-essential communication-that provides him a means by which to more profoundly engage the developing dialogue on political ethics and cross cultural perspectivity.

Andrew Maerkle, New York 2005