close and then far away: Oraib Toukan, Peter Friedl and Rabih Mroué at KW – Institute for Contemporary Art

The current KW exhibition cycle intends to think about the construction of history and reality through the process of image construction. With three individual exhibitions superimposed on the building’s different floors – a heterogeneous way of looking at group exhibitions – the interlocutors Oraib Toukan, Peter Friedl and Rabih Mroué assemble a forum. As a whole, it is like a game of proximity and distance. Sometimes it is recognisable, almost a conversation. At other times, it is an escape, almost a fiction. At each moment, language’s visual permeability, the function of the gaze and the construction of the gaze; the editing, from innocence to manipulation, conceiving in each personal story a political story.

When we talk about images, the first impact is the sound. On the ground floor, the entrance leads us to a room where Friedl’s many diaries are in a display case, meticulously arranged, with measured distances between them, sealed. Behind, there is a huge pink flag of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, collages, low light. Meanwhile, to the left, in one of the corridors, are hundreds of photographs of playgrounds around the world, projected sequentially on the wall. On the other side, a room with several stuffed animals that seem abandoned on the floor. In the adjoining room, the video from which comes the sound of poems read to an audience of children, who play, hence the image. Loud, frantic: “they thought it was a monster, but it was the king.” Over and over again.

Moving on to a huge room – with lots of drawings, videos, photographs – the space continues to place questions over answers. On two huge walls are two sets of undated drawings, from Friedl’s childhood to the present day, arranged in a scrambled fashion. Facing them are several display cases with newspaper photo clippings, without information or caption. There is also a stage at the back of the room. And there is always the sound; loud, boisterous: “they thought it was a monster, but it was the king.” There is a staging, theatrical atmosphere, on the edge of fun. It seems obvious the concern to underline a childish perspective, a certain naivety between the gaze and the image.

At the same time, the ongoing presence of violent references, images over sound that repeat the call, reinforces exhaustion as an important element. Friedl seems to leave us alone before a familiar problem: what reading can there be among the exhaustion of so many images? A reading that is more or less clear, that leads us or frees us from exhaustion? Seeing is also wanting, if we prioritise looking at what brings us closer? What space is left for that which pushes us away? How much of what we do not yet know are we willing to discover? How can we look fixedly at what pushes us away?

One of the virtues of this set of exhibitions is that the questions do not concern any particular work. Information through constant stimuli is an easily relatable phenomenon, but not necessarily an artistic one. Feeds, newspapers, reels, lives, comments, podcasts; the constant projection of scenarios simultaneously close and unreachable is such a common reality that its fragility, by habituation, seems to have ceased to be questioned. It is as if images were always a direct and infallible representation of the objects referenced. On the other hand, the immediate familiarity of these issues in the current context is only an unfortunate coincidence. At the date of the inauguration, Ukraine had not yet been invaded.

This unfortunate context reinforces the problem, from the standpoint of violence. It is not just a question of innocence. We ask: is it possible to know through sight? Can seeing become knowing? What certainty allows images to be robust? Almost guessing this, Rabih Mroué seemed to sketch an answer, focusing on Lebanon, the backdrop of successive wars. For Mroué, the big question is how, in the midst of exhaustion, we can manipulate the sensation – and the idea – of violence. In this case, the actor-director constantly uses images of destruction as a reference. Depending on the narrative, he makes them the centre, familiar and direct, or else a mere unrecognisable element. Sometimes he photographs the photograph itself, projected onto drawings. He sees, he sees himself to be seen and he shows himself seeing himself to be seen, in a constant flexibilization of the image, always between real and fictional, figurative and abstract.

What stimulates the feeling of cruelty about an image? Oraib Toukan has an answer for that too, increasing the malleable terrain with two video works, separated by a curtain. This is part of his project on cruelty. Between editing, collage, archive, proximity or distance, war scenes – also exhaustion – reappear and disappear. Are we tired of Lebanon, Palestine? “The problem is that cruel images shut down the faculty of language altogether – you cannot formulate words about the cruelty seen. That is the point: to incapacitate voices and bodies from speaking and mobilising. Cruel images eclipse the life that sites of struggle seek, and their strategies for survival, which are often based on love of life. Cruel images instead dehumanise these sites as inhabitable and unbearable – their communities as accustomed to violence,” says Toukan. Here we no longer hear the sound.

What then by Oraib Toukan, Report 1964-2022 by Peter Friedl and Under the carpet by Rabih Mroué opened on February 19 and will be on view at KW – Institute for Contemporary Art, in Berlin, until May 1.

Guilherme Vilhena Martins (Lisbon, 1996; lives in Berlin) is a writer and curator. He holds a degree in Philosophy from Lisbon Nova University and is currently finishing an MA in the same field at Freie Universität Berlin. His literary work consists of two books - 'Háptica' (douda correria, 2020), 'Voz/ Estudo de Som' (author's edition, 2022) - and texts, chronicles and reviews written for different magazines in Portuguese and English, among which Umbigo and Frieze. He has managed and edited 'Alcazar', an interdisciplinary literary project that brought together writers and visual artists around the idea of collective transdisciplinary writing. Besides, he has curated several exhibitions in Portugal and Germany and is one of the co-founders of EGEU, a project space established in 2019 in Lisbon. Vilhena Martins is interested in artistic practice as a critical tool and a form of discussion. His work revolves around the notions of waste, fulfilment and desire, as well as their different instantiations. Lately, he’s been focusing on the phenomenon of tourism.

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