On Saturday 22 November 2014 the Van Abbemuseum
opened Confessions of the Imperfect, 1848 1989 - Today , an exhibition on art, craft, work and life. Throughout the galleries of the old building, the exhibition presents a diverse mix of historical material, design and contemporary art projects, many of which are operational and interactive; to be used not just viewed. Confessions of the Imperfect looks at the development of the modern world anew and follows a thread that runs from the revolutions of 1848 through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to today.
The exhibition design is developed by the artist Liam Gillick and based on the history of the barricade. This symbol of the February Revolution in France becomes a concept that develops and mutates through history and in the show: placing barriers that lead the visitor through the exhibition and also frame the works. In this architecture visitors will come across new and old work by artists including Constant, Adam Clarke, Jeremy Deller, Fernando García-Dory, Renzo Martens, Miralda, Li Mu, Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Alexandra Pirici & Manuel Pelmus, John Ruskin, Static and Akram Zaatari, alongside design, traditional crafts and a robot.
From Romanticism to the digitalised public domain
The starting point for the exhibition and the title is taken from John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic and social reformer. In The Stones of Venice (1851-1853) he presents a holistic and ecological view of art and life as the eternal and necessary struggle with human imperfection. He states that as we strive for a perfect world we do this through machines that only create dystopia not utopia. Ruskin wanted to confront the dominant liberal capitalism of the 19th century with a more complex social ecology that accepts imperfection. In this Ruskin provided the inspiration for the social-democrat movement, environmentalism, trade unions, and even Ghandi. The exhibition reveals how he shaped the history of art with social purpose: from the Arts & Crafts movement to the Bauhaus school, and contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Fernando García-Dory.
The projects of Renzo Martens and Li Mu are also contemporary echoes of Ruskins desire to integrate art in everyday life. On the margins of the modern globalised world in a former Unilever plantation in the Congo and in a small, rural Chinese village they seek to use art to emancipate people yet while doing so expose painful mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.
Architecture and urban development are areas in which the tensions between perfection and imperfection quickly become apparent. This can be seen, for example, in Constants work or in a new work by Wendelien van Oldenburgh, Beauty and the Right to the Ugly. The latter is about the history of Het Karregat, a multifunctional community centre in Eindhoven that illustrates the creation and failure of utopian architecture. Attention is also devoted to the design for Barcelona by GATEPAC and Le Corbusier, who are indirectly influenced by Ruskins ideas and through the garden city movement.
The most intimate struggle between perfection and imperfection probably takes place in the food industry. Miralda shows this is in a playful way in Power Food , a monumental installation of energy drinks. Adjacent to this Static, from Liverpool, present Pauls Kimchi Co , a continuation of their earlier Noodle Bar , and experiments with art and food production in a direct and practical way, whilst simultaneously exposing the mechanisms of global food production and labour.
In the last gallery the current ambiguities of a digital age are expressed by Akram Zaatari with material uploaded from YouTube on the eve of the Arab Spring. Against the headlines of destruction, here we find beautiful, cheerful and moving examples of everyday creativity.
The exhibition does not present a historical survey of art. Instead it proposes history as a contingent part of a perpetual present.. This perspective comes into clear view in the central gallery, in the performances of Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus. Here three actors interpret works of art dating from the period 1848 to 1989, telling the story of art as a wild and physical memory to be utilised over and over again.
Two Revolutions as Starting Point
The two points of reference for the exhibition are the revolutions of 1848 and 1989, which represent both great transformations as well as great failures. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawn, 1848 did not herald the emergence of the worker or the proletariat, as Marx and Engels suggested in their Communist Manifesto, but the start of the Age of Capital. Equally, 1989 did not represent the victory of liberal democracy over Communism, but served as the starting signal for a multipolar globalism of increasingly unstable geopolitical transitions providing a provisional and uncomfortable end to the modern era.