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Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst presents a selection works from its collection
Collection on Display: Communities, Exhibition view Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Photo: FBM Studio.

ZURICH.- The exhibition format Collection on Display presents selected works from the collections of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in a thematically focused three-part series titled Communities, Rules, and Rituals. The first part showcases artistic positions that scrutinize issues revolving around the question of «communities»—social groups defined by shared views, values, and loyalties.

«Community» is a characteristic catchword of the modern world. In everyday life, its connotations are virtually always positive; the community is seen as a social entity that offers emotional closeness, familiarity, or a feeling of safety. In modern «society», in which alienation, disorientation, and a loss of meaning are prevalent, «community» often figures as a social utopia. The idea that community and society are clearly distinct phenomena originates in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, a sociologist of the late nineteenth century, who also offered the definitions that underlie our contemporary understanding of the two terms. «Community» describes an emotional and lasting bond between people, whereas «society» embodies rational and purposeful associations. Over the decades that followed, the twin categories increasingly became a staple of a discourse of cultural pessimism and played a prominent role in the ideology of the Nazis, which gave «community» a distinctively negative image, at least in scholarly contexts. The social changes of the 1970s put the concept back on the map. Generally speaking, the idea of community—as a conception guiding practical politics or as the utopian vision of an alternative to modern civil society—is always on the agenda in times of crisis: nothing is more political than the question of who «we» are.

Since the mid-1990s, Atelier van Lieshout has worked to flesh out the vision of a life beyond the confines of civil society. Guided by the idea of an autarkic lifestyle and a system of absolute independence, Atelier van Lieshout produces objects, furniture, and architectures such as AVLShakertable, AVL-Shakerchair, AVL-Men (1999), designs that also read as functional solutions for life in a community unconstrained by society’s rules. Weaponry appears in the world of Atelier van Lieshout early on, as in the construction drawings Ohne Titel (Projekt AVLM 80–Moutier) (1999), suggesting that identifying outsiders and warding them off is central to the logic of community formation—and that violence is the means of last resort to protect cherished values and ways of life.

Alicia Framis’ Minibar (2000) likewise emphasizes the issue of inclusion and exclusion. In this instance, women are welcomed into a room, which is entirely desgined to instill relaxation and a sense of wellbeing. The visitor entering the modular setting joins a kind of community that is increasingly characteristic of life today: no longer based on long-term membership, it is fluid and event-based, locally specific and temporary, and may disband at any time.

Daniel Knorr’s Site Inspection (2005) examines a particular type of closed community. It consists of a collection of thirty-three flags flown by fraternities in Göttingen, Germany. The work illustrates especially well that the cohesion of a community in the long run demands, besides shared values and convictions, also a kind of frenzy (Émile Durkheim called it «collective effervescence») that is induced in recurring collective rites. A fraternity’s flag not only symbolizes the bonds and shared worldview holding the group together, it is also a cult object of the sort otherwise familiar from religious contexts. The traces of wear and stains indicate that these flags were used in ritual performances. Phil Collins’ photographs drumcree (2000–2002) analyze the conflicts that result when one community insists on performing its ceremonies over another’s objections.

Community is essential to human existence, be it the family (the prototypical community), represented in the exhibition by Steve McQueen’s video Catch (1997), or a demographic group defined in sociopolitical terms like the «working class», hinted at in Cady Noland’s Ohne Titel (Brick Wall) (1993–1994). Shirana Shahbazi’s photographic series Goftare Nik/Good Words (2000–2001) presents an interrogation of the foreign as seen from the Western European vantage point. How does someone who, in the process of socialization, has assimilated a cultural community’s language and a wide range of social practices and nonnegotiable ideas of value interpret symbols and gestures that originate in a different cultural context?

One central possession of communities that is of paramount importance to the formation of personal identity is language. When a dominant majority culture denies a community’s right to speak its own idiom or bans other forms of cultural expression (such as songs, festivals, and customs)—both are constitute elements of community life—such oppression affects not only collective but also personal identities. In works such as Vom Aroma der Namen (1985), Lothar Baumgarten brings this nexus between language and ethnic identity into focus while also noting the power of others to define a community. Wu Tsang’s video The Shape of a Right Statement (2008) is based on the manifesto in which Amanda Baggs, a woman with autism, raises the question why the majority of people deny the personhood of individuals who cannot communicate verbally, while conversely no one tries to understand or learn the language—the thinking, the way of beingin-the-world—of an autistic individual. Tsang critiques conservative and normalizing tendencies that delegitimize those members of a community who are, or wish to be, different and highlights the forms of discrimination implicit in linguistic structures.

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