Kate Sutton on “Extraneous” – Artforum International

The exhibition “Extraneous” was a quietly devastating addition to this year’s Curated By festival. Assembled by Zasha Colah and Valentina Viviani, the compact group show took as its emblem the Indian tradition of leaving a matka, a clay pot of drinking water, on the street for thirsty passersby as an act of communal hospitality. Foregrounding generosity as a response to violence, the exhibition opened with a series of staggered pedestals, each bearing a sculpture in shades of slate and both fired and unfired clay. Part of Margherita Moscardini’s ongoing project The Fountains of Za’atari, 2015–, the objects beckoned with the simple material pull of a minimalist heirloom, some great-aunt’s ashtray that’s too nice to use, but such a shame to store away. Seemingly abstract, each sculpture is a model of an actual courtyard from Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. Founded in 2012 at the beginning of the war in Syria, the camp eventually swelled to become the country’s fourth-largest city, with at one point just over 150,000 inhabitants. Now, a decade later, what was supposed to be a temporary shelter operates as a near metropolis, buttressed by a network of informal economies and improvised, largely illegal, amenities, such as the concrete courtyards with their water fountains. Moscardini’s models exist as more than an inventory; they signify an agreement with the collecting institution that these courtyards will be realized at full scale on European soil but, critically, will not be subject to European laws. Instead, these once-private spaces would operate as a true international commons, sharing the indistinct legal status of the high seas.

The theme of public fountains as a no-man’s-land continued with Nazar Strelyaev-Nazarko’s “watergames (Plóshcha Svobódy),” 2022, a series of diminutive oils on canvas depicting Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, named in the subtitle. Once home to a statue of Lenin, the Ukrainian plaza now hosts families stripped to their skivvies around automated water spigots. Strelyaev-Nazarko’s paintings have more than a touch of Puvis de Chavannes about them (see the boy bent in an attempt to stop one spout with his fist in The Cap, or the buxom young mother slumping out of her bandeau top in mama), conjuring a kind of urban pastoral. Basement View, however, reveals a casually alarming side to the frolicking: Beside a towheaded toddler, a giant unexploded missile protrudes from cracked cement at a slightly cocked angle, like a parking barrier backed into one too many times. The weapon reappears in La Tempesta, after Giorgione, where it echoes the vacated pedestal of the Lenin statue. 

The attic-like space of the gallery’s upstairs housed two more works that built on this idea of the parallel monument. In the two-hour video Towards the Matheme of Genocide, 2009, Grupa Spomenik/Monument Group (Damir Arsenijević, Branimir Stojanović, and Milica Tomić) charts an elaborate choreography of Lacanian signifying chains across a whiteboard. The work refers to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, when roughly eight thousand Bosniak men and children—primarily Muslim—were slaughtered over the course of ten days. Mass graves were dug up and their contents scattered in an attempt to hide the crimes; the laborious process of identifying the remains for proper burial helped hone and refine the practice of modern forensics. But science is neither omniscient nor immune to bias. And in the process of reconciliation, the commemoration of the lost often reduced their identity to a shorthand. While there can never be a truly appropriate response to genocide, Grupa Spomenik proposes a language that affords the victims a political subjectivity beyond the ethno-national.

The opposite wall was covered with a different kind of political calculus: Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s Snakes and Ladders/Coup and Resistance, 2022. The giant tongue-in-cheek board game, replete with a clunky wooden die, charts Myanmar’s ongoing coup d’état, from its start on February 1, 2021, past various pitfalls (INTERETHNIC DIVERGENCE, NEGOTIATED SETTLEMENT, SCORCHED EARTH CAMPAIGN, etc.) to the elusive (illusory?) PRO-DEMOCRACY VICTORY that marks the game’s speculative end. The tone could strike some as morbidly irreverent, but, like cool water offered amid punishing heat, Yawnghwe suggests the work’s aim is to take something formerly out of one’s control and allow instead for the possibility of alternative endings. An accompanying video shows the artist playing against himself. He wins.

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