Exhibitions   07 June 2013

Review: Bernadette Corporation, 2000 Wasted Years, ICA London, by Pac Pobric

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

Frustrations with capitalism are nothing new, nor are there truly any new ideas about how to productively express them. Tensions come to a head every now and again, and the Occupy Wall Street movement and the American Tea Party demonstrations are just the latest in a long line of public expressions of anxiety. They reprised well-established ideas, ranging from liberal criticisms of unethical banking practices to conservative fears about the size of government. That each movement emerged almost simultaneously at a time of economic crisis is no coincidence. Despite coming from seemingly separate political directions, the bottom line for each was impatience with the status quo.

The Bernadette Corporation, no doubt, was born of similar frustrations. Formed by a group of artists in 1994 involved in New York City's club scene, their work has mostly relied on playful anarchist critiques of culture’s role in capitalism. Their first retrospective, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), London, after traveling over from the Artist’s Institute in New York, relies essentially on that narrative: "AGAINST ALL SYSTEMS" is happily scrawled on a first floor gallery wall, clearly announcing the group's position. Around the corner, a trailer for their 2003 film Get Rid of Yourself takes documentary footage of violent protests and pairs it with the intense, pulsating score from the 2010 film Inception, valorizing the activism. In an upstairs gallery, a series of posters chronicles the group's political activities from the 1990s to the present.

Is this art or propaganda? The differences between the two are not always obvious, but it is clear that the Bernadette Corporation is less interested in culture than it is in politics. That made the ICA retrospective a failure as an art show. In sum, it read more like a summary of the group's political line, with art placed at its service. That's something of a shame, because that equivalence assumes far too much about the proximity of art and politics, as contemporary art often does. Whether or not art and politics have any affect on one another is a question to be interrogated, rather than an assumption to be taken for granted.

At bottom, the Bernadette Corporation’s art is symptomatic of art's ultimate inability to change the world, even when artists have their heart in the right place. The title of the exhibition, 2000 Wasted Years, does express a sentiment that should make more sense that it does; namely, that our turbulent modern age seems to have passed in vain, with progress beyond capitalism an elusive goal. (This is by no means a new idea: in 1916, in the midst of World War I, Rosa Luxemburg put it succinctly: “Socialism or Barbarism.”) But there are caveats here too. We don’t, for example, necessarily live in a more violent age than our predecessors, nor is poverty is a greater problem than it ever was in the past. Arguably, the worldwide standard of living today is better than it has ever been. There is more than a kernel of truth to the idea that globalization raises the standard of living in otherwise poor nations and cities, and that Nike factories established in Cambodia or Thailand bring much-needed jobs to the world’s poorest.

These are concerns the Bernadette Corporation is unable to address. That much of the group's older work is about fashion speaks to how little there is beneath the surface. It's an aesthetic of postures without any compelling substance. If the work is of any interest, it's on a purely gestural level, insofar as its aims are beyond its means. That impulse is a good one: art needs to have ambitions grander than it can achieve. But art also needs to be aware of its own limits, and be able and willing to constantly investigate and question its own assumptions. On that count, the Bernadette Corporation has little, if any, success. 

--Pac Pobric is an art critic and assistant editor for The Platypus Review.

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years was organized by Stefan Kalmár and Richard Birkett for Artists Space, in co-production with Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. 
2000 Wasted Years was exhibited  at Artist's Space September 9-December 16, 2012, and at ICA, London March 26 - June 9, 2013. 

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK

27 March 2013 - 9 June 2013

Photography Mark Blower

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