The art of politics

Dutch artist Jonas Staal on art after democratism


The project currently taking shape in Al Quoz’s Traffic Gallery is not what many would call an art exhibition in the traditional sense. Set up like a circular UN-style forum, complete with flags and speakers’ stands,
‘Art After Democratism’ demonstrates an approach and artistic platform that Dutch artist Jonas Staal would like to take global.

‘My project attempts to represent organisations that are currently banned from democracy or placed outside of democratic processes,’ says Staal. ‘We are inviting organisations that in normal parliamentary structures are not allowed to speak. Through art, we’re looking at whether we can confront this democratic deficit and use the exceptional position of art as a way of representing the unrepresentable,’ he says.

Staal’s project comprises two parts, the first of which he says aims to bring stifled voices to the surface. ‘Somehow art can be political at the level where politics cannot, so within art there is something politically possible,’ says Staal. ‘The New World Summit’ aims to explore this. ‘We’re showing documentation of the different conferences that we have had, the models of the parliaments and metaphors that we have developed. It’s an example of how to create this political structure that in current democratic systems is impossible to create.’

The 31-year-old explains that the concept needs to be fluid in order for it to work. ‘It’s not meant to represent these organisations necessarily in a continuous way. It is meant to create moments where different organisations can conform, exchange and create this kind of democratic moment,’ he says.

So how did he strike up an interest in politics and art? ‘Since the ’50s the Netherlands has had a long history when it comes to political involvement with art,’ he explains.

‘I come from a society that deals with a lot of subsidised art, which means there is quite a direct relationship between the political institution and art. And I realise more and more that the art institution is actually a political institution, that these are deeply entangled. Whether one wants to or not, we are all in a way political artists, because we work through, digress and support all these specific institutions.’

The second and perhaps most intriguing part of Staal’s works is ‘Monuments to Capital’, in which Staal uses a projection to compare data and elaborate on Barclays’ Skyscrapers Index document. This is an eerily telling theory produced by the multinational, which makes a link between past global financial crises and the construction of big skyscrapers. ‘They claim that when the tallest building in the world is being built it is an indication that investors should stop investing in the country where this takes place, because it means that an economic crisis is looming or already exists,’ says Staal. ‘I thought it was fascinating, because it feels like a respected theory and something I would expect from the arts rather than the financial world,’ he says.

His video puts this correlation into pictures and maps out the history of the tallest buildings in the world, from the first official skyscraper built in 1870 until the Burj Khalifa in 2007, followed by the global financial crisis in 2008. ‘In a strange way, when the skyscrapers go up, an economic crisis takes place and Dow Jones index plunges,’ he explains. ‘The construction of the highest buildings is always a sign of enormous housing market speculation. They are the excess of a long process and they indicate the moment that the system becomes unsustainable.’

But Staal believes the building of skyscrapers stands for more than just material wealth and overconfidence. ‘It could be seen as a response. While losing grip on the economic system, the skyscraper, in its gigantic and intimidating presence, attempts to hold onto something that is gone at that very moment. There is no material equivalent of the money that we spend, or the money that we speculate from.’ With Dubai once again booming, things are very different than they were in 2008.

The lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Art After Democratism’ until April 13 at Traffic, 179 Umm Suqeim Road, Al Quoz (04 347 0209)
Artist: Jonas Staal.
Price of works: Not for sale.

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