BOZAR has launched its second major summer exhibition RESIST! The 1960s protests, photography and visual legacy, as part of their themed year BOZAR OCCUPIED: 50 years of cultural protest, marking the anniversary of the events of May ’68. It showcases some of the most legendary images from the decade of revolt, and plenty of surprises with previously unreleased footage of people taking to the streets. The artwork is surrounded or supported by fences, caging the audience and simulating scenes of protest. Unmissable, but if you need more convincing, here are five reasons why you should go.
This year has been tumultuous at best: gun violence protests and the Families Belong Together marches in America in prolonged anger of the Trump administration. Anti-government rallies in Armenia. Even peaceful Canada wasn’t safe from street riots at the start of the G7 summit in 2018. First-hand images of cars being lit on streets and protestors being trampled have become mundane whilst we’ve become desensitised to the horrors that come with revolution. In the 21st century, anyone with a camera or smartphone can capture these events first-hand, sharing them for everyone to see.
In the 60s, however, people were either involved in the protests as a witness or relied on photographers to edge their way into the crowds and take shots. RESIST! highlights this dedication of the photographers to not remain simple bystanders but rather immerse themselves in the protest and become a target to raise awareness of crucial humanist issues. These are successfully portrayed alongside the fearfulness and tumult of resistance through a “lens of resistance”, which is often used as a sociopolitical filter. Marking the start of BOZAR’s Summer of Photography 2018, the photographic story of these events is told in six chapters reflecting on what aspirations the protestors had five decades ago, many of which are similar to those we protest for now.
From the very beginning, the audience arrives at the scene of protest through the mediums of photography and video in Icons and Symbols. Argentinian artist Marcelo Brodsky’s The Fire of Ideas is unmissable: an entire wall of iconic images from the 1968 protests that affected many generations to come from Zürich to Montevideo, Brussels to Sao Paolo and Washington. He intervenes in these historic events and keeps them alive using language and bright colours to create an emotional dialogue between the images and the audience. Brodsky aims to reflect on the direct relationship between these social protests in the late 60s and the Latin American revolutionary movements of the 70s, wanting people to understand the implications of this worldwide movement. The images themselves encourage the viewer to reflect on the power of image-making in such extreme situations. Starting from this point, the exhibition moves backwards and forward in time to draw the larger picture of protests in our contemporary history.
In Bearing Witness, the exhibition becomes more personal, notably when looking at Steve Shapiro’s accounts of the US in the 60s. The American photographer is famous for his portraits of Hollywood stars such as Jack Nicholson or renowned politicians like Robert F. Kennedy, but is mostly known for his visual testimony of the civil rights movement and the photographing of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, which pushed Lyndon Johnson to send voting rights legislation to Congress. Compared to previous marches which were met with violence, this peaceful march allowed the photographer to get closer to the citizens and the great man at the frontline. Shapiro portrays the faces showing signs of desperation and fear but also hope in such a decisive moment in history, and his activist role in this reshaping of the sociocultural landscape in America shines through. Memorable visual testimonies which have become part of every generation’s collective memory, and rightfully so.
Archival Matters is RESIST!‘s centrepiece, as archive footage is paramount to the works which belong to this chapter of the exhibition. In an experiment to push the boundaries of what photography can do and how it can reshape reality, it is Xu Yong’s negative collection which attracts the crowds: a portrayal of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, the heavily censored attack on Chinese citizens by the police, which Yong himself survived. The images can only be deciphered once the colour inversion function on mobile phones or tablets is activated. By adopting this technique, which at first makes the images eerie and tampered with, the collection seems to scrutinise the censoring of one of Chinese’s watershed moments in history and offers the audience a way to discover the true events through photography by looking deeper into the content of the images. The best example of how photography can be the lens to reveal the truth.
Jumping forward in time, the Contemporary Visual Activism section of the exhibition incorporates modern digital documenting techniques to centralise what can happen if people stay silent and don’t speak up for their rights. The mixed-media installation of Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’ Forest Law transports the viewer from a dark room in the BOZAR to the Ecuadorian Amazon to reflect on its cosmopolitics. It navigates through the living western frontier of the forest, which is the home of indigenous nations and a land of great ethnocultural diversity. As a reaction to growing pressures of capitalism, recent extraction processes have slowly started to wade their way through this region and are creating increasing instability within the region and globally. Considering nature as a rights-bearing subject, it reflects on the relationship between nature, Earth and its inhabitants. As one of the exhibition’s most immersive collections, it highlights the work of indigenous lawyers to protect the land that has been theirs for decades, which established fundamental rights for nature reserves. The project takes the viewer on a journey to explore the decade-long struggles between environmentalist issues, post-colonialism and social injustice.
Finally, in the most visually encompassing stage of the exhibition, the viewer is confronted with a full wall projection which showcases an absurd, futuristic ending to RESIST!. Russian collective AES+F’s Inverso Mundus is a contemporary version of the 16th century World Upside Down, where children punish their teachers and powerful, merciless pigs gut the helpless butchers. The multichannel video installation, shining a light on their reinterpreted version of a post-protest world, takes you through an alternative universe. Watch criminals and dissidents being caressed by police officers, children taking on adults in kickboxing matches – a surreal turn of events. At the end of an exhibition which looks back in history to how protests have shaped our modern reality and forces the viewer to understand the past, this is a final challenge for the viewer to form a vision for the future and what role we will play in deciding how it plays out.BOZAR’s RESIST! runs until Sunday bozar.be