It has become almost something of a cliche to reference the 1992 Francis Fukuyama book, The End of History and the Last Man, which argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist dictatorships that ruled Eastern Europe during the Cold War signaled the triumph of liberal democracy and vindication of market-orientated capitalism, as a supreme moment of hubristic punditry. In some ways this is unfair to Fukuyama, the book is essentially an exercise in the art of the political subjunctive, but the basic critique holds. History did anything but end in the winter of 1989; indeed, as some of Fukuyama’s critics have subsequently suggested, it is perhaps the period of the Cold War itself that represented a pause in history and pre-Bretton Woods business-as-usual returned to the geopolitical discourse as a result of the fall of the Soviet Empire. These kinds of heady thoughts came to mind reading Martin John Callanan’s work “Wars During My Lifetime” at the group exhibition, Shades of Today: Picking up the Pieces of Post Truth, at Centrum in Berlin. Callanan is a youthful 35 and his adult life more or less tracks the post-Cold War period of global political conflict. The wars of Callanan’s lifetime are recorded on a largish booklet of newsprint listing the dates of the conflicts and the names by which they are known. If one turns to the year of the publication of Fukuyama’s book, one can find armed conflicts in South Ossetia, Bosnia, Croatia, Somalia, Transdniestria, Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Chad, Algeria, Sierra Leone, and a region of Russia known as Prigorodnij just to name a few. If this is what the end of history looks like, one is tempted to grab Paul Klee’s wonky angel — postulated as “The Angel of History” by Walter Benjamin — by the wings and drag him toward the ground to intervene. There are a number of striking aspects to Callanan’s work, not least the choice to use his own lifetime as the baseline metric from which the work originates. Could the vaunted solipsism of the millennial outlook be more neatly satirised? Probably, but I want to see it when it happens. More somberly, Panglossean books and articles are constantly appearing telling us how much safer, less violent and more pleasant life is becoming, even in these ostensibly troubled times, Callanan’s work serves as a riposte to such macro-reasoning about concepts as intimate as violence: the world may be getting statistically more peaceful, but many sins can be hidden behind the smooth bell curve of a normal distribution.
Talking of “business-as-usual”, I also found myself caught by the grimly precise language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, sections of which were posted on Centrum’s back wall as part of Benedikt Partenheim’s work bearing that exact title. The work is obviously too big to take in, a babel tower of reams of packages of printer paper stand at the right of the work representing the number of pages in the complete report. The fragmentary presentation of the report’s content, scattered over printed A4 pages overlain with a photograph of a smogged up landscape, drives home the implications of the scale of the crisis faced by humanity. Reading the words of the panel, I was struck by its odd moments of poetry, not least in the description of the correction process contemporary researchers use for accounting for antiquated methods of measuring temperature in earlier ages which used less precise tools. It is, in part, a biography of our epistemology. Jae Kyung Kim’s “2+2=5” was another engaging aspect of a wide ranging and crowded show—in addition to the in situ works, the show also included performances, a discussion on the gallery’s tumblr page, and screenings of two films by Louis Henderson at the forthcoming finissage. “2+2=5” consists of a set of stereoscopes dangling on cables in the gallery’s front window. The viewer holds the object and flips through a series of landscapes and urban images obscured behind hazy geometric shapes. The claustrophobia of our heavily surveilled world is palpable, and the visual disruption feels like a meagre, but potent expression of resistance. The work is a reminder that while more of what will become “history” is being recorded than ever before, this is no guarantee that future histories will be any more true or complete than those of the past.