A huge canvas hangs in the atrium of Museum Rupertinum in Salzburg. This awkward site-specific installation, “Trade and Birds,” leads visitors into this retrospective-style exhibition, which showcases countless works, drawings, collages, artist’s books and installations, and concludes with a reproduction of one of Anna Boghiguian’s many artist’s studios.
The curatorial text begins Boghiguian’s professional biography with her show at the Friedericianum during DOCUMENTA(13) in 2012, her supposed entrée into the “real” art world. Following Kassel are Istanbul, Venice, New York and London, leading up to Salzburg. This large solo show in the Museum der Moderne Rupertinum runs contemporaneously with a retrospective on the Italian artist Marisa Merz. The curator, Sabine Breitwieser, has stated that “one goal of my tenure as director has been to turn the spotlight on eminent women artists with major solo exhibitions.” Yet, in her curation she has so severely abridged Boghiguian’s history that much of the artist’s power, nuance and grit is erased. While indeed many key works in the artist’s oeuvre are on display here, the curator has obviously focused on the flawed “Trade and Birds,” which superficially resembles the artist’s most famous work, Salt Traders, 2015, produced for the 14th Istanbul Biennial.
Since, unfortunately, the condition of her knee prohibited her from painting for long hours on the floor, the artist decided instead to sew painted patches onto this show-specific sailcloth. The chaotic combination of colourful maps, lines in white and red, geometrical forms and other figures that gave the sail from her installation Salt Traders its expressive power are missing here—Salt Traders having been one of the most fascinating works of the whole of the 14th Istanbul Biennial. In this installation the sail is suspended from the ceiling, rather flat and lifeless, with the more structured method of installation preventing the forms from unfolding their symbolic power. This mode of depiction hangs detached from the artist’s narrational depth. Even the birds seem forced into its small patches, despite their usually effective use as symbols for the “only free people who fly without boundaries.”
When Boghiguian produces a site-specific work, she connects with the place. Like the flâneur of Baudelaire and Benjamin, she gathers information about the city, walking around and stopping many times, talking to all sorts of people. In Salzburg, she was physically challenged by her knee, and intellectually by the nature of the city itself. A provincial town that has barely changed over hundreds of years quarters its people, who are proud of their Baroque décor. Everything is orderly and predictable; even the flood of tourists are efficiently spirited away in tiny buses. It’s a place where Boghiguian, in her long black clothes and her unruly white hair, might be considered disturbing. Except for some conversations with tobacconists in her walks around the city, it seems unlikely that her critical investigation could set sail to this parochial place. How honest art could symbolize movement and change in such a centre of political and social stagnancy is a question that would have come up.
The artist, born in 1946, was never blithely ambitious enough to seek recognition by exhibiting in art institutions, which she perceived as restrictive and hypocritical. Though she leads a nomadic life, when opportunities arise she takes them, but without stopping what she does: travelling among the histories of the world where she encounters the same leitmotif again and again: the master-slave dialectic. She first heard this motif when she was a young woman reading Hegel during her political studies at the American University in Cairo in the ’60s.
In the corridor room of the museum, Promenade dans L’inconscient, numerous papier collés made in 2015 are brought together, taped to wooden holders standing on the ground. The ancient city Nîmes is introduced as a node in human history. But rather than the particular events that took place there, it’s the concept of constant change, the transitions of power and the transformations of the society in which the artist is interested. In several collages we see Cleopatra and other historical figures. Another cut-out shows a workers’ wage strike rebellion, a scene that could be traced back through the centuries to any circumstance when foreign trade made regional products worthless.
Sometimes Anna Boghiguian is amused by the Hollywood-esque art sector—the “reality of the few,” which she has had to enter more often since she has gotten older and money has become a more crucial necessity. Growing older has also escalated the societal pressure on her. While in her 20s she would sit at the sidewalk drinking cola, passersby smiling at her, thinking, “She is enjoying herself.” This encounter changes fundamentally for a woman on the streets in her 70s. It is her lack of elitism and ability to live beyond the conventional that make her one of very few artists who capture human life from within, unlike “the few” who “become so separate from the human tragedy that the reality of human struggle fades away and another layer of artificial reality is built up,” she noted in an online interview with Robert Shapazian.
Her collages and artist’s books, dating between 1981 and 1995, visualize humanity as a whole, with all its overlapping histories of trading, colonization, power shifts, chaos and disruption. Writing stories that can be told from many points of view, she prefers the unconventional accounts of the marginalized. “The greatest art touches the most people,” she’d said in an interview with a friend. Her mentality resonates with the more egalitarian words on art by Tolstoy: “only if it will be produced by everyone it will be chosen by everyone.”
We find the allegory of the ear in many of her images, showing us that sense that enables us to listen to the suffering of the world. The enormity and expressiveness of an ear ductus are presented in a painting on “Trade and Birds,” and suggests that just this listening ability is lacking. The environment where high art circulates is too hermetic to open up its ears to the rest of the world. But, luckily, Boghiguian has stayed outside this closed circuit. She needs confusion to disrupt the ”atomic balance” in her brain; constantly seeking new ideas to flow into her, she cannot allow herself to stand still.
Which is why she cannot stop traveling, listening and absorbing. Her art gives the dirt of the world a space to shine without ever being dismissive to the beauty of life. The stories of the world cannot be summarized in one show, but perhaps some of these outsider ideals will have infiltrated localites like Salzburg to confuse their overly balanced worlds.
“Trade and Birds” is on exhibition at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg Rupertinum, Salzburg, until July 22, 2019.
Teresa Retzer is an independent researcher, critic and curator based in Amsterdam. Her research focuses on contemporary art, art after the Internet, media theory and critical historiography.