July 1–September 24, 2017 The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

‘There are some ideas that can only be expressed in a language that has not yet been discovered […] I cannot find the words to describe what I see at the bottom of the sea […] these shapes, familiar in my mouth, have travelled long distances […] these are thoughts that hurt’

— selected fragments from Agnieszka Polska, The Body of Words (2015), digital animation/video installation

Contemporary art is fairly frequently presented in thematic proximity to conflict and trauma. Even ideas such as love and peace are often presented as if they can only be understood in opposition to conflict and trauma. Art of this kind might implicitly suggest that conflict is something to be simply overcome, or alternatively, to be somehow productively transformed or repurposed as part of a vaguely outlined utopic vision. This more positively pointed variant (there are of course plenty of dystopic versions) is also routinely described in similarly vague terms as some form of speculation upon the nature of reality, hopes and dreams more generally. Meanwhile, popular culture remains riddled with seemingly always already clichéd and overtly fictionalised images of peace and happiness—many of which are likely experienced via the same screens upon which mediated encounters with conflict and trauma are similarly flattened in time and space. But are there other ways for artists to do peace? Can an idea such as peace be imagined as if it possesses an independent essence? Perhaps this is something nearly impossible to imagine in a time in which sincere expression can easily feel so attenuated and provisional that it might only aspire to passive consumption in a state of impotent ambivalence. Perhaps it is better to begin without specific expectations and equipped with a gentle modesty and receptive disposition. Can an exhibition inspire such a disposition? For Matthias Ulrich, curator of the recent exhibition PEACE at Frankfurt’s Shirn Kunsthalle, peace is simply being present and sharing that sense of being with the world and others. For once, this was an exhibition that correlated strongly with its brief.

September 21, three days before PEACE drew to a close at The Schirn, was the International Day of Peace—a day symbolically designated to the UN’s annual call for a global cease-fire. This exhibition, which deliberately avoided explicit symbolic references to peace, sought instead to present a discursive survey of how peace might actually work. How do we actually do peace? What do we experience when we imagine peace? And do we optimally access such experiences through words, gestures, complex materialisations, simulations, social reciprocities or so-called mindfulness? Presented in a time in which works of art are increasingly understood as continuous with life beyond the ontological borders of the art world, this was an exhibition that explored complexities and porosities across and between art and a diverse range of other human and non-human systems. Although contemporary art remains necessarily and perhaps irretrievably dependent upon a simultaneously critical and complicit mirroring of the structural problems of global capitalism itself, many artists resort to operating knowingly in this fictionalised space whilst at the same time looking outward to so-called real-world issues and challenges. Under such conditions, art can be said to occupy a doubled ontological realm in which it is understood to be at once art and another activity altogether that is actually actively situated in the world. Although, in her book Forgetting the Art World (2012), American art historian Pamela M. Lee acknowledges the ontological impossibility of venturing outside the art world, she nevertheless usefully shifts the focus of discussion from the ‘global art world’ and instead toward a focus upon the ‘work of art’s world’.  For Lee, ‘to speak of the “the work of art’s world” is to retain a sense of the activity performed by the object as utterly continuous with the world it at once inhabits and creates’.(1) Lee’s thesis certainly resonates strongly with several of the works in this exhibition.

In presenting a diverse but carefully considered selection of works by Jan De Cock, Minerva Cuevas, Ed Fornieles, Michel Houellebecq, Surasi Kusolwong, Isabel Lewis, Lee Mingwei, Katja Novitskova, Heather Phillipson, Agnieszka Polska, Timur Si-Qin and Ulay, the curator clearly sought to immediately dispel any characterisation of peace as a coherent one line slogan or recognisable symbol. Nowhere in the exhibition was peace presented as a definition, slogan, symbol, object, or indeed, even a specific political position. Instead, it was presented as a series of speculative processes of interplay and communication imagined not only as taking place between humans but also between entities involved in generating and sustaining systems. A key conceptual feature of several recently fashionable philosophical arguments that are beyond the scope of this review is the idea that humans should no longer necessarily be understood as the centre or focus of attention. These extra-human perspectives, together with a focus upon human social conventions such as rituals of giving and receiving, would together form the basis of rewarding curatorial speculation upon the possibility of peaceful coexistence both with and between human and non-human systems.

Some works, such as those of Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas, pitted the subject of water as a commodity offset against its necessity as a shared resource. In another related and surprising inclusion, veteran artist Ulay placed the question Whose Water Is It? (2012) in large, glowing letters on the wall. In a second work by Ulay, a single drop of water fell onto a hot surface, sizzled, and then immediately disappeared. Other works were more explicitly concerned with human rituals of confiding, sharing, giving and receiving. The Letter Writing Project (1998- ) by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei, for example, offset wishes alongside the fear of expressing them. Here, visitors could choose to write letters to leave in the installation or to be read by others or alternatively arrange to have them sent to a selected address. In another, and arguably more successful work by the same artist, Sonic Blossom (2013–), professional opera singers invited selected visitors to receive the gift of song composed by Franz Schubert performed directly and exclusively for a single seated audience member. Several recipients of this ‘gift’, including the author, were visibly reduced to tears. In Golden Ghost (2011/2017), Thai artist Surasi Kusolwong hid gold chains in masses of remnants from industrial textile production for visitors to search for. Meanwhile, British artist Ed Fornieles presented a post-apocalyptic role-playing utopia in a video-installation titled Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk (2017). Here, the focus has clearly shifted from that of averting global disaster toward the task of living together beyond its apparent inevitability. From here, the exhibition took many twists and turns. Belgian artist Jan De Cock’s project Everything For You, Frankfurt (2017) consisted of sculptures conceived of as a gift to the city and a self-published magazine for visitors to take home. In another gently beautiful installation simply titled Clément (2016), French writer Michel Houellebecq created an intimate memorial, presented as an aggregate of representative materialisations to a much-loved dog that had recently passed. On a related tip, British artist Heather Phillipson attempted to project herself directly into the psychology and physiology of a poodle that, due to of a series traumatic experiences and stress, no longer wished to live.

An initially somewhat anomalous but ultimately standout work by Polish artist Agnieszka Polska, who incidentally recently won Germany’s prestigious Preis der Nationalgalerie (National Gallery Prize) for young artists, consisted of a discrete three screen video installation titled The Body of Words (2015). This extraordinary work explores ways in which language is influenced by the material world through dreamlike sequences which speculate upon the origins and nature of language itself. By playfully reanimating the slippery transformation from that which sits before or beyond language through to its structural presentation in syllables and units of meaning and association, Polska also journeys through the inextricable relationship between language and the formation of individual self-aware speaking bodies. In addition, by presenting differences between spoken and written language, a voice over appears and disappears together with spatialised overlapping fragments of text on the screen. In this way, Polska materialises language by transforming it into a performed substance that is utterly continuous with the worlds it occupies, forms and represents. Here, letters and words dissolve into a rippled surfaces and disconnected syllables. Unlike the conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s, who variously sought to reveal language as a socially-determined ideological construction, her dreamlike videos refuse to nominate an arbitrary structural connection between words and things. Whilst the imagined body is both subsumed by and ruptured by glitchy hallucinogenic tensions between speech and written text, the act of speech itself also renders the body as strangely and partially dematerialised. Polska cleverly implicates a poetic and affective relationship between the written and spoken languages of our digitally augmented existences using various scientific, pop cultural and historical utopian references. After all, to begin thinking beyond human systems is to imagine beyond language yet through language—or by extension, to think beyond art through art.  

Finally, the exhibition included a performance space and stage conceived by Isabel Lewis, in which visitors are offered words, music, aromas, drinks and food in an environment surrounded by plants and presented in concert with the exhibitions central theme—how does peace actually work? In seeking to reflect upon what peace might or can be, a series of associated events including lectures, readings, poetry presentations, and dance and music performances also featured in the exhibition program. As part of the lead up to the exhibition, The Schirn held a competition for a new peace logo. Interestingly, an independent jury selected the winner in the form of a blue dot submitted simultaneously and independently by Bekata Ozdikmen of Turkey and Paul Müller of Germany. Are we now nearer to one and a half degrees of separation?

(1) Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012, p. 8, italics in original.

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Lee Mingwei, The Letter Writing Project, 1998—2017, Exhibition View “PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. 

Neven Allgeier

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Lee Mingwei, The Letter Writing Project, 1998—2017, Exhibition View “PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. 

Neven Allgeier


Exhibition View “PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017.

Neven Allgeier

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Jan De Cock, Everything for you, Frankfurt, 2017, Installation view "PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. 



Neven Allgeier

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Michel Houellebecq, Salle Clément, Exhibition View “PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. 

Neven Allgeier

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Lee Mingwei, Sonic Blossom, 2013—2017, Installation view, Exhibition View “PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. 

Neven Allgeier

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Heather Phillipson, 100% OTHER FIBRES, 2016, Exhibition View “PEACE,” Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Image courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017 and the artist. 

Neven Allgeier

Dr Sean Lowry is a Melbourne-based artist and writer. He holds a PhD in Visual Arts from the University of Sydney and is currently the Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies in Art at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Lowry has exhibited extensively, both nationally and internationally, and his published writing appears in numerous journals. His conceptually driven practice employs strategies of concealment, subliminal quotation, erasure, remediation and intermedial expansion to explore the outermost limits of the world of a work of art. He is also Founder and Executive Director of Project Anywhere (, and one half (with Ilmar Taimre) of The Ghosts of Nothing ( (

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