Allen Memorial Art Museum Hosts Bakukun Barricade – The Oberlin Review
FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art is an exhibition of contemporary art connecting local, national, and international artists with institutions in northeast Ohio. The 2022 edition, Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, showcases art as a possible catalyst for healing. As part of FRONT International 2022, the Ellen Johnson Gallery at the Allen Memorial Art Museum is now hosting Bakunin’s Barricade by Ahmet Öğüt, a Kurdish-born conceptual artist who currently lives and works in Amsterdam, Berlin and Istanbul.
“The Allen has been one of the key partners since the beginning of FRONT International,” said AMAM Director Andria Derstine. “As part of this particular presentation, the work of Ahmet Öğüt was suggested to us by the artistic director of FRONT. I loved that it dealt with historical and contemporary ideas about protest. I also loved that it was original artwork from our collection interspersed with the barricade.
AMAM curator Sam Adams said FRONT chose Oberlin as the site for this piece “because of Oberlin’s history of counterculture and political justice and the strength of our collection for to be able to support a project like this”.
Öğüt has been creating and presenting Bakunin’s Barricade works in various international museums since 2015. The project is based on a concept introduced in 1849 by revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. As Prussian troops threatened to attack socialist groups in Dresden, Bakunin offered to reinforce their barricades with works of art from the National Museum. He speculated that the value of the paintings would deter the troops from attacking them.
Although this concept was never realized by Bakunin, more than 150 years later, Öğüt was inspired by the idea and began to create barricade installations reinforced with works from the collections of each museum. Öğüt uses found objects including fences, cars, building materials and signs to construct its site-specific barricades. At AMAM, an Oberlin sign is one of many elements that make up the expansive installation.
Thirteen works selected from the museum’s collection are placed throughout the barricade, including the recognizable Andy Warhol, prints by Barbara Kruger hanging from a fence, and even a portrait by Nisse Zetterberg of the gallery‘s namesake, Ellen Johnson. The presentation of the barricade is accompanied by an unsigned framed contract stating that, if signed, the art dispersed in the assembly may be deployed by the public, if necessary, to form a barricade during a demonstration social.
“Ahmet was really inspired by the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, as well as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and all the protests on a number of tragic and important issues in recent years,” Derstine said.
For the Oberlin community, AMAM is a resource, a place of education and inspiration. The connection between the work of art and the legal process of the museum is an illuminating and topical element of the installation. In the age of digital contracts and digital art, a physical contract hanging in front of a physical work of art is valid subversion.
Bakunin’s Barricade asks the question: “Can art defend society?” and invites reflection on the value of art as protest.
“Art museums as institutions tend to avoid risk because it is part of our mandate to protect and serve our art collection in perpetuity for future generations,” Adams said. “A museum must walk a fine line to be able to meet its moment and participate in the march forward for social justice.”
Of course, the current installation and the unsigned contract for the Bakunin barricade pose no threat to the AMAM collection, but a museum setting can have a deep connection to protest movements. Art institutions are often platforms for works that challenge political systems and social inequalities. Protests have also been directed against arts institutions in recent years, demanding systemic reform and increased diversity in creative spaces.
This concept of using art for political action can be compared to the climate activists of the Italian group Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) who have glued their hands to acclaimed works of art in recent months. Their hope is that the radical action of endangering valuable works of art can attract the attention of policy makers. Similar to Bakunin and Öğüt, they seem to believe that revered art is often held in higher esteem than the livelihood of human beings.
In an age of digital activism with a growing desire to hold the discourse online, many argue that the intangibility of the internet dampens the effects of protests. Bringing exploratory artwork into physical spaces is effective in fostering dialogue in communities where protest is often misunderstood and misrepresented – and for Bakunin’s Barricade, the installation is an intergenerational triumph of art as than protest.
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