Hannes Zebedin: Political Minimalism at AREA
This past November AREA: Lugar de Proyectos invited Austrian artist Hannes Zebedin (Lienz, 1976) to take up residence in AREA’s exhibition space in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where he created a series of site-specific minimal interventions resulting from first-hand observation and investigation (through casual conversations) of the island’s political and socio-economic climate. Zebedin, a seasoned traveler, is often invited to international spaces and institutions to create temporary interventions that respond to particular political contexts, redefined and interpreted through the discerning eye of the ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger.’ In this particular context, Puerto Rico’s elegantly worded yet ambiguous political status figured predominantly in Zebedin’s work.
The island’s current political status is officially the “Commonwealth”, defined as a self-governing but associated political state (perhaps better described as a colony or an unincorporated territory of the US), a definition which bears many contradictions and hidden significations. Taking this idea as the backbone for his project, Zebedin employed word plays and reversals to reveal evident problematics that by sheer force of habit seem forgotten or ignored by some locals. In his first intervention, Zebedin deconstructed the word Commonwealth, separating it and associating it with other words that seemingly pushed and pulled its limitations and significations, which coupled with structural modifications of the space, afforded visitors a visual as well as a sensory metaphor for the island’s political conundrum. Here Zebedin removed six windows that faced the street, intervening them with written words and placing them lying against the wall so as to replicate their original placement on the building’s façade. In the middle figured the word Commonwealth, separated, with the word “Common” reversed; on the right, next to the reversed word “Common,” Zebedin wrote the words Dependency, Subordination, Immaturity, whereas on the left, next to the word “Wealth,” he wrote Control, Captive Market, Continuation. In this work it is interesting to underscore how morphological changes as well as semantic associations visually and conceptually reveal the economic inequalities and disparities between Puerto Rico and the US.
Shifts of light and temperature also played an important role in the installation. Upon entering the space, visitors quickly noticed its bareness; natural light was clearly visible, producing shadows well into the afternoon as the sun went down. While walking throughout the space, visitors could sense shifts in temperature from cool air conditioned streams to warmer sun drenched spots; a temperature of ambiguity. Standing as a metaphor for insularity, the window, now not only opened but removed, allowed air to flow into the space; a symbolic gesture welcoming new ideas, an aperture towards the outside world.
Zebedin’s second intervention consisted of two works; a wastebasket overflowing with discarded crumpled pieces of paper (which largely extended to the floor) and a chainsaw that had been left running on the floor as a continuous but ephemeral performative element. The third and last intervention, which completed Zebedin’s project on the island, included three additional works. One of them consisted of a video filmed in Old San Juan in which Zebedin proceeds to ‘explode’ a paper bag filled with air in front of buildings that represent structures of power on the island. Another work, an installation, was comprised of a process inspired video and its end result, represented in an accumulation of dirt. The video, filmed in an abandoned building in Santurce, aesthetically confronts and challenges ideas relating to both positive and negative space, by showing the process whereby Zebedin obtains a palpable but ambiguous result, which is both a positive and a negative. Here Zebedin dug a deep hole in the ground where he placed a ladder and covered it up with dirt. The mound of remainding dirt represents the volume of the ladder, its negative space, but once collected and grouped becomes its own spatial configuration. In addition to this work, as a participatory action during the final opening, Zebedin invited visitors to take part in his work by building an island of Medalla bottles (a local beer) dressed in paper bags.
Besides the artist’s timely grasp of a seemingly latent political, social and economic situation, one thing that struck many visitors while observing Zebedin’s work was its minimal characteristics. In an island that sometimes seems to be overcome by cluttered exhibitions and excess, it was certainly ‘a breath of fresh air’, in the most literal but also metaphoric sense of the phrase.
Images by Abdiel Segarra