Berlin-based art collective Slavs and Tatars have made their curatorial debut with Crack Up – Crack Down, one that explores satire as visual language. The Ljubljana Biennial’s history as one of the few available converging points for artists during the Cold War from both the Eastern and the Western blocs made this a simple decision for them. Many of the pieces presented in the Biennial during that time were made using ink and paper due to its low price and portability, thus representing a defiance of isolationist policy and control that are at the very essence of liberalist satire.
This year’s exhibition centres appropriately on the graphic arts due to the rich, anti-establishment history of the Ljubljana Biennial itself. Of the term ‘graphic’, Slavs and Tatars expressed that, although including work from the likes of historical caricaturist Hinko Smrekar, they have “aimed to focus on the graphic today, both in a literal and in a strategic sense”, this being because “in an age of mashed up futures and scrambled pasts, the role of the graphic in public discourses and polemics seems particularly relevant today.”
The humour in satire is largely context-specific; if you don’t understand the context, then the joke is lost on you. Many powerful satirical pieces rely on this misunderstanding because, if the true meaning were to be discovered, there would potentially be dire consequences. This aspect of satirical imagery is evident in German multimedia artist Ferdinand Kriwet’s Text-signs, a series from the late 1960s on display in the exhibition. Kriwet used circular forms featuring contrasting language and hybrid words such as ‘Homodelight’ and ‘Sodomasorry’, illustrating the aforementioned sense of the codified message. This, alongside the typography’s associations with commercialism (something with little meaning besides consumerism) and the circular shapes’ similarity to a mandala (highly meaningful and spiritual), taps into the duality of satirical art, a glint of humour in the face of darkness; evident in the exhibition’s title Crack Up – Crack Down.