In 2001, Austrian artist Peter Friedl mounted a solo show titled "Forty Acres and a Mule" at the recently opened Nicolas Krupp Contemporary Art in Basel. The exhibition featured a spare, black PVC floor work that recalled Carl Andre's Minimalist masterpieces but was intended as a small-scale depiction of the 40 acres that former American slaves were infamously "gifted" in 1865. Also on view were a live mule and enlarged press images relating to the ultimately revoked Reconstruction-era offer. The wry, absurdist show elucidated the concerns—political and art histories, the photographic press—that would dominate Friedl's work over the next decade, and which he again took up, even more richly, in his third and most recent exhibition at Krupp.
The show featured three projected color films (all of them allusions to figurative paintings), three blown-up press images and one large photograph-turned-wallpaper. The wallpaper soberly depicted a graffiti-strewn Berlin construction site, one of its tags declaiming "Freedom for the Basques." The declaration prepared the path—in Friedl's associative fashion—for his film Bilbao Song (2010). Shot at a theater in a town near Bilbao, the work features actors onstage in tableaux vivants gleaned from historical paintings that limn Basque history, beginning with Ingres's Henry IV and the Spanish Ambassador (1817). Friedl's camera plays over the silent actors (including a co-founder of the ETA-an armed Basque separatist organization and a coquettish little girl who embodies Henry IV's daughter with precocious irony), while a pianist and accordion player bang out Brecht and Weil's "Bilbao Song."
The film's mash-up of political and art histories does seem echt Brechtian, though its slow, strange frisson is the work of Friedl alone. The Children (2009), meanwhile, is based on an alarming 1966 work by Albanian painter Spiro Kristo. Friedl moved Kristo's street scene of armed children inside, to a Tirana hotel room designed in the Italian Fascist style. As in some Henry Dargeresque dystopian dream, girls in white ankle socks bear (fake) guns strapped to their backs. In voice-over, and speaking in Albanian, a girl intones: "The picture has to step out from the frame." An apt description of Friedl's moving-image work, this remark was originally made by Spanish painter Francisco Pacheco to his student Diego Velázquez and was then employed by Foucault in his controversial Las Meninas essay. It seems no accident, then, that Bilbao Song conjures Eve Sussman's 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004), her Las Meninas-inspired video. Nor that Friedl's actors, despite their rigid roles, appear to stray from their marks, destabilizing the tableaux (and history) on which they are based.
Tiger oder Löwe (2000), a film of a tiger's romp with a toy snake through the Hamburger Kunsthalle (based on a Eugène Delacroix painting), amused but was overshadowed in effect by a triptych of pixelated press images of children either engaged in art-making or juxtaposed with revolution-themed signage: a group of kids are seen painting in a studio; three boys hold up the letters I-R-A; a toddler stands near graffiti demanding: "SINK WTO!" Art or politics, they seem to say, it makes no difference. Or does it? If on first glance the exhibition's themes of children, politics and painting seemed an unlikely trio, in the end Friedl's narrative, more dark hallucination than logical polemic, was effective for its very mystery.
Photo: Peter Friedl: The Children, 2009, video, approx. 12-minute loop; at Nicolas Krupp.