Keeping antagonistic energies animated: Till Megerle’s colourful drawings exhibited at the Vienna Secession come to terms with the immanently violent and collectively experienced, socio-political human condition.
It is difficult to see and say where the desire for liberation,
to be free from oppression, ends, and the desire for freedom,
to live a political life, begins.1
Liberation and freedom are not identical. Hannah Arendt’s recently published essay »The Freedom to Be Free« stems from her thoughts on revolutionary action, after the decay of imperialism, and negotiates differences between monarchic and nationalist forms of totalitarian governance. She draws attention to the desire for political action in anticipation of a collectively experienced free life, and poses difficult questions about the relationship between violent oppression and purposeful liberation.
The small-scale figurative drawings (2017-20) by Till Megerle, exhibited at the Secession in Vienna, visualise the dialectics that uphold concepts of oppression and liberation, that Arendt analyses on a micro-political, ethico-aesthetic level. His works show protracted and strangely interacting human figures in coloured pencil or monochrome charcoal drawings. They are conducted with meticulous precision, combine figurative and colour expressionism and allude to the (in)humane socio-political condition in which violence is always already acted out between people, keeping antagonistic energies animated.
In the graphic cabinet of Secession, the colourful drawings are shown under the heading »To be kind«. In the artist talk Megerle confesses that he stole the title from the non-wave, post-punk album To be kind (2014) by the band Swans. Their sound is a mixture of psychedelic and a/tonal music, and is—tongue-in-cheek—in fact everything but kind.
Upon entering Megerle’s show via the Secession’s claustrophobically narrow wooden staircase, we encounter one of his untitled charcoal drawings that hangs inside a vitrine at the threshold of the intimate exhibition room of the graphic cabinet. It shows two presumably queer human figures that are bogged down in a puddle. Their upper limbs are symmetrically intertwined while their legs are up to the knees deeply stuck in the mire. As these human creatures have almost identical facial expressions and wear similar clothes –jeans and puffed jackets – it is difficult to tell whether they are male, female, or if one is a ghostly reproduction of the other.
The remaining exhibition objects have a size of around 21x30cm and show more languishing human interactions, either as coloured or monochrome drawings. The material condition of the colour images is eye-catching. They combine coloured pencil, ink and ballpoint pen. Bright yellow, orange, red, tones of green and ink blue set the small exhibition space into ambiguous colour tones.
The formalist references of Megerle’s coloured or monochrome human figures are art historically and institutionally-charged in terms of both their motives and techniques. They resonate with the visual languages of Pieter Bruegel,Matthias Grünewald, the Fantastic Realists, as well as with the »institutionalised aesthetics« where the professionally trained photographer studied art. His work is influenced by the Leipziger Schule and Heimo Zobernig’s approach to exhibition displays. Megerle’s combination of a traditional visual art medium and a self-critical approach towards exhibition-making sheds some light on why the German-born-Austrian-based artist decided to »violently« deconstruct the window of the graphic cabinet for the time of his exhibition, and why he chose not to show one of his amateur-style video works.
A contemporary drawing exhibition is a strategic move for an artist who takes inspirations from popular culture, such as street skateboarding, and works with video. None of Megerle’s cultural interests are directly visible in his show. If the artist book, which includes some video stills, and the artist talk with its curator Ulla Rossek, weren’t accompanying the exhibition, his artistic performance practice would remain totally enclosed. The first image in the artist book is a reproduction of his coloured pencil drawing of his grandparents, each holding a violin; the second is a video still from the music video Random Plaza (2020, together with Kisling) and shows the side profile of a dog out in a landscape, captured from behind; the third image shows two younger figures, probably a man and a woman in intimate distance. While the artist book is frankly framed by the historical root of his artistic position, Megerle’s genealogical navel-gazing is not part of this exhibition; instead his drawing practice oscillates between figuration and abstraction.
The medium of drawing enables him to produce his very own, but not completely enclosed image world as it is anchored to the intersubjective institution of the family. His drawings do not show positions of power, but seem to represent what Judith Butler conceptualises as »nonviolence«—which is, according to her, a mode of resistance to a systematic form of violence to work against societal morals.2 If Megerle’s drawings depict such a form of »nonviolence«, then they also draw attention to the fact that violent actions must not be visibly performed in order to be experienced. Exhibited inside the historical institution of the Secession, Till Megerle’s drawings project a desire to remain artistically ambiguous, rather than radically innovative.
As his human figures are neither fully straight nor totally bent, they gesture towards omnipresent socio-political troubles at a moment in time that is clearly out of joint. Forceful liberation from restricted options offers a foundation for freedom, but freedom is not necessarily, as Arendt observes, the result of that very liberation. Looked at from this position, Megerle’s show »To be kind« perhaps consciously stages a form of »nonviolence« to demonstrate that a devoted solitary and two-dimensional artistic practice offers a possibility to deliberately take care of the self and to deal with the immanently violent, collectively experienced socio-political human condition.
1 Arendt, H., »The Freedom to Be Free« in: New England Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2017, pp. 65-69.
2 Butler, J., »The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind«, London: Verso, 2020.