Exceptionalism Disproves the Rule
Social inclusion is delicately hinged upon an ideological dichotomy: to be a part of something there must exist an inferior other who is not. Is it at all possible for inclusion to play out in society without its perceived equal and opposite taking hold in parallel? Moriah Askenaizer and Ella CB take on the reductive duality that permeates togetherness. The artists decompose the nuance of socio-political inclusion and its historically veiled other, the scapegoat. This personified mammal, disparaged in the western world as the exception to inclusion, is the titular spectre in their joint exhibition SÜNDENBOCK (German for scapegoat) at The Reference in Frankfurt.
The artists’ analytical dissection is complimented by natural material processes. The innate, malleable qualities of their precisely chosen media physically underscore a break down of loaded rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and fear of the other. Many of the works themselves, heavily craft based, are in various states of decomposition: right-wing newspaper clippings fester with autumn leaves in an old bathtub half-filled with water and the pungent scent of fermented cider permeates the exhibition space. The space itself, a decaying disused flat in a building slated for redevelopment, could not more aptly represent the unwanted omnipresent outcast.
The apple wine circulates through a hand-crafted ceramic fountain resembling a mini fortress. It is perched atop a recognisably generic wooden side table and seems akin to the small- man’s attempt at his all-usurping hilltop castle. The stomach-ache inducing liquid delicacy is a beloved tradition in the state of Hessen, historically served in a ceramic jug known as a Bembel. Given the founder of apple-wine-in-a-can brand “Bembel with Care” Benedikt Kuhn posted a photo of himself in a Nazi uniform raising his tinnie to the world on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War this year, there’s no doubt Askenaizer and Ella CB invite us to take the stench as a marker of the ideological New Right movement permeating Germany – one often difficult to trace, especially in its complicated and fast- moving online ecosystem. I actually only realised what the smell was when the artists cordially offered me a glass of the stuff with the assurance that it’s the good shit: traditionally brewed fresh.
By no mean feat do Askenaizer and Ella CB deliberately employ subtlety and undercurrent. Rather than overtly contextualising their joint works, the artists mirror the very mechanisms adopted in politics to shroud the unfounded denunciation of the other. They invite the symbolic scapegoat into their exhibition without any great fuss. To initially disprove the rule of exceptionalism it languidly, yet ambigiously pervades the exhibition; hovering without drawing attention, comparisons or distrust. It is embodied in the congregation of domestic mantelpiece shrine- and esoteric oracle-like works. Small glazed-clay tankards intrinsically loaded with the ethos of German tradition are lined up in reminiscence of precious objects over a fireplace. Large round assemblage paintings meshing newspaper detritus and medicinal plants in the spirit of bricolage are dyed indigo with scavenged woad and appear redolent of dimply, mystic moons. That so many signifiers are purposefully posited to go largely unnoticed, or are so densely codified that they are recognisable only to a select few, becomes the real crux of their endeavour.
In Scapegoat the title-giver does not play a mere perfunctory, point-proving role or serve some utopian idea of inclusion. Much more realistic and nuanced, the artists are aware that embracing the scapegoat on a pedestal would be just as alienating, even tokenising. Rather, the other is subtly replete in non-high art materials: painting opens up its hallowed realms to found foliage and dyed fabric; the clay beer mug sculptures are rather miss-shaped and the glaze has dripped; the carpet curls at the corners and the walls are water-stained. This percipient approach proffers an alternative to scapegoating which Askenaizer and Ella CB then skilfully and very deliberately undercut in their self-reflexive demonstration of the problematics when left- and right-wing opaquely merge.
In a highly considered manner the artists simultaneously imbue their works with both inclusion and exclusion via their use of materials and their choice of semiotically powerful forms. Upon first glance they demonstrate that inclusion can potentially exist without its nemesis: all doors are swung wide open, the ultimate gesture of boarderless-ness. One door has even actively been taken off its hinges and integrated into a work. However, it sits at the centre of a second shrine-like installation surrounded by dried natural dross. A deliberately jarring concept: the artists have created a hallowed site of worship out of a barrier to entry.
Building on the conflict the door sculpture embodies, the inclusion of a melange of seemingly disparate materials also draws attention to the uncharacterisable variation in protesters at “anti-corona” marches that swept through Germany earlier this year. The artist Ella CB had attended and filmed at a rally, documenting far right conspiracy theorists marching alongside hippies opposed to vaccination (to generalise, of course). Materials and techniques meld, coalesce and unite without hierarchy or exclusion. They are also very often unidentifiable.
Although the inclusion conundrum remains unsolved, the artists dispel dichotomies and expose a nuanced mind-fuck. In my conversations with Askenaizer and Ella CB, who themselves used dialogue as their primary research tool in preparing for the exhibition, it was clear that clear-cut answers are not the answer. The rigorous discussion between the artists that informed Scapegoat was a way of processing things through dialogue. Now there’s a thought. Open discussion, a safe space to consider differing, converging and contradictory ideas. The artists refreshingly explain how they themselves are still in the middle of this fleshing-out process, even after putting the exhibition together.
It was only after this generous discussion with the artists did the density and gradation of the subject matter informing Scapegoat become apparent. That it isn’t so visually pronounced is not unbeknownst to them, of course. If they had made overt gestures the exhibition itself would have been an exercise in othering and exclusion, void of shades of grey. The question remains: can political orientation be without social exclusion, without a scapegoat? The artists don’t think so reductively. Askenaizer and Ella CB instead welcome the scapegoat, acknowledging its ambiguous position and indirectly integrating it, only to then reveal the precarity in doing so.