A Tale of Hard Times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Charles Dickens’ quote from his 18th-century classic A Tale of Two Cities remains eerily relevant today and perfectly embodies the exhibit Welcome to Hard Times currently at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art. It’s the perfect description of an era where we have seemingly infinite knowledge available right at our fingertips, record high longevity, and are surrounded by technologies that should make every aspect of our lives significantly easier.

Curated by Dutch artist Erik Kessels and fellow artists Elinor Michan, Antuan Rodriguez, and Viktor Freso, Welcome to Hard Times challenges the idea that we are in the “best of times” through uniquely interactive pieces that encourage visitors to literally “workout” global issues themselves on exercise equipment, while simultaneously facilitating important discussions about current events.

The concept itself plays off of our societal, often superficial obsession with going to the gym in order to pique interest and demonstrates the lengths to which people—such as artists—must go in order to capture the public’s attention amidst a constant inundation of information from mass media.

In Elinor Michan’s “My Love Answer Me,” visitors run on the treadmill, while they listen to a poem by a terrorist attack survivor and watch clips of scenes just prior to terrorist attacks, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, or the Paris, Nice and Manchester attacks, as opposed to jamming out to music and watching cable television on monitors ahead. The juxtaposition is jarring and similarly replicated on the stationary bike, where viewers watch anchors from different American news channels (all owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group) repeat the same verbatim warning of an impending “danger” to democracy. These clips urge the viewer to evaluate the reliability of our news sources and expose the “post-truth” era we live in, where the news cycle is constantly skewed by what garners the greatest emotional response. The media is simultaneously fueled by and fueling the fear of the general public; the only way to escape it is to question the media’s rhetoric and combat it head-on.

And so, museumgoers can also do just that in Antuan Rodriguez’s “Left or Right” project, by smacking punching bags with the faces of controversial political figures, such as Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un, or else by hitting each other in a full-size professional boxing ring. Punching bags and boxing gloves may serve as an outlet for our present political frustrations, but they also demonstrate how our modern day political polarization breeds intense anger and hatred, which more often results in violence.

Welcome to Hard Times embraces the violence associated with polarization and fear in order to highlight global issues and encourages us to brainstorm solutions as opposed to relying on the media—or this exhibit-- to provide us with a set narrative. Instead, we step into the “Hard Times” gym and face conflict directly among posters that read “No Pain, No Gain,” “Don’t Stop Till You Drop, and “Unless You Puke, Faint, or Die, Keep Going.”

Welcome to Hard Times runs till February 4, 2019, at Dox Contemporary Art Centre, Prague.

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