Declining Democracy

September 23, 2011- January 22, 2012
Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina (CCCS) – Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy

The exhibition Declining Democracy proposes a critical reflection on the concept of democracy, which is being challenged in a way that has not been seen since World War II. While the 2008 financial meltdown triggered deep social unrest in Western countries, a new sense of revolutionary political utopia, different from yet parallel to developments in Europe, appears to have gained a foothold in North Africa and the Middle East. Numerous groups of citizens in those countries are fighting to achieve the basic values of participation in political life.

Through works by international contemporary artists, the exhibition explores the contradictions and paradoxes of democracy, and its changing nature in our troubled world. They provide a reflection on the values and the inconsistencies that typify today’s society. They investigate such themes as the clash between the individual and the community, the growing gap between the man in the street and the political classes, the power and influence of economic lobbies and of the mass media, and the problem of immigration and the sharing or refusal of civic and political rights. At the same time, they explore the possible forms of democratic participation enabled by innovations in communication technologies, which have given people new tools with which to share opinions. This has led to a new interpretation of the notion of political and social participation and of the principle of the right to an opinion.

Where do I stand? What do I want? by Thomas Hirschhorn (Switzerland) consists of eight notebooks revisited with drawings, written words and collage, offering an intriguing insight into the thought and the aesthetic sense of an artist held to be a beacon in the debate on the relationship between art and politics. The famous When Faith Moves Mountains by Francis Alÿs (Belgium/Mexico), in which five hundred volunteers in Peru in 2002 shifted a sand dune almost two hundred metres wide some ten centimeters away from its original position, provides us with one of the most celebrated and beguiling examples of artistic reflection on the themes of community power and of social utopia. (figs. 1 & 2) Thomas Kilpper (Germany) will present an installation which will display several of his works focusing on the pressing situation of migration in Europe, particularly looking at the situation on the Italian island Lampedusa where Kilpper is pursuing the long-term project “A Lighthouse for Lampedusa”.

Garden of Error and Decay by Michael Bielicky and Kamila B. Richter (Germany) is a multimedia installation in which viewers play a direct role. Spectators are encouraged to use a joystick in order to interact with a virtual landscape peopled by symbols and images linked to economic, social and political events constantly updated by a system linked in real time to the Internet, to the flow of information on Twitter and to changing stock market trends. (fig. 3) The Democracia collective (Spain) will be screening their new video entitled Ser y Durar, in which a group of youngsters is followed as they practice the discipline of parkour in a historic cemetery in Madrid. They wend their way among monuments and symbols of Spanish democracy, forging a lyrical reflection on the relationship between the past and the present, between the individual and collective history, and between an awareness of history and the failure to grasp its significance.

Lucy Kimbell’s (UK) participatory project Bar Physical Charts involves spectators in the first person, allowing them to choose and to wear brooches created by the artist embodying slogans linked to actions or to conduct with a political or social value, thus publicly shining the spotlight both inside and outside the exhibition on their civic commitment and on their status as citizens in everyday life. Roger Cremers’ (Netherlands) Reenactment series of photographs reflects on the relationship between the citizen and history. It portrays famous battles of World War II using period

costumes and props by people who do not have first-hand experience of the events but who revisit tragic episodes in their country’s past in ways that the photographer’s eye holds up for us in all their paradoxical inconsistency. The multi-channel video installation Democracies, by Artur Zmijewski (Poland), sets out to compare moments of protest and rallies in various countries, offering a reflection on the notion of freedom of expression and on the dynamics of mass psychology. It draws unexpected parallels between different episodes from trade union demonstrations in Poland, protests in the Gaza Strip, to a group of German football fans and the crowd attending Jörg Haider’s funeral in Austria. The video Bocas de Cerniza by Juan Manuel Echavarría (Colombia) focuses instead on the faces of seven persons who, through their singing, tell the dramatic episodes of their lives in Colombia, a place that for years has been traumatised by bloody civil wars.

Parlament, by Thomas Feuerstein (Austria), creates a symbolic depiction of the principles of social coexistence. Reflecting his traditional approach based on mapping out links and analogies between art and science, and between sociology and biology, the sculpture installation represents the controlled growth system of a “biological body”, a micro-organism in a glass container symbolising the social organisation and aggregation of men joined in a single “body social”.

The Italian artists in the exhibition are Cesare Pietroiusti, whose work includes a “political education office”, a series of workshops conducted by the artist to reflect on the issue of democracy in Europe today, addressing such themes as the chasm separating politics from the man in the street, or the new forms of protest that have spread to various European countries in recent years; and Buuuuuuuuu, a group which uses the Internet to encourage active participatory dissent against the authoritarianism of governments and institutions. For this exhibition the group will be proposing new protest initiatives and action to prompt a reflection on the role that each citizen can play in everyday life.

The word “democracy” is often held to be synonymous with an open and modern society. Yet the concept has within its core a very close tie with the development of capitalism and a series of inconsistencies regarding the notions of the individual and the community, freedom, and participation. The social and political ideal of democracy, thought to be so stable that it embodied “the end of history”, should be interpreted as a process of ongoing negotiation. It is in fact a complex, intrinsically imperfect concept that has been subject to change throughout its history.

In keeping with the CCCS’s mission to reflect events in contemporary society, Declining Democracy aims to create a platform for critical reflection and debate, without seeking once-and-for-all answers or definitive solutions. The exhibition complements Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities, also on view at Palazzo Strozzi (17 September 2011 to 22 January 2012), which tells the story of how the modern banking system was invented and of the economic progress that it fostered, reconstructing daily life and the economy in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Declining Democracy is a project devised by CCCS with the scholarly contribution of Piroschka Dossi (curator and author), Gerald Nestler (researcher and artist), Christiane Feser (curator and artist) and Franziska Nori (director of the CCCS).

Images above: Francis Alÿs, When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, in collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafeal Orteg, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich © the artist


Francis Alÿs
When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002
In collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafeal Ortega
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
©the artist


Roger Cremers
Re-enactment, 2010
Serie di c-prints
Courtesy the artist


Ser y Durar, 2011
Still da video
Video installazione a 3 canali, 18′ 30″
(La Almudena Civil Cemetery, Madrid)
Still photo credit: Ximo Michavila
Courtesy Democracia


Thomas Hirschhorn
Where Do I Stand, What Do I Want, 2007
8 notebooks
Collection de Bruin-Heijn
Courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris


Thomas Kilpper
State of Control – Migrants on their way to Lampedusa, 2009
Incisione su linoleum stampata su stoffa
205 x 285 cm
Courtesy Gallery Christian Nagel, Berlin
Photo: Jens Ziehe


Thomas Feuerstein
Parlament, 2009
Scultura in vetro
Courtesy Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman, Innsbruck