Material Matters: On Transparency in Art and Politics

“Transparency is not the medium of beauty.”—BYUNG-CHUL HAN

What is probably the subject of our century and therefore influencing current as well as future generations, is both curse and blessing at the same time. Ulrich Schacht, a German writer and journalist, notes in his diary: “New word for equalization: transparency.” Where there’s transparency, there’s no other. Even in art, a system that is heavily based on a strong pursuit of individuality and otherness, the strong demand for transparency has long since arrived. A glance at this year’s Venice Biennial shows that no other material brings more ambivalence than one that is mainly known for its transparency: glass.Byung-Chul Han | Transparenzgesellschaft | Matthes & Seitz | 2012

Anne Imhof, a self-described painter, staged a five-hour performance in which the participants play only a secondary role in the end. Faust’s centrepiece is a glass construction—floors and walls—crossing and encircling the whole pavilion thus creating transparent boundaries. Between performers and visitors, between the inside and the outside, but above all between freedom and imprisonment. Between inclusion and exclusivity and between reality and what is behind glass – a visual translation of our transparent generation’s digital life. In the middle of the 19th century, when numerous Victorian crystal palaces and rip-offs were being built in the Western world, glass represented monumental modernism or architectural wonders, humankind could only accomplish thanks to new materials. Decades later it became a hollow promise because of its inflationary use: Buildings of large corporations and banks were transparent only on the outside, revealing quite openly the ugly face of capitalism and its consequences on society a few years ago.

“Illumination is exploitation”, Byung-Chul Han, a German philosopher and lecturer at UdK Berlin, points out. And in the end, all of us experience this exploitation firsthand, day-by-day. We are busy checking the glass devices, which seem to fool us with apparent proximity and transparency, instead of what is physically present around us. Transparency kills trust kills respect. And as a side product, it creates distance. If glass appears highly approachable at first sight, it turns out to be a fragile momentum.Byung-Chul Han | Im Schwarm – Ansichten des Digitalen | Matthes & Seitz | 2013
The British artist Walead Besht y covered the subject of transparency in numerous works. For Transparencies, he subjected unexposed film rolls to the security check at airports referring to the unique kind of public space there, which involves monitoring and transparency at the same time. In his series FedEx he sent laminated and packaged glass boxes via FedEx all around the globe. Through their continuous destruction, Beshty showed that glass is not a material that transcends distances, but ultimately only suitable for creating borders in a narrow space.

The fact, that French President Emmanuel Macron celebrated his success in front of Louvre’s glass pyramid can be easily misunderstood. On the one hand, the building surely is a sign of the cultural and intellectual rise of France, which Macron was definitely interested to refer to. But on the other one, it definitely transports values like fragility and emptiness—first and foremost because of the material it is built of. Do modern politics really want to be associated with this? What used to be stone temples and later castles are now glass cages, which are supposed to provide more transparency. But in reality, they only seal the inner ones off from the other, the outer world. Insight? No chance.

In Secret Power the New Zealand-based artist Simon Denny investigated the power of the US intelligence agency NSA and its allies by examining their visual language and presented the results in glass cabinets covered in bright LED light. Besides positioning the comprehensive material in a so-far unseen art historical context, he uncovered new relationships between power, control and transparency.Metahaven | Black Transparency – The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance | Sternberg Press | 2015
Transparency needs control; it needs power. Now, asking for more transparency across all areas, we demand clarity based on equality. We complain about the lack of private spaces, while constantly forcing everything into a common, obtrusive here and now by digital interconnection - which is based on the technical achievement of the glass (!) fiber cables by the way. Actually, we would be doing well to provide more blur in our lives. In the end, total transparency is only possible through total control – the latter only exists in a dictatorship.