Fotograf Magazine

Oliver Ressler

After All, Things Seen are Temporary

In his work, the Austrian artist and filmmaker Oliver Ressler (b: 1970)
explores the options of public space, describes socially and politically
engaged movements, and presents possible economic and political
alternatives to those which have become established. The forms found in
his work, the narrative methods, the aesthetics of the images, and possibly
the uncomplicated way he uses symbols is not significantly different from
the work of other artists who, like Oliver Ressler, are included amongst
those involved in political art and artistic activism. The replication of
processes to the point where they may sometimes be somewhat typified,
avoidance of overly formal experiments, and the generally unconcealed
legibility of content in these types of works are, in Ressler’s case, not
important or testimonial criteria when considering his work. Conversely,
these works are important because of their placement here and now, for
their documentary nature, and for the need to reveal, contextualise, and
educate. In this they may even raise hopes for a better world.

Oliver Ressler is not totally unknown to the Czech public. He has
participated in several group shows in this country. In 2015, at the fifth
edition of the Fotograf Festival, he presented his solo photographic exhibition
Stranded (at the Artwall Gallery), in which he replaced the bodies of drowned
refugees washed up on shore (with reference to the medially well-known
photographs of the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan) with the
arranged dead bodies of drowned managers and politicians wearing suits.

The international public had the opportunity to see Ressler’s eightchannel
video installation What is Democracy? (2007–2009) at last
year’s Documenta 14 exhibition. In it, the artist asks activists and other
politically engaged individuals in eighteen cities around the world the same
question: “What is democracy?” The variations in the replies and the plurality
of opinions is in and of itself interesting, however it raises another question
that is no less burning in nature. How is it possible that democracy –
something that is so basic and lies at the centre of all political, social, and
cultural relationships – is so variable and cannot be clearly defined?

Ressler works with the aspect of the diversity and plurality of opinions in
yet another of his works. In the video What Would It Mean To Win? he asks
participants in the blockade of the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany
(2007) the following, what are in fact basic, questions: “Who are we?”, “What
is our power?”, “What would it mean to win?” The variety of different answers
forces us to rethink the concepts and thought processes that initially appeared
sometime in the beginning and then perhaps fell by the wayside because we
long believed that we had already thought them through thoroughly.

Just on the basis of the works mentioned above, the themes Oliver
Ressler considers to be important are obvious. First and foremost is
capitalism and revealing its malignant manifestations, followed by such
topics as searching for and describing other economic and political models,
documenting activist movements, workers’ self-management, resistance
and protest, global warming, precarious work, and migration issues. His
themes are not fundamentally unlike from those of other creators of political
art and artistic activism, although they may differ in their specificity and local
deviations, as, after all, the battle remains the same everywhere.

There is no need to launch into a discussion about the questions that
have been rehashed so many times in the past as to whether it makes
sense to be engaged in political art, and whether it truly has the power to
change anything, even though, in the case of Ressler’s works (which are
quite sufficiently exhibited and accessible to the public) the opportunity to
do so is there. Indeed, the state of the situations he talks about only rarely
changes for the better.

It may therefore seem that Oliver Ressler’s works are a display of useless
effort. However, the essence of his work does not comprise direct political
activities, but it originates primarily in transforming the unseen and the hidden
into something that may be seen and is legible. Ressler fully articulates this
process in his 2014 video The Visible and the Invisible. Here he focuses on
the global centre of commodity trading, located behind the opaque windows
of Swiss office buildings despite the fact that the traded commodities will
never touch Swiss soil. This invisible trading on the territory of the Global
North is in direct contrast to the visible consequences of mining, pollution,
horrendous working conditions, and the high health risk in the Global South.
The mist that permeates the image during the entire video refers not only to
the toxic smoke of the South, but also to the efforts of the North to conceal
the causal relationship between northern prosperity and southern poverty.

If we were to ask which of the characteristics of the current global
system is the most dangerous, then the best answer is specifically the ability
of this system to make itself invisible. In conjunction with this aspect, the
system also makes the human body and its work invisible, as well as the
actual level of costs, the environmental consequences of its own logic, the
impossibility of sustainability, and the immense inequality that results.

Oliver Ressler makes all of these features visible. He repeats himself, but
in the same way that he repeatedly asks the same questions, the repetition
of images forces us to go back to the beginning and rethink something we
thought we knew much about. This going back also reawakens our attention.

Long-term efforts to achieve change require one to have faith in
change – faith in a better world. It is necessary to make capitalism visible,
because, as even the Apostle Paul said a long time ago, “Things seen are
temporary, but things unseen are eternal.”

Dalibor Knapp