TONY COKES at Greene Naftali reviewed by Martha Schwendener for The New York Times
Tony Cokes, Installation view, On Clubbing, Mourning, and Critique, Greene Naftali, New York, 2022
Text by Taylor LeMelle
Tony Cokes distills the ever-dizzying newsreel into pungent visual language paired with pop music. Evil.48 (fn.kno.it.alls) confronts visitors to his latest exhibition at Greene Naftali with an eerily prescient work from 2012, compiling Republican reactions to then-President Obama’s efforts to ensure workers’ rights to access contraception; found quotes from conservative politicians are scored to radio hits by Kelly Clarkson and Whitney Houston. Cokes intends for the music to complicate a singular reading of his works, and proposes that it is possible to form insights into serious issues while in a state of enjoyment. Thus, dancing is a completely appropriate response to the work.
Like our current news cycle and social media, these immersive videos saturate us in viewpoints, manifestos and occasionally propogandist statements, all swiping right or swiping up at that pace which has taken over contemporary culture, where we can all too easily slip into a perpetual state of quick reading. Perhaps take a dance break the next time you find yourself doom-scrolling?
Phrases like “Can everybody hear me? Okay” (in 2019’s Testament A: MF FKA K-P X KE RIP) ground us in the animate presence of the unseen speakers behind these quotes. Neat, cerebral type manages to tease us with human connection—much like dancing can do—and be tender, too, especially when presented in memoriam, as several works in the exhibition elegize lost colleagues.
The warm body of a spoken word made text sits inside its own ascetic withholding of the pictorial image. Cokes’s employment of typography, sound, color, the rhythm to which the text is unfurled across the screens, and especially the enlarged fonts that stand in for inflected voices that would naturally emphasize some words over others—all this makes for a maximalist approach to citation that would never seem so lively in an academic journal. Meanwhile, his attentiveness to the allegorical questions seeded in America’s latest travesties is put in dialogue with powerful voices in visual culture: “We Have / Witnessed / We Have Witnessed Enough / We Have Witnessed Enough Black / We Have Witnessed Enough Black Death / […] We Have Witnessed Enough Black Death For A Lifetime.” (Saidiya Hartman in Evil.80.Empathy?, 2020)
What do we gain when figurative representation is lost? A quote from Evil.27: Selma (2011), currently on view in Cokes’s institutional solo exhibition at Haus der Kunst and Kunstverein in Munich, proffers that a pre-digital era (before the current dominance of the image) forced those acting in social movements to supply their own “complex mental horizon” for what transformation could look like. While representative images are certainly “mobilizing,” a collective energy mobilized by fantasy or speculation without a pre-existing collective image provides a prism for understanding what is made possible by Cokes’s strategy of distributing his research without pictures.
Cokes’s approach to video holds open that same possibility that the speakers in Evil.27 assign to radio (did you dance yet?): that visual restraint allows for a variegated interpretation of artefacts, rather than the unadulterated consumption of—and obedience to—the evidentiary claims which characterize the daily experience of popular media.
Taylor LeMelle was writer-in-residence at Kunstverein München from April – June, 2022.