Thursday, 13 December 2012

More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness

In one day in Santa Fe in August, before Tom joined me, I visited 6 museums and was pretty disappointed with all their exhibitions. Nothing seemed new or particularly engaging, some work was unegaging and some of the exhibition narratives wandered away from their promises. Then the next day I decided to visit SITE Santa Fe, where I was delighted to discover that the exhibition More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness was on view. It's there till January 6 and then will be at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from March 3 - June 9, 2013.

The exhibition is premised, somehow, on a riff on the Colbert Report October 17, 2005, where Colbert explains the term "truthiness." Although the issues in that video are past, the concept remains appropriate for the discourse of today - falsehood parading as truth for political expediency. All the works in the exhibition address issues of truth and reality, often with humor or irony.  A variety of them caused me to think and rethink ideas and reconsider what I thought I knew. The sense of play caused me to think more actively about the content of the works, as opposed to the response I had had to dOCUMENTA, where the exhibition seemed to be saying "see what awful things you've allowed to happen in the world?! Why aren't you more ashamed?!"
I watched the segment from the Colbert Report early on and it effectively set the stage for the rest of the exhibition. But before viewing that, I had walked into a waiting room where an officious-looking receptiionist told me to take a number and wait.  I took a number from a machine and sat down while she riffled through some papers and glanced at me haughtily. After a few minutes she called my number and I cautiously entered a dark room where there was no one else and saw illuminated shapes of various objects with no particular connection. Having expected something more challenging, I smiled and left. The work, by Mark Dion, was titled "Curator's office" and supposedly replicates a 1950s office from the Minneapolis Institiute of Arts that had been walled off. The imitation office is interesting, but it was the experience of being kept waiting that seemed most real, and I was amused to learn that the officious receptionist is actually the museum's director of development.
Eva and Franco Mattes, Catt, 2010

Next, at the entrance to the gallery was the amusing object that has been used to publicize the exhibition, an irritated-looking taxidermied cat in a cage with a canary sitting above it. This object, created in 2010 by Eva and Franco Mattes, also known as 0100101110101101.ORG, was exhibited in Houston as a work by Maurizio Cattelan, the artists having co-opted his identity. The title, Catt, may be intended as a clue. The multiple layers of reality and fiction in this work: the idea that people believe the work to be by Cattelan but it is not, that the image imitates one on the web, that the fabricator who made is it also employed by Cattelan, that Cattelan himself makes up narratives (the Pope struck by a meteorite, horses suspended from ceilings and walls, pigeons attending the Venice Biennale), the wavering between amusement at the fiction and irritation at the ruse, demonstrate what truthiness can entail.

I wasn't so engaged by the elevator that used mirrors to appear to have an endless shaft by Leandro Ehrlich; enjoyed once again seeing Ai Wei Wei's neolithic pots dipped in house paint;  noted Thomas Demand's photograph of a fictive Oval Office; and loved the accurate reproductions of paintings seen from the back by Brazilian Vik Muniz, who accurately copied the exhibition labels from Van Gogh's Starry Night, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, and Grant Wood's American Gothic; without seeing the painting, you can see where it's been. I was amused by Korean Seung Woo Back's photographs (titled Real World, 2004-06) of the Korean park Ains World, in which he photographs the replicas of world monuments in ways that juxtapose unlikely places, putting Chinese sailboats in New York Harbor, for example. And Sharon Lockhart's large photographs of two preparators installing Duane Hanson's Lunch Break, caught my attention as I tried to figure out which figures were the Hansons and which the preparators.

More powerfully touching are the photographs of Vietnam War reenactments and Iraq war training operations in the United States, taken by An-My Le, who was born in Saigon in 1960 and I just noticed is a 2012 McArthur Fellow. Le lived through the Vietnam War and was a political refugee in the United States before participating in the war re-enactments in order to photograph them.

Sometimes it takes three times for me to "get" a work of art. I learned that about opera many years ago when Richard Strauss's Salome suddenly became powerfully moving the third time I saw it. Sometimes I just am slow to learn. This exhibition was the third time I saw Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's Phantom Truck, 2007. The first time had been at the Venice Biennale several years ago, the second was on an exhibition announcement. Both times I wondered what why anyone would be interested in that big thing in the dark and walked away. In More Real, I finally read the label and learned that Mangano-Ovalle had made it as a physical manifestation of Colin Powell's "evidence" that the Iraqis were manufacturing chemical weapons and moving them in mobile labs. This big truck form in the dark embodies one of the fictions that enabled the Bush administration to start a war against Iraq.
Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Phantom Truck, 2007
 I have very little patience for video, so I was surprised by the power of two of the video installations. I've watched one on the web since I saw the show and it still touches me. This is Pierre Huyghe's video of Anlee, the Japanese manga character he and Philippe Parreno had purchased and then "liberated," making her available for other video artists to use. I Was Gone, 2000, in Two Minutes Out of Time, as the installation about the project is titled.

For the other video, I glanced in, as I usually do, and saw people speaking a foreign language with subtitles translating them saying things like "I think it was because I looked more Jewish," and I thought this must be some recollection of the Holocaust, except many of the interviewees were too young to be survivors. The subtitles sometimes gave two slightly different translations of what I learned was the Polish being spoken. This is Omer Fast's 2003 video Spielberg's List, in which he interviewed extras from Krakow, some of whom were World War II survivors, about how they had been chosen to play either Jews or Nazis in the movie Schindler's List (1993). The interviews were interspersed with scenes of Krakow and bits from the film. Realizing the Krakow is very close to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, I was mesmerized, and chilled, by the juxtaposition of the real and imagined histories.

 I realize that a great many of these works are not new; they date between 2000 and 2009 and have been exhibited frequently and often acquired by museums. Gathered together, they and the other objects and installations in the exhibition continue to have power, humor and intrigue and to be entertaining and feeling-provoking, I hope in a non-truthy way.

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