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Friday, September 05, 2003

Arts & Letters

Imagining America

The American Effect, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, July 3-October 12.




America is now the only superpower in the world, and its power and policies are increasingly under the spotlight of close analysis, which illuminates the often awkward, self-regarding nature of our behavior toward the rest of the planet. America’s often confusing conflation of high-mindedness and realpolitik requires a degree of objectivity to be truly understood; the fascination of others with our popular culture is also, at the same time, accompanied by feelings of anger, even rage, at the way America has bulldozed its way to political positions that underscore the love of power for its own sake — witness our highly successful military action in Iraq, now a troubled occupation of a country that we say we are trying to help but which seems to be equally an intervention based on the geopolitics, and oil, of the area. Even as we export our ideals of justice and democracy, we also cling to the behavior of the insecure bully, determined to punish not only real attacks but imagined slights. Given our isolation as a superpower, it would make sense that resentment against our not-so-oblique motives would increasingly become the reaction of a world at once enraged and deeply afraid of the machinations of America, whose politicians clearly have moved into imperial mode.

The question facing Americans, then, has to do with the intricate, often paradoxical nature of the world’s reaction to hegemony — it appears that we are both loved and hated, embraced as a savior and feared as a conqueror. Given the American penchant for truth-seeking and soul-searching, it would make sense that we address what others think even as we ride roughshod over their lives. As time goes on, it will be important to register not just what we think of the world but also what the world thinks of us. A greater honesty on our part might well vouchsafe a greater degree of reality in the way we appear to, and are seen by, the world around us. The tragedy, it seems to me, is not so much the consequences of our power — that is, the kinds of results brought about by our often myopic thinking — as much as the disingenuousness of our rhetoric, which, while apparently the idiom of truth and righteousness, regularly becomes lost in the troubling decisions of a realpolitik that undermine what we say we have set out to do. We are not the first nation to say one thing and do another, but our emphasis on honesty makes a mockery of the gap between our actions and our words. As a result, we are more vulnerable than most nations in regard to the way we are perceived.

The Whitney Museum’s complicated, sometimes enthralling exhibition, The American Effect, attempts to capture some of the broad range of responses, not all of them critical, to American influence. According to curator Lawrence Rinder, the exhibition “encompasses works made since 1990, the year that marked the end of the Cold War and the rise of America as the sole global superpower.” The show comprises some 47 artists and filmmakers, and three collaborative groups, representing some 30 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South and North America. Given the show’s size, it is hard to generalize, but it is fair to say that the primary emphasis of the exhibits do not directly criticize so much as describe the mixed feelings of so many to a culture whose will to power is accompanied by a disturbing naiveté about the consequences of its decisions. Chinese artist Zhou Tiehai has contributed a large portrait of Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor is portrayed as a political icon, much as Mao was during the years of his reign; it is discomfiting, but also amusing, to see Giuliani portrayed as a heroic leader of international consequence. The humor grows more pointed when viewers recognize that the painting is supported by two balls of elephant dung, a reminder of Giuliani’s antagonism to the work of British artist Chris Ofili in the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation show in 1999. The dung undermines the image of the mayor, derived in large part from Time magazine’s choice of him as person of the year.

So there you have it: an admiring portrait propped up by dung. Giuliani is smiling in heroic mode; the ground behind him consists of soft clouds in yellow, orange, and purple. It is a heroic portrait that references the mayor’s attempt to guide the expression of culture — an example of power made absurd by smallness of mind. The putdown is as central to the image’s message as its would-be apotheosis of a man who did rise to the occasion during the tragic history of September 11. There is a video entitled, President Bill Clinton, Memphis, November 13, 1993 (2000), by the British artist Maria Marshall; it consists of a soundtrack of her seven-year-old son declaiming part of a speech made by Clinton in Memphis, in which he praises the role of work in a successful, structured American family. The visual component of the video says something different, however. It is an image of Marshall’s two sons unwrapping presents that fill a large room. This work offers another divided view of American culture, ironically undercutting President Clinton’s high rhetoric with a vision of overwhelming materialism. The point is well taken and supports what has been happening in art worldwide for some time: namely, that images are no longer made for formal reasons or as examples of beauty, but are social and political commentary, with the result that nothing can be taken as imagery alone. Rather, we must parse the irony we feel as a way of talking about context, that is, the social conditions that are deemed at least as important as the art itself.

There is nothing wrong in making art that addresses our mores; however, it does put the emphasis on interpretation of the artifact more than its experience. And one wonders whether and why the art being made today is often no more than a transparent expression, intellectually given, of social frustrations that would better be addressed through political action. The art in The American Effect isn’t a call to arms so much as a complaint addressing conditions outside the world of the image itself. There is, then, an inherent alienation to the position in which artists find themselves; they create in the spirit of an irony that can undermine the thesis the art means to deliver. A good example of this in the exhibition is the installation by French artist Gilles Barbier, who offers visitors an environment peopled by aging and infirm superheroes. Entitled Nursing Home (2002), the work depicts the Incredible Hulk in a wheelchair and a fragile Superman supporting himself with a walker; Mr. Fantastic’s extended limbs have not snapped back to their normal proportions, with the result that they spill out across a table and across the floor. The installation’s general effect is funny, but the message is pointed: America can no longer rely on its superheroes to take on the difficulties of the world. During my visit to the exhibition, a class of young students was avidly taking in the tableaus of weakness and desiccation; here was art that could talk to kids by making art in kids’ terms.

Sometimes the desire to emulate American culture causes admirers to go to absurd lengths — there are a group of photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, taken from the series, German Indians (1997-98), which is devoted to displaying the remarkable detail Germans have come up with in their recreation of Native American costumes. It is humorous, but not necessarily reassuring, to see a very blonde young woman in full Indian regalia. Beyond commenting on the ease with which people take on identities of other cultures, the photographs look to a different kind of American: the native-born, as opposed to the immigrant. The humorous disconnect between the obsessively detailed costume and non-Indian features of the Germans wearing such clothing points out the troubling moral ambiguity of white people appropriating the identity of a marginalized people, who remain vulnerable to the depredations of a dominant white culture. I am sure the Germans intend no harm — indeed, their obsessive interest has historical precedent in the novels of Karl May — yet it remains clear that the elegiac nature of their pose only reinforces the recognition that Native Americans are here represented by an imagined participation in their existence; no actual Indians are found. As a result, the fantasy becomes more truthful than the reality, a switch seen commonly in American cultural praxis.

The Indian theme is taken up by Fiona Foley, who comes from the Badjtala people in Australia. She poses as a Seminole woman in Wild Times Call 6 (2001), wearing a native dress and standing beside a dugout canoe in a clearing before water. She could easily pass for a Seminole; indeed, in Wild Times Call 2 (2001), she stands in front of a group of Seminole men, whose skin coloring matches her own. The suggestion of racial solidarity is clearly worked out in these sepia-toned images, which play off the kind of easy generalizations viewers can make about persons of color. Ousmane Sow, a sculptor from Senegal, recreates the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn; the sculptures, a bit larger than life, are configured from wire, cloth, and mud; they are mute but speak volumes about the disgraceful treatment Native Americans received at the hands of white people in the nineteenth century. There is the feeling that, in their treatment of aboriginal peoples, artists of color identify with the plight of the people they portray; one way to Americanize the way nonwhites are currently being treated is to see precedents in American history, something both Foley and Sou do. As a result, current mistreatment is given a large historical background, with the intention that we see the injustice clearly, as part of a culpable tradition.

Japanese artist Miwa Yanagi’s photograph of an older woman riding in a motorcycle sidecar across the Golden Gate Bridge is the result of technological opportunity; the image of the woman, bright red hair flying and mouth open in what seems to be ecstatic laughter, and the young man driving the motorcycle was grafted onto the background of the bridge using computer software. It is in every way a fantasy of pleasure and freedom, a paean to the trouble-free, eroticized existence apparently available even to the elderly in America. As the grandmother says in Yanagi’s accompanying text, “My grandkids, even if we met, we probably wouldn’t recognize each other. When I talked to my grandkids over the phone recently, I told them I’ve been reincarnated, and the one in elementary school cried, asking if I was dead.” Is there a price for pleasure at so late an age? It doesn’t seem so in this panoramic view of unadulterated enjoyment, typical of what many believe America is about. The fact that it is an Asian woman in the sidecar only underscores the increased presence of Asians in America; the pursuit of happiness she so obviously feels has become the democratic right of everyone, people of color as well as Anglo-Saxons.

In a response to American military might, South Korean artist Yongsuk Kang pictures the devastated landscape left by 50 years of American test-bombing in South Korea, at the Kooni Firing Range on Nong Island. According to Rinder, many villagers living nearby in Maehyang have been killed or hurt; as Kang writes, “My photos of Maehyang village are not true war photos, but photos of military exercises. However, although America is our ally, its military exercises are like a real invasion, a real war.” The ruined landscapes he portrays are not allegorical but very terribly real, and so Kang documents the tragic effects of war games on a country allied to American interests. The utter bleakness of these denuded hills and stark plateaus show us the kind of destruction that can be visited on friends, despite American high-mindedness. One sees a different landscape in Jay’s Garden, Malibu (2001), in which Canadian-born filmmaker Mark Lewis has adult-movie actors walk through a beautiful garden designed by landscape architect Jay Griffith. The silent film documents the random movements of the suggestively dressed porn stars as they negotiate the artificial beauty of the landscape, in which the erotic possibilities of real sexual contact combine with the sensuous suggestions of the flowers and trees in a highly designed garden. Whatever utopias may be constructed in this set of circumstances are both exquisitely real and highly suspect, based as they are on false ideals of intimacy and nature.

The actual range of the art I have mentioned plays out in broader, more positive terms than might have been expected. In fact, the responses of the artists are on the whole less critical than originally imagined; for example, one needs only to look at the exuberantly fashioned model buildings of Congo artist Bodys Isek Kingelez, who in New Manhattan City 3021 (2002) conjures a bright new future for a remade downtown Manhattan. His vision of the city in the next millennium is colorful and energetic — surely not the elements of a pessimistic vision. It may be that the world continues to see America’s promise, if not its current actuality, as benevolent; there is in any case a complicated reaction to our mores, which are not so much historical as naively absolute: by forgetting about the past, we can concentrate on the utopia of the future, with our present locked into a promising, if complicated, purgatory. Indeed, the catalogue essays by writers, including Luc Sante, Edward Said, and Ian Buruma, speak favorably of American ways in a number of instances. Even the essay by Egyptian exile Nawal El Saadawi, entitled “Exile and Resistance,” positively comments on her position as a visiting professor in America, at the University of Southern Maine: “[I]n the classroom, I plunge myself into an exhilarating and stimulating intellectual exchange. Here I am not an Arab, or a Muslim, or a terrorist, but a human being amongst human beings. Here I have no gender, or class, or color, or religion.” The quotation is interesting in that it claims a utopian stance, unfettered by the usual contingencies of background. While the tone of El Saadawi is plaintive, she nonetheless finds solace in the democracy of an American classroom, where she sees herself as completely human. However monstrous American military and political actions may be, our culture also holds out the promise of freedom, making our vision a genuinely complex phenomenon, with good as well as bad. And to the artists’ credit, this comes through in much of their art.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to greekworks.com.
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