THAT WAS THEN… THIS IS NOW
Curated by Alanna Heiss and Neville Wakefield
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave at 46th Ave
Long Island City, New York 11101
June 22-September 22, 2008
I Need More Tact To Change the World.
Ideologically speaking, we are currently flooded with the hurricane of the presidential election only further dramatized by the economic woes slaying Wall Street. It seems as though P.S. 1 staged their exhibition, That Was Then…This is Now, at a conveniently opportune moment. The exhibition, “inspired by the artistic and socio-political climate of the late 1960’s” is almost scarily relatable to the present day. Dueling war controversies, mirrored volatile youth and a similar looming fear of instability provokes a haunting similarity. Infused with artistic renderings from the 1960’s through the present, the exhibition is broken into three sections: Flags, Weapons and Dreams. All three sections are united by a claimed “desire to mobilize art as a means of change.”
I was coerced into the Flag room first, hypnotized by the humming of the National Anthem and drones of traditional American flag substitutes. I was immediately drawn to the far end of the room to a massive photographic silkscreen by Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Questions) (1991) was one of the few, if not the only, image without the actual stars and stripes incorporated into the image. The print, standing at a little over five feet tall, inquires about assumed rights and ideals of an “American.” It abrasively asks “Who is beyond the law?”, “Who speaks? Who is silenced?” and “Who Prays Loudest?” Kruger attacks our personal sense of national power and reveals the cutthroat hysteria occasionally associated with national pride. Instead of the gleaming white stars, she instructs us to “Look for the Moment When Pride Becomes Contempt.” Directly opposite Kruger’s piece stands Hans Haacke’s Collateral (1991), a rusty, defeated shopping cart plump with silk screened metal buttons bearing American flags. The seemingly brand spanking new buttons, beaming with “Go! Go! Go! ” and “May God bless the victory of the Allied Troops,” attempt to override the decrepit cart with the impenetrable American spirit. It seems as though a World War II veteran left these in his garage post-war and everything aged but the buttons. Are these only brought out in times of need and devastation, as can be compared to the flux of American nationalism post-9/11? Haacke portrays the determination of the American spirit along with its superficiality all in one sitting. Presentation of the American flag is overdone and rarely unique, a reason furthermore not to let it wave whimsically through our thought process and personal decision-making.
The Dangerous Norm
The Weapons section, predominantly filled with a catalogue of weapons as objects and in images, proved to be less than I’d hoped for. I found interest, however, in Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964) and Gregory Green’s NUC.DEV.ED#2 (10 Kilotons Plutonium 239) (1997). Warhol’s image, a grainy black and white print of a disquieting dance between two police officers and several African Americans, has an unpredictable potential energy that soars out of the frame. Eerily dramatic, it prompts a survey of which is more dangerous: the weapons we know the cops eventually exercised or the racist attitude that became the unquestionable norm. Green’s piece, an American Little League baseball within the protective encasing of a radioactive substance, weighs the destructive power of a seemingly innocent American ideal. Potentially as hot-blooded as an unstable chemical, ‘the norm’ and absurdist projections of perfection have the capability to poison those willing to accept it and manifest all types of nonsense. There is a deeper intricacy to weaponry than this section was able to portray, but thankfully the poignant stealth of personal arms was not disregarded.
Placed in the smallest room of the three segments, the Dreams section boasted several videos and some interesting activist graphics. Emory Douglas’ posters, especially You Can Jail a Revolutionary but You Can’t Jail the Revolution (1969-70) struck me as necessary but still enticing due to the interplay of word and the bright screen printed images (I’m a sucker for activism and psychedelia). The crème de la crème for this section was Josephine Meckseper’s March for Peace, Justice and Democracy 4/29/06 (2007). The video is candid footage of both participants and authority figures attending the march in New York City against the war. The phrase “You shall hear nothing, you shall see nothing, you shall think nothing, you shall be nothing” loops jarringly in the background. Initially the protesters are shown in black and white, while the police are shown in color. A kaleidoscope effect comes into play, morphing individual buildings at first and eventually protesters, policemen, painted hippies, and trash cans into an inverted circus spectacle. This effect reveals the fractured nature of our concentrated society; even in striving toward the same goal individuals are continuously segmented. The use of color, focused mostly on authority figures and stereotypical hippie-types, combined with the voice over provoke the question I’ve been asking myself since 9/11: who knows? Are the authorities, with an unidentified depth of knowledge, the colored protesters with ‘peace and love’ ideals, or the monochrome (United? Contrasting?) protesters in the march wrestling for a cause and blindly succumbing to a political trend? Our view is constantly fragmented unless we take the time to do exactly the opposite of what Meckseper’s sound bite suggests: hear, see, think and be.
Introspection v. Progress
Falling just short of being a truly eye-opening experience, That Was Then…This is Now underwhelmed me with the sheer amount of catalogue-like inclusions due to the nature of the set up. Guns and flags, already rampant in the media, presented plainly and as they are may incite awe or shock but don’t necessarily “mobilize art as a means of change.” However, the images discussed above enforce the extreme shallowness of the term “American” and accentuate the ignorance of standing behind any ideal without understanding the gravitation toward a black hole upon blind acceptance. Successful aggravation of the system follows from the onslaught of a strong message, not a laundry list of grievances.
By LYNN MALISZEWSKI
Lynn Maliszewski is assistant of Jan Van Woensel since May 2007
Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, art critic and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the curatorial advisor of Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer and curator of Studio Philippe Vandenberg. Van Woensel is professor at CCA, dept of Curatorial Practice in San Francisco; Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles; and NYU, dept of Art and Art Professions in New York. Office Jan Van Woensel, a team of assistant curators supervised by Van Woensel, works with international clients such as private collectors, art galleries and artists on exhibitions. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org http://icpabackstage.blogspot.com
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