Searing documentary photographs of a war-ravaged country exposed as elaborately staged fakes. Irreplaceable Neolithic urns, dipped in bright, industrial paint that obscures their ancient markings. Vintage models and films from an early 20th-century theme park on Coney Island, revealed as an elaborate fiction. These and other works of art, which blur notions of reality and truth, are the subjects of a new exhibition organized by Elizabeth Armstrong, contemporary art curator and director of the Center for Alternative Museum Practice (CAMP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA).
Presented in collaboration with SITE Santa Fe, More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness takes satirist Stephen Colbert’s coined term, “truthiness”—fabricated truths, without regard to fact or logic—as its starting point to explore the unstable relationship between fact and fiction in the 21st century. Unprecedented technological change and global social upheaval over the past 100 years have caused a dramatic shift in our collective perception and experience of reality. Once agreed-upon beliefs, or “truths,” have been cast into doubt.
Through the eyes of a global gathering of 21st-century artists, the exhibition More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, opening March 21 in Target Galleries, asks questions such as:
In a world where new technologies can radically reshape the original experience being depicted, how do we define what is real?
How do we navigate between truthiness and deception in everyday life?
When can fiction be truthful?
The More Real? exhibition presents 60 works by 28 international artists, including: Ai Weiwei, Seung Woo Back, Zoe Beloff, Cao Fei, Thomas Demand, Mark Dion, Leandro Erlich, Omer Fast, John Gerrard, Johan Grimonprez, Iris Häussler, Jonn Herschend, Pierre Huyghe, Bertrand Lavier, Joel Lederer, Sharon Lockhart, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Eva and Franco Mattes, Jonathan Monk, Vik Muniz, An-My Lê, Trevor Paglen, Walid Raad, Dario Robleto, Eve Sussman, Mary Temple, and Yes Men.
In their work for the exhibition, these artists strike a chord between the playful, the enigmatic, and the deadly serious. At a time when the relationship between fact and fiction has never been murkier, they explore a shifting sense of what is—or is not—real, and ponder the consequences of not understanding the difference.
The Artists and The WorkSkip to the Artist Biographies
Broken into three thematic sections—Deception and Play: From Trompe l’oeil to the Authentic Fake; The Status of Fact: Unreliable Narrators, Parafiction, and Truthiness; and Reshaping the Real: Cinema, Memory, and the Virtual—the exhibition presents work across a variety of traditional and experimental mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, video, sound, and online installations.
Highlights of the works on view include:
Each of these highlighted works put pressure on contemporary notions of authenticity, veracity, historicism, and originality. In doing so, they create a sense of discomfort that asks viewers to examine more deeply the often-felt impulse to accept presented facts and images at face value.
- CA—Christopher Atkins
- JD—Janet Dees
- IH—Irene Hoffman
- JR—Joan Rothfuss
- NS—Nicole Soukup
Ai WeiweiBorn 1957 in Beijing; lives and works in Beijing
Sculpture, installation, architecture, ceramics, photography, video, the Internet: these are just a few of the mediums that Ai Weiwei has used during an audacious career spanning three decades. Because he has embraced so many means, his work is breathtakingly disparate. He has fashioned irreverent sculptures from disassembled antique Chinese furniture. He installed nine thousand children’s backpacks on the facade of a German museum to commemorate those lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Through his architecture studio, FAKE Design, he has overseen plans for a large urban development in Inner Mongolia and has served as artistic consultant for the design of the stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has been a blogger, a publisher, and a curator. What unites all these activities is his deep engagement with Chinese history and culture, both past and present, and his commitment to telling the truth as he sees it. His favorite word, he has said, is act.¹
One of Ai’s most notorious acts is the 1995 performance for the camera in which he dropped a Han dynasty urn onto a brick floor, where it smashed to bits. Ai has downplayed the intentionality of his action, saying that he simply allowed the urn—a stand-in for Chinese history, tradition, and culture—to be “grabbed by weight and gravity.” ² Still, the photographs document an act of iconoclasm that is only slightly tempered by the knowledge that an old object was sacrificed in order to create a new one: Ai’s performance.
In 2003 Ai began to expand on this theme with the series Colored Vases, which he made by dipping Neolithic clay vases in buckets of Japanese-made industrial household paint. When first confronted with these objects, one wonders whether the vases could possibly be real: has Ai actually painted over dozens of irreplaceable antiquities? But Colored Vases is far more complex than this simple question implies. First, Neolithic pots are fairly commonplace and thus relatively inexpensive, whereas Ai Weiwei’s works are highly sought after by collectors. Second, it is far from clear that Ai used genuine ancient vases in the work. When asked directly about their provenance, he has been evasive. One is left to wonder about the status of the Colored Vases—whether they are more desirable as ruined originals or enhanced fakes. —JR
- Ai Weiwei, interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in Ai Weiwei (London: Phaidon, 2009), 40.
- Quoted in Dario Gamboni, “Portrait of the Artist as an Iconoclast,” in Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn; Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE–2010 CE (Glenside, PA: Arcadia University Art Gallery, 2010), 86.
Seung Woo BackBorn 1973 in Taejon, South Korea; lives and works in Seoul, South Korea
“I am a dreamer endlessly floating in my own distorted world.”¹ Seung Woo Back has said this of himself, but he could also be describing visitors to Aiins World, a theme park in Bucheon, South Korea. Aiins World is a fantasyland that offers miniaturized versions of more than seventy world heritage sites and landmarks, some of which feature special visual and sound effects. Visitors can photograph themselves in front of Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or a smoking Mount Kilimanjaro without having to visit the actual sites. But the illusions proffered by Aiins World also contain jarring discontinuities. Tiny Hong Kong junks and ironclad Korean turtle boats float in the waters off Manhattan, where King Kong hangs from the top of the Empire State Building. Concrete backdrops, intended to make visitors’ snapshots more “authentic” by isolating the miniature buildings from the city around them, do not completely obscure the modern skyline of Seoul, which sprawls just thirteen miles to the east.
Seung Woo Back has explored the compressed, distorted landscape of Aiins World in his photographic series Real World I (2004–6). As critic Francis Hodgson has noted, however, Back refused to photograph the park as it was intended to be photographed.² His pictures consistently take the “wrong” angle, emphasizing the park’s many anachronisms and bizarre juxtapositions and revealing, rather than concealing, the actual real world that spreads out beyond the park. In one image, the Great Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza are dwarfed by a banal elevated roadway and nondescript contemporary buildings that loom in the background. In another, a row of trees partially obscures the Louvre; behind it, Manhattan skyscrapers stand shoulder to shoulder with Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers. Back emphasizes the oddity of these scenes by adhering to established formal conventions. Like architectural photographs, his compositions are balanced and evenly lit; as with traditional Asian paintings, their elements are gradually “staged” from foreground to background.³
Real World I is typical of Back’s interest in hyperreal experiences that question the relationship between ontological reality and visual reality.&sup4; A related series, Blow Up (2005–7), came out of Back’s visit to Pyongyang, North Korea. Tours of the city are strictly regulated, and visitors who take snapshots must submit their film to security guards for examination (and sometimes confiscation). When Back returned home, he noticed details in his negatives that had escaped the North Korean censors. He isolated and enlarged these details to make the photographs that constitute Blow Up. In both these series, Back commits an act of quiet civil disobedience by insisting that he be allowed to see the world in the “wrong” way. —JR
- Seung Woo Back, in Real World: Seung Woo Back (Tokyo: Foil, 2007), unpaged.
- Francis Hodgson, “Seung Woo Back: Real World,” Portfolio, no. 41 (2005): 4.
- See the essays by Seung Woo Back and David Campany in Real World: Seung Woo Back, unpaged.
- For further discussion of this topic, see Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).
Zoe BeloffBorn 1958 in Edinburgh, Scotland; lives and works in New York
In her work—which encompasses film, video, interactive media, installation, and drawing—Zoe Beloff looks for ways to make tangible the inner workings of the unconscious mind. She begins each project by choosing a historical document, event, or artifact, usually one that contains elements of both science and spectacle. From there, she elaborates, conjures, invents, and fabricates until she has built a narrative that seamlessly merges fact and fiction. Her project The Somnambulists (2007), for example, comprises five miniature dioramas into which she projected early twentieth-century films, both real and imagined, of psychiatric patients in the throes of hysteria. In The Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C. (2005), she used stereoscopic images and surround sound to re-create séances held between 1904 and 1912 by Eva C., the celebrated French spirit medium. Beloff has in fact called herself a medium, “an interface between the living and the dead, the real and the imaginary.”¹ Her work inhabits the same liminal space.
Dreamland: The Coney Island Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle, 1926–1972 began with Beloff’s research into the (actual) 1909 visit by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to Coney Island, New York’s storied amusement park. The installation that she eventually created revolves around the purported activities of a group of enthusiastic Freudians and amateur filmmakers, whose archive of drawings, photographs, objects, and short films Beloff “discovered” in the basement of one of its members.² One of the project’s main components is a working architectural model supposedly based on designs by the society’s founder, Albert Grass, who imagined rebuilding the Coney Island attraction Dreamland according to strict Freudian principles. Grass planned five pavilions—arranged around a gargantuan statue of a prepubescent girl called the Libido and linked by a circular Train of Thought—that would give visitors a serious but fun introduction to Freud’s theories on the formation of dreams. The society’s archive also includes a proposed version of bumper cars called Engines of the Id and the Psychical Apparatus; plans for funhouse mirrors labeled Ego, Superego, and Id; and a cache of short films whose Freudian overtones seemed so purposeful that Beloff deduced that they must have been made by members of the society in an effort to analyze their own dreams.³
For this project Beloff combined the roles of curator, archivist, and artist. Where one role begins and another ends is deliberately left vague. Did the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society actually exist? “That’s a good question,” says Beloff. “What do you think?”&sup4; —JR
- See the artist’s biography on her website, http://www.zoebeloff.com/pages/biography.html.
- Beloff describes the genesis and contents of the project in an essay in The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle (New York: Christine Burgin, 2009), 51–103. See also Dreamland: The Intimate Politics of Desire; Zoe Beloff in Conversation with Niels Van Thomme, Art Papers 34 (July–August 2010): 26–31.
- John Strausbaugh, “The Case of Sigmund F. and Coney I.,” New York Times, July 26, 2009. The so-called Dream Films are actually based on the home movies that Beloff has collected for many years.
Cao FeiBorn 1978 in Guangzhou, China; lives and works in Beijing
One of the most celebrated artists to come of age in post-1989 China, Cao Fei uses video, photography, and performance to explore the profound effects of globalization and hypercommodification on contemporary culture. To make her work, she has delved into phenomena such as video games, cosplay (short for “costume play”), anime, and the online virtual world known as Second Life. All her works address the twin conditions of liberation and alienation that accompany rapid cultural change.
The three-part video i.Mirror (2006–7) takes place within the so-called grid, or world, of Second Life. Users create online personas, or avatars, to meet, socialize, and trade goods with other users, often enacting desires that they might repress in real life. In i.Mirror we follow China Tracy, Cao Fei’s own avatar, as she wanders the grid, which (like the real world) is variously utopian, apocalyptic, deserted, and overbuilt. She encounters another user’s avatar, Hug Yue; as their virtual selves explore together, their real selves discuss the appeal of a game in which one’s identity is a fluid construct. Hug Yue observes, “There is a crossover between RL [real life] and SL…it is hard to separate feelings,” and China Tracy wonders, “Is my avatar my mirror?” Ultimately a meditation on loneliness and the difficulty of connecting with others, the video ends with this observation: “To go virtual is the only way to forget about the real darkness.”
Following i.Mirror, Cao Fei created her own virtual utopia, RMB City, within the Second Life grid. Named for renminbi, the official currency of the People’s Republic of China, RMB City extends the hyper-development of contemporary China into the virtual world of Second Life. Cao Fei’s creation is a hybrid of China’s largest industrialized cities and iconic locales. Three Gorges Dam flows onto Tiananmen Square, for example, while a Ferris wheel operates atop the Monument to the People’s Heroes. The artist has called RMB City “a kind of imitation, a dramatic mimicry, an attempt to capture and mirror in a theatrical manner the building and development of an urban center.”¹ The site—developed by Cao Fei/China Tracy into an experimental playground for performances, collaborations, and games—extends her own aesthetic sensibilities by conflating past and present, East and West. —JR
- Cao Fei, in the video interview “The Building of RMB City,” on the website for the PBS television series Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.art21.org/artists/cao-fei/videos.
Thomas DemandBorn 1964 in Munich; lives and works in Berlin and Los Angeles
In his work Thomas Demand plays with the assumption that the camera cannot lie, that what one sees in a photographs reflects a visible truth. His images appear to represent actual architectural spaces, but in fact they depict life-size models that he builds solely for the purpose of photographing them. These sculptures are based on images that he collects from the mass media, but they do not re-create any single image. Instead they draw on the myriad pictures, memories, and descriptions of a place that have circulated in the culture. Among his past subjects are the corridor outside the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, the interior of Jackson Pollock’s barn studio, and Saddam Hussein’s kitchen hideout. Regarding his method of choosing subjects, Demand says: “I’m interested in how these images get to me. What path do they take? Why do they get stuck in my head?”¹
Demand’s series Presidency I–V was commissioned by the New York Times to accompany Jonathan Mahler’s story “After the Imperial Presidency,” which was published shortly after the U.S. presidential election in 2008.² Demand chose as his subject the iconic seat of American political power, the Oval Office. He began by collecting thousands of images of the space from the media and popular culture. He then mixed and matched elements from those images until he found what he calls “a happy medium between the myth of this room and the reality of it.”³ Using paper, cardboard, confetti, and other ephemeral materials, Demand and his assistants constructed a 1:1 scale model of the hybrid. Demand then photographed the model from several angles.
Demand’s constructed site is both uncannily familiar and strangely bloodless. One might recognize, for example, the drapes used by George W. Bush during his presidency or the flooring that appears in photographs of the Ronald Reagan Oval Office. The rug, which is made of confetti, replicates one used in the television show The West Wing. A longer look reveals that certain details have been omitted, such as the stars on the American flag, the facial features in photographs, and the text that encircles the presidential seal. One might see flaws in the construction paper or realize that the furniture is slightly misshapen.
As these features reveal themselves, the truth of Demand’s seemingly objective depiction is undermined. The instability of these images suggests the fleeting nature of political power; moreover, because Demand has titled the series after the symbolic office of the presidency rather than the literal workspace, the images also seem to embody the ways in which presidential power can be used in support of a whole range of supposed truths. —NS
- Quoted in an interview with Brigitte Werneburg, “Memory Animation,” 032c, no. 18 (Winter 2009–10): 64.
- Jonathan Mahler, “After the Imperial Presidency,” New York Times Magazine, November 9, 2008.
- Thomas Demand, in “Thomas Demand’s Presidency,” video interview for Deutsche Welle TV, http://vodpod.com/watch/2357729-thomas-demands-presidency.
Mark DionBorn 1961 in New Bedford, Massachusetts; lives and works in New York
Mark Dion’s best-known sculptures are his seductive and often fantastical cabinets of curiosity. Modeled on seventeenth-century Wunderkammern (literally, “chambers of wonder”), Dion’s displays are filled with animal, vegetable, and mineral specimens along with what appear to be archaeological artifacts and ethnographic curiosities. He arranges these objects according to a system that depends as much on personal taste as on scientific method. By mimicking the syntax of Wunderkammern—as well as that of natural history and art museums—Dion brings to light the ways in which the collection and display of objects influence our relationship to nature, history, and culture. His artistic methodology is itself one of mimicry: to make his installations, Dion adopts the roles of scientist, curator, archaeologist, and scholar while never pretending to be a specialist in any one field. Instead he plays the enthusiastic amateur, the dilettante. In doing so, he has said, “I’m examining the trappings of authority, the signs of authority.”¹
Playing off the signs of authority within the world of academia, Dion recently created a two-part installation titled Waiting for the Extraordinary (2011). Consisting of a waiting room and a small Wunderkammer, the work was created for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is based on a system from the origins of the school in 1816: the “Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania,” in which the university was to have thirteen professorships, each titled with an invented mash-up of Latin and Greek words. Using this system as a starting point, Dion found objects and props that could best represent these classifications of learning and then had many of these artifacts reproduced using 3-D rapid-prototype technology and coated them in phosphorescent paint. Through modern technology, the Wunderkammer becomes a hybrid representation of the past and present. But Dion’s installation requires visitors who wish to enter to first take a number and wait their turn, simulating the banal experience of waiting encountered in most every institution.
Dion’s new installation Curator’s Office (2011–12), commissioned for the exhibition More Real?, adds another layer to his exploration of the ways in which collections of objects are formed and used. In his narrative about the piece, Dion claims that he rediscovered an office that was shared in the 1950s by a curator and a registrar employed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This office supposedly was part of the museum’s original McKim, Mead, and White building but was forgotten after being sealed off during a renovation project. Dion’s installation—with its vintage furniture, defunct office equipment, and forgotten artworks—is thus a droll version of the archaeological site that has been discovered intact.
Within the context of a museum exhibition, however, Curator’s Office also becomes a “period room,” an installation of objects, furnishings, and architecture meant to illustrate a historical moment by re-creating its interior domestic spaces. Period rooms are popular museum attractions that are both authentic (in their contents) and false (in their detachment from their original contexts). As such, these displays pose complex museological questions: How does a curator decide which moment in time to re-create? How authentic can a retrospectively assembled room be? How does one maximize both accuracy and educational impact?² Because Curator’s Office highlights the ways in which one person’s obsessions, sensibilities, and prejudices shape a museum’s collections, it can be read as a metanarrative on the problems posed by period rooms. “Today’s museums demonstrate rather than seduce,” Dion has said.³ In Curator’s Office, he aims to do both. —NS
- Mark Dion, in the video interview “Mark Dion: Methodology,” on the website for the PBS television series Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.art21.org/videos/short-mark-dion-methodology.
- For discussion of these questions and others, see Trevor Keeble, Brenda Martin, and Penny Sparke, eds., The Modern Period Room: The Construction of the Exhibited Interior, 1870 to 1950 (New York: Routledge, 2006).
- Lawrence Weschler, "The Irritated Cloud: Mark Dion in Conversation with Lawrence Weschler," in The Marvelous Museum: Orphans, Curiosities, and Treasures; A Mark Dion Project (San Francisco: Chronicle; Oakland: Oakland Museum of California, 2010), 23.
Leandro ErlichBorn in 1973 in Buenos Aires; lives and works in Buenos Aires
Leandro Erlich creates sculptural mirages. He re-creates mundane architectural spaces or elements in meticulous detail and then somehow disrupts them, offering viewers an uncanny or disorienting experience. Staircases, windows, elevators, and swimming pools appear to defy basic laws of physics, while living rooms, lobbies, and subway cars appear so real that they elicit double takes. In Rain (2000), Erlich built a window into a gallery wall, then combined real water and simulated lightning to mimic a thunderstorm raging endlessly “outside.” The Swimming Pool (1999) was a full-size re-creation of a pool that he constructed at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Viewed from above, it offered a surreal scene: fully clothed people appeared to be walking, talking, and breathing beneath the surface of the water. Only when the piece was seen from its lower level was the illusion unmasked. The people were actually mingling in an empty pool whose ceiling was a large, continuous piece of acrylic with just a few inches of water on it. Erlich says that the element of surprise, so critical to his work, functions as “a way to stop the viewer and make them see that things have varying degrees of reality.”¹
Most recently, Erlich has turned his attention to a banal feature of urban life: the elevator. He thinks of it not only as a convenient means of transport but also as a charged entryway to alternate realities in which, he says, “life seems to be suspended parenthetically.”² He has created a dimly lit, scarred tunnel that mimics an elevator shaft turned on its side; a disorienting maze of cabs fitted with mirrored walls and polished brass; and a full-size cab whose doors open with a chime to reveal a crowd of passengers (actually a video projection) staring out impassively at us. Stuck Elevator (2011) is both frankly fake and weirdly disorienting. Although clearly a freestanding sculpture, it also appears to be an elevator cab stuck between floors, its doors jammed open to reveal a glimpse of the interior. Carefully placed mirrors create the illusion that the shaft plunges downward through the floor of the gallery. A discarded newspaper inside the cab hints at a nightmarish narrative of entrapment and escape. Such optical tricks are meant not to deceive viewers but to present them with a visual problem to be absorbed and then resolved. “Reality,” says the artist, “is as fake and constructed as the art; it's a fiction. Although it's the fiction that we all agree to live in.”³ —IH
- Leandro Erlich, quoted in Elena Oliveras, “Leandro Erlich: Mirages in the Everyday,” ArtNexus, no. 70 (September–October 2008): 6.
- Leandro Erlich, quoted in a press release for the exhibition Two Different Tomorrows issued by Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, September 10, 2011.
- Leandro Erlich, in an October 29, 2008, interview with Paul Laster for Artkrush, posted on the artist’s website, http://www.leandroerlich.com.ar/exhibitions.php.
Omer FastBorn 1972 in Jerusalem; lives and works in Berlin
For more than a decade Omer Fast has created video works that investigate the constructs of the documentary form, in particular the way historical narratives are built through a series of authorial choices. His works explore how history is written during the very the process of its telling—in other words, “how memory becomes story.”¹ Fast uses poetic suggestion to render first-person accounts as, above all, stories, which, he proposes, are fusions of memory and emotion that become intertwined with other memories and emotions. In this way his works reside in the interstices between reality and fiction.
For the video installation Spielberg’s List (2003), Fast interviewed several Poles who worked as extras in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama Schindler’s List (1993), which was filmed near Kraków. Some of the interviewees had actually lived through the war and recounted to Fast their childhood memories of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s List is a carefully edited work in which several layers of reality and fiction intersect to disconcerting effect. The actors’ accounts of their experiences working on the film and their experiences during the war are juxtaposed with images of the Schindler’s List set, which was never completely dismantled and still lies in disrepair not far from the ruins of an actual German labor camp. Watching Fast’s video, it is difficult to ascertain which experience the interviewee is referring to at any given moment. Contributing to the illegibility of the narrative are English subtitles that were intentionally altered to present slightly inaccurate translations.
Fast employed similar strategies in the video installation Godville (2005), which focuses on three reenactors who work at Colonial Williamsburg, a living-history museum in Virginia. Fast interviewed them both as their eighteenth-century characters and as their contemporary selves. He then intertwined the stories to make a new narrative that creates parallels across time periods. A reference to the Revolutionary War segues to a discussion of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; a black actor’s remarks about racism in colonial America resonate with contemporary situations.²
While Spielberg’s List and Godville offer multiple individual perspectives about shared experiences and related historical events, other works focus on the stories of an individual. This strategy heightens our awareness of the role that emotional resonance plays in the formation and linkage of memories. In The Casting (2007), Fast focused on the memories of an American soldier. His recollections of two traumatic incidents—the accidental killing of an Iraqi civilian and a romantic encounter with a woman prone to suicidal behavior—are edited into a series of new thoughts that conflate the incidents into a single narrative. A dual-sided installation allows for the parallel retelling of the events in two forms. On one side, Fast interviews the soldier, who recounts his memories. On the other, reenactments of the narrated events appear. We learn, however, that the man being interviewed is actually an actor auditioning for the role of the soldier. This revelation destabilizes any assumptions about the concrete nature of the memories portrayed, a project that is at the heart of Fast’s work. —JD
- Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “Infinite Jezt,” in In Memory: Omer Fast, ed. Sabine Schaschl (Berlin: Green Box, 2010), 51.
- Holland Cotter, “Is It Reality or Fantasy? The Boundaries Are Blurred,” New York Times, January 7, 2010.
Kianga FordBorn 1973 in Washington, D.C.; lives and works in New York
Believing that our era is characterized most of all by fictiveness, Kianga Ford makes art that explores narrative as a lived and immersive experience. Her works include interactive audio recordings that blend her short fictions with music and oral histories, as well as immersive sound and video installations that create a three-dimensional story experience. In her projects, which are often site-specific, Ford draws variously on the conventions of cinema and television to explore the ways in which we negotiate and are negotiated through the fictions that we tell about one another.
In 2003 Ford began a series of audio walking tours, gathered under the rubric The Story of This Place, which combine fact and fiction to explore a city’s history, communities, and culture. The project so far includes tours of Los Angeles; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Baltimore; and other cities; the tour of the latter, subtitled Charm City Remix (2008), is a forty-five-minute guided walk through Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Participants used iPods to listen to Ford’s narrative, a fictional history of real places that was based on her conversations with city residents. An original sound track, written by a local composer, accompanied the stories. Ford has described Charm City Remix as “a provocation to look at the place you’re in in a different way, to look at the people around you in a different way…I want that moment when it all comes together—the light, the music, the narrative, the people—to inspire a sense of, if not awe, then connectedness.”¹
In a piece commissioned for More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness, Ford combines her project series The Story of This Place and You Are Here. The new work is a multipart narrative that guides visitors on walking tours of sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The tours reflect on the complex landscape of immigration in the region, which has become home to large numbers of Scandinavians, Hmong, and Somali, as well as other groups, over the past century. Ford’s narratives were developed from material gathered during interviews and oral history workshops that she conducted with area residents. Engaging a range of migration and immigration experiences, Ford’s new piece “reflects on…the different experiences of a visit, which imagines a return; a pilgrimage, which marks a personal life milestone but is never imagined to be permanent; and a migration, which permanently re-orients.”²
A unique feature of her project for MIA is an audio tour that maps a fictional geography within the galleries of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts itself. As visitors walk though the museum’s collections of Asian, African, Near Eastern, and European art, they listen to a story that engages the objects in a way that is more poetic than interpretive. In this iteration of You Are Here, Ford combines fact, fiction, conjecture, and truth to connect the art preserved within the museum to the changing communities that surround it. —IH
- Kianga Ford, in “Charm City Remix (Baltimore),” YouTube video, 5:27, posted by MovingBoxStudios, October 2, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQDxLpu182E.
- Kianga Ford, undated project proposal for More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, Minneapolis Institute of Arts files, .
John GerrardBorn 1974 in Dublin, lives and works in Dublin and Vienna
Each of John Gerrard’s astonishingly realistic digital projections begins with the thousands of still photographs that he takes at specific locations all over the world. With the help of a producer and an animator, he then turns the images into computer-generated, real-time 3-D videos that are exacting simulations of the real world. Within these uncanny realms, something happens: an oil derrick stoops repetitively to the ground, trucks arrive at a pig production facility to take the animals to slaughter, a dust storm sweeps across a barren Texas landscape. While each of these small dramas is completely plausible, Gerrard’s videos are more than just well-constructed digital fictions. Each one plays out against real-time atmospheric conditions, such as changes in the weather, sunrise, sunset, and the phases of the moon. Gerrard makes graphic translations of these conditions and programs them into the work. Viewing his work, one is thrust into a liminal world in which what one sees is both true and false.
Looking at Gerrard’s Oil Stick Work (Angelo Martinez / Richfield, Kansas) (2008), one is struck by the precise rendering of the grain silos, landscape, and weather, which reflects the local atmospheric conditions as they are happening in real time in Richfield, Kansas. What is not always visible in the work is Angelo Martinez, a computer-generated man who mounts a ladder every morning to cover one square meter of the silos with black oil stick. At that rate, the silos will not be blacked out—and the piece will not be completed—until sometime in 2038. “The 30-year trajectory [of the piece],” Gerrard says, “is not an accident. The general understanding is that the replacement of petroleum as our main energy source will happen in that period.”¹ In contrast to the fast pace and instant gratification offered by many video games, this piece foreshadows a moment of reckoning; it is a waiting game that unfurls slowly.
Some of Gerrard’s newest works have begun looking at how the military uses simulations and the fascinating links between video game technology, landscapes, and basic training. Before American soldiers are introduced to live ammunition exercises in the field, they are trained using “full immersion” simulators that have been reformatted from game consoles. Basic-training exercises are combined with the immersive environments and team combat strategy used in first-person shooter games to simulate some of the physical and logistical stresses of being in battle. Gerrard’s Live Fire Exercise (near Djibouti) (2011) is sourced from a military database of videos in which military vehicles are destroyed in a massive explosion.² As the blast erupts over the span of a day, the viewing experience becomes a conflation of the simulated danger, aestheticized destruction, and embedded yet distanced spectatorship that we are now accustomed to when experiencing war coverage. Gerrard’s work has all the sensuousness of beautiful graphics but also contains a commentary about the limits of virtual environments that is deadly serious. —CA
- “How John Gerrard Is Sculpting the Future,” Sunday Times (London), March 14, 2010.
- Djibouti is home to Camp Lemonnier, the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command in the Horn of Africa, and is home to Commander, Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa. It was established as the primary base in the region for the support of Operation Enduring Freedom. See “Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti,” on the Commander Navy Installations Command (CNIC) website, http://www.cnic.navy.mil/cldj/.
Johan GrimonprezBorn 1962 in Roeselare, Belgium; lives and works in Brussels and New York
In his film and video work, Johan Grimonprez uses the tools of mass media to explore the ways in which those media shape our perceptions of reality. “Fictions always proliferate,” he has said. “And at one point they tip over into reality or vice versa. I am interested in how that tipping over occurs.”¹ He has been especially interested in television, which brings a steady diet of disaster and death into our living rooms, thus creating a populace that is both addicted to fear and subdued by it.²
One of Grimonprez’s best-known works is the video Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997). It is a mesmerizing collage of explosions, shootings, airplane crashes, and interviews with skyjackers and victims, punctuated by short “commercial breaks” cut from Hollywood films, cartoons, and TV commercials. Phalanxes of reporters wield telephones, cameras, and microphones as they scramble to get the story; skyjackers and victims alike vie for a few minutes on camera to tell their stories. “Nothing happens until it is consumed,” states the video’s narrator.³ Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y critiques this society of media spectacle by reminding us that events are woven together from many perspectives and that every reading of history is mediated by influences from the larger culture.
Grimonprez continued his investigation of the ambiguous relationship between fact and fiction in the eighty-minute film Double Take (2009), which “stars” Alfred Hitchcock as a paranoid history professor who gets caught up in the Cold War. Like Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the film is a collage of found footage. But its focus on slippages—of memory, identity, and reality—creates an ambiguous narrative in which news footage appears to be fiction, excerpts of Hitchcock’s films look like news, and Hitchcock himself, in clips taken from his TV program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, confronts a doppelgänger played by a professional Hitchcock impersonator. The notion of the double also gives Grimonprez a metaphor with which to explore the absurdity of Cold War politics as enacted by its twin protagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union. As the film’s Hitchcockian voiceover warns, “They say that if you meet your double you should kill him, or he will kill you; two of you is one too many.”&sup4;
In a more recent work, I May Have Forever Lost My Umbrella (2011), Grimonprez treats the theme of the double in a manner more poetic than political. Grimonprez writes: “The footage used in this video was shot with an iPhone [camera] recapturing images found on YouTube. The project quoted from the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, called The Book of Disquiet, but aimed to erase the author’s existence and present alternative personas. Pessoa himself used different names depending on the kind of works he created, and the complex structure of the video imagery was intended to express these various personas.”&sup5; On the sound track of the video, a Portuguese writer reads excerpts from Pessoa’s book, a “factless autobiography” published under the name Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s many fictive personae, or heteronyms.&sup6; The moving images relate to footage that Grimonprez found on YouTube of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan in 2011.&sup7; In its status as a work by multiple authors—Pessoa, his alter ego, and the pseudonymous YouTube videographers, not to mention Grimonprez himself—the project quietly discredits the notion of art as self-expression. Both its text and its images—of earthquakes, floods, and displaced wild animals—suggest fragmentation, loss, absence, and memory. “No one will tell me who I am, nor knows who I was,” begins the sound track, as a deer struggles in neck-deep water. It concludes, “Even if I held the world in my hands, I’d exchange it all for a tram ticket back to Rua dos Douradores.” —JR
- Johan Grimonprez, in Niels Van Tomme, “Constructing Histories: Johan Grimonprez Discusses Double Take,” Art Papers 33 (May–June 2009): 26.
- See Grimonprez’s comments on subvertisement at http://www.zapomatik.com/justdoit.swf.
- The line comes from Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, one of the works that inspired Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.
- See Nancy Princenthal, “Think Again,” Art in America 97 (May 2009): 75.
- Johan Grimonprez, e-mail correspondence with Elizabeth Armstrong, March 19, 2012.
- Richard Zenith, ed. and trans., Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems (New York: Grove, 1998), 8.
- Johan Grimonprez, e-mail correspondence with Elizabeth Armstrong, March 19, 2012. See also Grimonprez’s statement on the piece, posted at http://www.art-action.org/site/en/prog/11/paris/prog_11_21.php.
Iris HäusslerBorn 1962 in Friedrichshafen, Germany; lives and works in Toronto
Iris Häussler’s narrative installations, which range from the sweeping to the succinct, revolve around fictitious histories. Each project begins with a detailed biography of an invented character, which Häussler drafts with a novelist’s eye for detail. She then builds objects or environments that her characters might have used or made, and opens them to the public. Her best-known projects, The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach (2006) and He Named Her Amber (2008–9), were elaborately theatrical, often unsettling environments in which viewers were guided through displays of sculpture purportedly created by characters named Joseph Wagenbach and Mary O’Shea.
Since Häussler is interested in the distinctions between fiction and reality, she does not immediately reveal to viewers that her installations are artworks. On the contrary, she goes to great lengths to ensure that they first experience her historical fictions as truth (later, through various means, she reveals their actual status). Although she is sometimes criticized by people who feel that they have been duped, Häussler remains committed to a gradual unfolding of her works that begins with “naïve, childlike fascination” and ends with a reconsideration of the work in its new context.¹ The entire process raises issues of authorship, artistic intention, and the constantly shifting boundaries between art and life.
Häussler’s latest project concerns a character she calls Ellen Stanley, who was stricken by an unidentified mental illness shortly after giving birth to a daughter in 1923. Stanley spent two years in an insane asylum before returning home and settling into a seemingly pointless but soothing routine: she filled her bathtub with clay, then dug holes in the soft material with her hands and filled the cavities with molten beeswax. Once hardened, the objects were excavated and displayed in her room. In order to maintain a continuous supply of wax, her family periodically removed and melted down the sculptures. At the time of Stanley’s death in 1931, only five of her works remained. These, along with a conical wax sculpture that inspired her, make up the work Ellen’s Gift (2011–12).²
In addition to the themes raised by Häussler’s earlier projects, Ellen’s Gift delves into the cultural issues embedded within women’s histories. Stanley’s mental illness (or “hysteria”) is linked to childbirth, which is in turn linked to her domestic art-making practice. “My fictitious characters use art as a private method to cope with their condition,” Häussler has written.&sub3; Ellen’s method—filling a void and then extracting its contents—symbolically reenacts the processes of conception and birth.&sup4; The equation between art making and childbearing raises additional questions: What is the exact nature of Ellen’s gift? For whom is it intended? In conflating her life with that of her invented (female) character, Häussler performs a doubling that further erases boundaries between history, fiction, reality, biography, and art. —JR
- Cecilia Aldarondo, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Iris Häussler’s He Named Her Amber,” Art Papers 33 (July–August 2009): 35.
- Iris Häussler, “The Bequest of Ellen Stanley” and “Ellen Stanley, 1985–1931,” unpublished texts. The conical wax sculpture that inspired Stanley’s work was by Mary O’Shea, the protagonist of Häussler’s project He Named Her Amber.
- Iris Häussler, “Haptic Conceptualist Manifest,” January 2009, statement on the artist’s website, http://www.haeussler.ca/iris/hapticConceptual.html.
- Häussler has described Ellen’s practice as “sculpting the void.” Iris Häussler, e-mail correspondence with Elizabeth Armstrong, August 16, 2011.
Jonn HerschendBorn 1967 in Branson, Missouri; lives and works in San Francisco
Jonn Herschend uses the familiar tropes of instructive media—the documentary film, the orientation video, the infomercial—as the basis for narratives about emotional confusion, interpersonal relationships, and the seeming impossibility of locating truth in everyday life. His performances, videos, and installations draw viewers into situations that begin as straightforward nonfiction and quickly go astray, often into narratives fraught with absurdity, doubt, and bathos. In the performance Unreliable Narrator (2005), for example, Herschend gave an artist’s talk—a standard event at galleries and museums—that devolved into an awkwardly personal confession of lust, yearning, and confusion. In the video Everything Is Better Now: The Importance of Ambiguity in Life (2007), a philosophical infomercial about reality (it is “just a tool waiting to be manipulated,” says one of the hosts) quickly derails into an argument between the two narrators that ultimately proves their thesis. And in Embrace of the Irrational (2010), a public television–style program about the Romantic tendency in art, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony swells in the background as the narrator quotes the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on the virtues of faith, confusion, and doubt. Almost immediately, technical and personal crises cause the production to fall apart.
Most of Herschend’s works are, like those described above, both poignant and hilarious. On the one hand, he seems to suggest that the human experience will forever be defined by both ambition and failure and that life is inherently ambiguous and unpredictable. (As if to underscore this worldview, he has at times called his video production company by the name Not Working So Well.) On the other hand, he delivers these sobering messages with humor. In fact, Herschend feels that contemporary art has become “too austere.”¹ He wants comedy, in the broadest sense of the word, to be a respectable genre for serious conceptual artists, not just for Hollywood studios and mass-market fiction writers. “I do feel that, as artists, we gave a lot up to the powers that entertain,” he told an interviewer in 2011. “Anything that smacked of narrative or smacked of entertainment—well, there was already a place for that and that’s where people went for it.”²
For More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, Herschend was commissioned to produce a “site-specific fiction” for the exhibition.³ Billed as an introduction to the themes and works in the show, this short video will be installed in a screening room near the main entrance to the galleries. Most visitors will likely assume that the video is what it purports to be, and why wouldn’t they? That, after all, was Herschend’s intention. But after the program introduces the ideas of “more real” and “truthiness,” the host becomes lost in memories, and what should have been an orientation video degenerates into a disorienting, wayward—and funny—fiction. —JR
- Jonn Herschend, in an interview with Bad at Sports, Art Practical 2, no. 14 (April 2011), http://www.artpractical.com/feature/interview_with_jonn_herschend.
- See Herschend’s description of We Are Not Having Any Trouble in Our Department Despite What You’ve Heard (2011), http://jonnherschend.com/projects/welcome-to-den-frie-videoinstallationperfromance.
Pierre HuygheBorn 1962 in Paris; lives and works in New York
Pierre Huyghe’s multimedia works use video, performance, sound, text, architecture, and even puppetry to explore “the circulation of stories and how we can tell stories to each other.”1 His narratives, however, do not follow a standard storyteller’s arc. Rather, they blur art and life through the use of such tactics as dubbing, translation, reenactment, and transposition. In Remake (1994–95), for example, Huyghe made a low-budget version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window with a troupe of amateur French performers and a minimal set. Every shot and line of dialogue is copied from the original, and yet there is a fissure between the two versions that can never be mended. It is this “zone of non-knowledge,” as Huyghe calls it, that interests him.2 In The Third Memory (2000), he projected Sidney Lumet's film Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which was based on the 1972 holdup of a Brooklyn bank by John Wojtowicz, next to his own video of the bank robber reenacting the heist twenty-eight years later. As Wojtowicz acts out his memories, he comments on the veracity of the film version of his life. The Third Memory, whose title references Roland Barthes’s seminal essay The Third Meaning (1970), proposes that when popular culture intersects with real events and personal recollections, a third narrative is created, one that is both true and false.
In 1999 Huyghe and the artist Philippe Parreno jointly purchased the rights to a “blank” manga character—a two-dimensional figure without name or biography—from the Japanese company Kworks. Rather than use the character in a manga comic or cartoon, as intended, Huyghe and Parreno reworked it as an animated 3-D video figure, which they named Annlee. They then “liberated” the figure, initially by inviting a series of artists to use it free of charge in their own artworks and later by legally transferring to Annlee ownership of her own copyright. This final gesture, made in 2002, effectively ended the project, which Huyghe and Parreno titled No Ghost Just a Shell.³ As a whole, the work raises questions about authorship, intellectual property, ghostwriting, and the sale and circulation of images, among other topics.
The video installation Two Minutes Out of Time (2000) is Huyghe’s contribution to No Ghost Just a Shell. In it Annlee stands before a gray void, her eyes blank, and delivers a monologue about what it feels like to be a “deviant sign” detached from its original context as a cartoon character. As she speaks, the narrative point of view shifts from first person to third. Scholar Tom McDonough has pointed out that, in using these strategies, Huyghe seems to have been determined to “liberate” Annlee from attachment to any context whatsoever, thus eliminating her ability to communicate meaning.&sup4; As Huyghe himself has said, Annlee is nothing more than “a character talking about the condition of being a character.”5 In other words, she is just a shell. —NS
- Pierre Huyghe, in the segment “Pierre Huyghe in ‘Romance’" on the website for the PBS television series Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/pierre-huyghe.
- The title of the project refers to Mamoru Oshii’s iconic anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995).
- Tom McDonough, “No Ghost,” October, no. 110 (Autumn 2004): 114.
- Pierre Huyghe, quoted in Amy J. Elias, “The Narrativity of Postconvergent Media: No Ghost Just a Shell and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘(ghost reader C.H.),’” SubStance 40, no. 1 (2011): 184.
Bertrand LavierBorn 1949 in Châtillon-sur-Seine, France
Lives and works in Paris and Aignay-le-Duc, France
Bertrand Lavier’s sculptures, paintings, and site-specific works have been called mutant objects, a phrase that suggests the semiotic ambiguity that characterizes his work as a whole.¹ Rather than inventing things, he conceptually repositions those that already exist, using strategies such as transposition, juxtaposition, and reiteration. For example, he has arranged colored neon tubes to remake Frank Stella’s 1965 stripe painting Empress of India. He has covered a white refrigerator with a coat of thick white impasto, converting an everyday object into a painting of itself, so to speak (and one that still functions as a refrigerator). He makes his “stack” sculptures simply by placing one found object on top another. Confronted by a sofa on top of a freezer, a space heater atop a safe, or a roll of kraft paper standing vertically on a file cabinet, one is forced to consider the symbiosis between sculpture and pedestal as well as the relationship between art and life. Such basic binary concepts as these—as well as high/low, true/false, and original/reproduction—are at the heart of Lavier’s work. Ultimately he is interested the “very small translation” that transforms not-art into art.²
Lavier’s series Walt Disney Productions was inspired by a 1947 cartoon in which Minnie and Mickey Mouse visit a museum of modern art filled with abstract paintings and sculptures whose sinuous curves, wild colors, and strict geometries proffer a generic version of avant-garde art.³ With the help of a computer graphics specialist, Lavier created large-scale, three-dimensional versions of the fictional works, using commercial materials such as polyester resin and ink-jet printing. Their heightened colors and uniform surfaces allude to their origin as cartoons, while their forms evoke handmade objects by early modernists such as Jean Arp and Piet Mondrian. Looking at these works, Lavier has said: “You’re in a parallel world, in front of real paradoxes…These are reproductions of artworks that don’t exist, that are sublimated.”&sup4; When viewers step into an installation of Walt Disney Productions, past and present collapse as they reenact Mickey and Minnie’s museum visit in real time and space.
In his book Travels in Hyperreality, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco proposed that Americans seem to want the past to be preserved and celebrated “in full-scale, authentic copy.” This desire, he writes, “dominates the relation with the self, with the past, not infrequently with the present, always with History, and, even, with the European tradition.”5 Lavier’s Walt Disney Productions are just such “authentic copies,” full-scale fabrications that link American popular entertainment with European high modernist art. “It’s the world turned inside out,” says Lavier, “starting with Mickey Mouse’s décor.”&sup6; —JR
- Pascaline Cuvelier, “Name Games: The Art of Bertrand Lavier,” Artforum 36 (March 1997): 69–71.
- “C’est une toute petite translation qui fait l’oeuvre d’art.” Bertrand Lavier, quoted in Catherine Francblin, Bertrand Lavier (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), 15.
- A later version of the comic, published as “Traits très abstraits,” in Le journal de Mickey, no. 1279 (1977), provided Lavier with the source material for this series. See “Walt Disney Productions de B. Lavier: L’art réalité dépasse la fiction,” Pmspg, le blog des fans de BD Disney, July 4, 2008, http://pmspg.over-blog.com/article-20726860.html.
- Bertrand Lavier, quoted in Cuvelier, “Name Games,” 71.
- Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Harcourt, 1986), 6.
- Bertrand Lavier, quoted in Cuvelier, “Name Games,” 71.
Joel LedererBorn 1971 in Chicago; lives and works in New York
Until recently the relationship between reality and its imitations has been transparent. During the nineteenth century, for example, English gardens were built to mimic those depicted in landscape paintings of the day. During that time, as one writer has noted, “the boundaries between natural/artificial, real/virtual, even nature/culture were blurred…but they still were experienced as real.”¹ Today, however, the lines between the two realms are far less defined. A middle zone of “real virtuality” has emerged.² Joel Lederer has explored this phenomenon in a series of large-scale photographs that document the digitally constructed landscapes of the online virtual world Second Life. The project’s title points to the metaverse, which Lederer defines as a “virtualized environment” in which we interact with others through digital proxies such as cell phones, e-mail, online role-playing games, virtual worlds, and the World Wide Web.³
Like our real-world environment, the Second Life landscape, or grid, is in constant flux as independent users change and shape the spaces. Lederer has said that one of his main challenges in doing this project was determining how best to document a landscape that was constantly changing. He ultimately decided to approach it “with the pioneering spirit of an explorer, wishing to return to civilization with a visual record from a new land.”&sup4; His images, created with the aid of a screen-capture program, are dazzling in their variety and draw on the same established image genres—from cartoons to conventional landscape paintings—that were used by the creators of the Second Life grid itself. Their titles, each a string of numbers that indicate the dates and times of the individual screen captures, reinforce the nature of these landscapes as “nonsites” that can be visited only in virtual space. Through this mirroring and layering of visual syntaxes, Lederer challenges the viewer to determine where one visual trope ends and the other begins. —NS
- Donald E. Jones, “I, Avatar: Constructions of Self and Place in Second Life and the Technological Imagination,” Gnovis 6 (2006): 11; http://gnovisjournal.org/files/Donald-E-Jones-I-Avatar.pdf.
- Joel Lederer, e-mail correspondence with Elizabeth Armstrong, May 4, 2009.
- See Joel Lederer, “The Metaverse Is Beautiful” (artist’s statement), http://www.joellederer.com/the_metaverse_is_beautiful/metaverse_statement.html. The term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash (New York: Bantam, 1992).
- Lederer, “The Metaverse Is Beautiful.”
An-My LêBorn 1960 in Saigon; lives and works in New York
Born in Saigon during the early years of the Vietnam War, An-My Lê grew up in the shadow of violence. She and her family fled the country in 1975, the final year of the war, and settled in the United States as political refugees. Her early experience of life during wartime provides the fodder for her work as an artist, which often explores the myriad ways in which military conflict is represented in American media and popular culture.
Commenting on her series Small Wars (1999–2002), Lê has said, “Instead of seeking the real, I began making photographs that use the real to ground the imaginary.”1 The series seems to depict actual battles but in fact documents Vietnam War reenactments in South Carolina and Virginia. The events, staged by veterans and amateur historians, are meant to be as accurate as possible, even down to the smallest details of costume and setting. To get permission to photograph them, Lê had to agree to actively participate in them. According to the artist, “I added to the authenticity of the event, and they would often concoct elaborate scenarios around my character.”²
The attacks of September 11, 2001, and their impact on the country, led Lê to shift her focus from past to present. Her first impulse was to go to Iraq as an embedded photographer to shoot the conflict there. Unable to get approval for that mission, she turned instead to the Marine Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California, where Marines undergo training before deploying to Iraq. Live fire exercises and artillery, tank, and close air support training are among the operations conducted at Twentynine Palms, which also features a two-acre fabricated Middle Eastern village staffed by native role-players. In the series of photographs Lê made there, 29 Palms: Security and Stability Options, Marines (2003–4), the chaos of military war games is softened by the calmness of the California desert landscape.
Lê’s images are a paradox. On the one hand, their subject matter and straightforward compositions suggest that we are looking at quintessential documentary photographs. And so we are. On the other hand, what they document are real simulations of war rather than actual combat. Her use of a large-format, 5 x 7 view camera and extended exposures contributes to the sense that what we are viewing is theater, while the black-and-white film suggests history, memory, and objectivity. As Lê has pointed out, however, black-and-white is in fact completely removed from reality.³ In the end, her images both are and are not what they seem. —JR
- Richard B. Woodward, “Essay,” in Small Wars (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005), 119.
- Hilton Als, interview with An-My Lê, in Small Wars, 121.
- An-My Lê, in the segment “An-My Lê in “Protest,’” on the website for the PBS television series Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/an-my-le.
Sharon LockhartBorn 1964 in Norwood, Massachusetts; lives and works in Los Angeles
Sharon Lockhart has long been interested in the ability of film and photography to undermine reality and alter our perceptions of everyday life. Her meticulously composed photographs have a staged, cinematic feel, almost as if they are film stills. Their theatricality is heightened because Lockhart’s subjects are often engaged in codified behaviors, rituals, or contrived situations. She has photographed, for example, a girls’ basketball team doing practice drills; children reenacting a scene from a François Truffaut film; factory workers taking their lunch breaks; and Japanese museum guards changing post according to a strict schedule. Both her films and her photographs—with their expressive quietude and exquisite, hyperreal detail—have much in common with the work of seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. But Lockhart’s practice is a thoroughly postmodern one that explores both the act of seeing and the condition of being seen.
These themes are central to the four-part photographic work titled Lunch Break Installation, Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life, 14 December 2002–23 February 2003, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2003). At first glance, Lockhart’s images seem to depict five laborers within a white gallery space, some of them at work and others resting. Attentive viewers might notice, however, that only two of the men change position from one image to the next; the other three remain motionless. The work’s title provides a clue as to what is going on here: Lockhart’s piece depicts Lunch Break, a work by realist sculptor Duane Hanson, as it was being installed by two art handlers for an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Lockhart had engaged with Hanson’s work before. In the diptych Maja and Elodie, also of 2003, she added a live model to Hanson’s sculpture Child with Puzzle (1978), posing her to suggest that she and the child are working the puzzle together. The diptych’s two photographs are almost identical but not quite, creating a visual puzzle that invites viewers to search for the differences.
Although they are still photographs, both Maja and Elodie and Lunch Break Installation play with duration, that basic element of cinema. The former does so by drawing attention to the slight change in the woman’s position that took place between the making of the two images; the latter suggests the time that passed as Lockhart shifted her camera’s position to circumnavigate the installation in progress. Most importantly, in these works Lockhart sets up situations in which life imitates art imitating life. She thus complicates our understanding of the relationship between the two, showing that they are not distinct realms but related states of being whose boundaries are constantly shifting. —JR
Iñigo Manglano-OvalleBorn 1961 in Madrid, lives and works in Chicago
Working across multiple disciplines, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle creates seductive images and objects that address the urgent issues of our time. He has made colorful portraits of DNA strands that interrogate racial identity; a video installation, set inside a sleek Mies van der Rohe house, that explores economic and social class structures; and monumental titanium and fiberglass cloud sculptures that marshal references ranging from climate change to the impact of a nuclear explosion. While all his art is socially engaged, none of it is didactic, for Manglano-Ovalle deliberately keeps his own position on the issues in the background. “If art for me is a platform from which to speak, but not tell you something, that’s good,” he says. “And if that’s a way in which I give you a platform from which to think and debate it, that’s even better.”¹
One of Manglano-Ovalle’s most ambitious and provocative works to date is Phantom Truck (2007). He got the idea for the work while listening to a speech given in February 2003 by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council.² Powell’s speech, titled “Iraq: Failing to Disarm,” presented “evidence” that Iraq was manufacturing chemical weapons and moving them around the country in mobile labs concealed inside trucks and train cars. The speech was illustrated by computer-generated renderings of the trucks that were based on satellite images, “eyewitness accounts,” and “firsthand descriptions.”³ Powell’s presentation helped to justify the invasion of Iraq one month later by a U.S.-led military coalition. Once on the ground in Iraq, however, troops were unable to locate any of the purported weapons of mass destruction. Powell’s trucks proved to be a fiction.
Manglano-Ovalle decided to build a real version of the Bush administration’s fabrication. Using as his source the U.S. State Department renderings that Powell had shown during his speech, along with Powell’s verbal descriptions and photographs of trucks taken after the invasion, Manglano-Ovalle fabricated a full-scale aluminum version of the elusive weapons lab. This monumental sculpture resembles an open container filled with a collection of geometric forms that the artist describes as “formally reductive, smooth simple shapes that suggest Platonic forms, minimalist sculpture, and containers of unknown industrial-chemical nature.”&sup4; For the artist, it is essential that Phantom Truck be shown in a darkened gallery. Staged in shadow and barely visible, it becomes a metaphor for the political camouflage that enabled a fiction to help launch a war that was all too real. —IH
- Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, in the segment “Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle in ‘Ecology,’” on the website for the PBS television series Art in the Twenty-First Century, http://www.art21.org/videos/segment-iñigo-manglano-ovalle-in-ecology.
- Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, in the video interview “Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, 2008 Richard H. Driehaus Individual Artist Award Winner,” YouTube video, 4:34, posted by DriehausFoundation, March 19, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JWtgkAnWDQ.
- The images are posted online, along with a transcript of Powell’s speech, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iraq/2003/iraq-030205-powell-un-17300pf.htm.
- Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, quoted in Edward Kanerva, “Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle: Phantom Truck + Always After, Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery website, http://www.thepowerplant.org/SwitchOn/Features/February-2011/Inigo-Manglano-Ovalle.aspx.
Eva and Franco MattesBoth born 1976 in Brescia, Italy, live and work in Brooklyn
Eva and Franco Mattes are art provocateurs whose work appears in galleries and museums as well as online. Their earliest works leveraged the versatility of Internet technology to hide their identity behind aliases, online avatars, and fictional artists. Their projects, which range from disturbing to entertaining, question “the need for material objects, the authority of institutions, the uniqueness of an artwork, and the distinction between reality and simulation.”1 If there is a common denominator among their works, it might be their interest in culture jamming—graphic and technological interventions that draw attention to the ways in which economic and commercial institutions have tarnished social and civic values.
In 2007, for example, they restaged Chris Burden’s seminal performance Shoot (1971) within the grid of the virtual world Second Life. Eva’s avatar, or proxy, takes careful aim before shooting the left arm of Franco’s avatar; within the virtual realm of Second Life, the act of shooting another person is completely demystified. The Matteses’ revision removes the aspect of shock from Burden’s original but at the same time opens up new territory for remixing and archiving past performances.
In 2010 the artists created an online performance, a staged piece called No Fun which appeared on Chatroulette—a popular social media site that randomly pairs people from around the world in web-based conversations. But when some participants logged on, they were paired not with a live conversation partner but with a live image of Franco hanging from a noose in a dirty apartment. The random nature of the software used to create video chats was a perfect tool for staging such a spectacle. As Franco has said, “If you really want to get people you have to do it when they least expect it.”² Surprisingly, many of the comments left by participants were disaffected, and only one called 911 to report the suicide (which was of course staged). No Fun suggests that social media can create emotional distance and apathy through extreme hyper-connectivity.
The Matteses also have taken advantage of the speed with which information circulates through social media. In 2010 they grabbed a random image from the Internet and used it as the model for a sculpture, which they called Catt. They then exhibited the work at a Houston gallery as a new piece by Maurizio Cattelan. Interest in the piece was intense, and photographs of it were circulated widely on Facebook. “We wanted to make a work about Internet’s overflowing creativity vs. high art fixation with originality,” Franco has written.³ Just as Catt began with an image pulled from a website, it was transformed back into to a digital piece shared all over the world. —CA
- Press release for the exhibition Reality Is Overrated, May 15–June 19, 2010, issued by Postmasters Gallery, April 2, 2010.
- Domenico Quaranta et al., Eva and Franco Mattes (Milan: Charta, 2009), 106.
- Franco Mattes, statement on Catt, posted on the artists’ website, http://www.0100101110101101.org/home/catt/index.html.
Jonathan MonkBorn 1969 in Leicester, England; lives and works in Berlin
Jonathan Monk has based his artistic practice on the reuse and re-presentation of works by other artists. “I realised that being original was almost impossible,” he has said, “so I tried using what was already available as source material for my own work…I always think that art is about ideas, and surely the idea of an original and a copy of an original are two very different things.”¹ His work takes many forms—installation, photography, film, sculpture, and performance, among others—and much of it turns on deadpan humor that is both affectionate and teasing. In None of the Buildings on the Sunset Strip (2002), a series of pictures showing gaps between buildings in Los Angeles, Monk riffs on a celebrated artist’s book by Edward Ruscha. In 2009 he showed a series of stainless steel sculptures that appear to be deflated versions of Jeff Koons’s iconic balloon rabbit.
French critic Nicolas Bourriaud has proposed that aesthetic practices like Monk’s—which depend on remixing, reproducing, or reexhibiting other people’s artworks—might be called “postproduction.” The practice, as Bourriaud defines it, goes beyond appropriation because it focuses on works already in circulation as cultural products. Artists who situate their own works within that of others, he writes, “contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work.”²Monk’s Deadman (2006) is a Bourriaudian remix of two notorious performances by Chris Burden: Shoot (1971), in which Burden enlisted a friend to shoot him in the arm, and Dead Man (1972), in which he lay in a roadway covered by a tarpaulin and flanked by safety flares. In both works Burden flirted with the real possibility of death: the bullet might go astray, or he might be run over by an inattentive motorist. Monk imagines both outcomes in this one work. A wax figure resembling the young Burden, eyes closed, lies on the floor half covered with a blood-spattered sheet. Monk appropriates the images of Burden’s performances (which exist today only as documentary photographs), but he also refigures their historical context. Both Shoot and Dead Man were created during a period in American history marked by violent riots, demonstrations, and assassinations. Photographs of Burden’s actions evoke in particular the iconic news photo from 1970 of a student lying dead on the campus of Kent State University after being shot by police during an antiwar demonstration. Monk’s wax figure alludes to that history even as it concretizes the brutality of our current age. —NS
- Jonathan Monk, quoted in a press release issued by Casey Kaplan Gallery, May 2009, http://www.caseykaplangallery.com/press_release/2009/jonathan_monk_2009.pdf.
- Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay; How Art Reprograms the World, trans. Jeanine Herman (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), 7.
Vik MunizBorn 1961 in São Paulo; lives and works in Rio de Janeiro and New York
During his twenty-year career, Vik Muniz has created photographic and sculptural works that question the processes of representation. He often renders familiar images in unlikely substances such as dirt, chocolate, and caviar and then photographs them, seeking to interfere with the easy consumption of images by pointing out that a photograph is not a one-to-one representation of an object in front of the camera. Rather, it is an artifact of the interaction between an object and the photographic process.
Muniz’s work also exhibits an interest in the social life of representation. This is evident in his series Sugar Children (1996) and Pictures of Garbage (2008). In the former, he made portraits in sugar of children whose parents and grandparents worked as sugar cane harvesters on the island of Saint Kitts and then photographed the portraits. He used the same methods in the latter project, using trash to depict the catadores, or trash pickers, who frequent a massive garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In both series, the unorthodox materials point to a reality outside the images themselves and provide information about the lives of the sitters that would not be communicated through a straightforward portrait. Muniz donated his proceeds from the sale of Pictures of Garbage to the catadores’ collective, which used the money to support the building of housing, a library, and other projects.¹ In this way the photographs are both artifacts and instigators of a larger social process and cultural experience.
In 2008 Muniz made a series of works that merged his dual interest in the fabrication of illusion and the social life of objects. Versos presents replicas of the backs of some of art history’s most iconic paintings, including Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Usually seen only by museum curators, art handlers, and conservators, a painting’s verso makes visible its structural support as well as its history, as evidenced by the labels and annotations that are applied each time the piece is exhibited. “The back is real,” says Muniz, “and that’s why when someone wants to know if something is authentic, the first thing he does is to look at the side that is never seen.”²
Muniz began his series by choosing paintings that he believed were so familiar that they “could be imagined simply by hearing someone whisper their titles.”³ He photographed their backs, then used the photos to make meticulous re-creations of them in three dimensions. These sculptural “fictions” reveal certain truths about the paintings that are usually hidden from the average museumgoer: a work’s travels, the history of its ownership, its “use” as an object. The Versos are exhibited leaning against the wall on blocks, adding another layer to their exploration of illusion by suggesting that one has walked into a gallery in mid-installation. —JD
- Carol Kino, “Where Art Meets Trash and Transforms Life,” New York Times, October 21, 2010.
- Vik Muniz, quoted in Vik Muniz: Verso (Milan: Charta, 2009), 19.
- Ibid., 18.
Trevor PaglenBorn 1974 in Washington, D.C.; lives and works in Berkeley and New York
We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion.
—Vice President Dick Cheney¹
For the past eight years, the artist and writer Trevor Paglen has been pointing his long-range camera lenses at the United States military’s international network of black sites: bases, prisons, and research facilities that are unacknowledged by the government and do not appear on any map. They are protected by miles of restricted land, and their furtive government funding is estimated to be as much as $56 billion.2 Yet during the U.S. war on terror they have been positioned at the center of debates on the rapid expansion of military power and human rights violations.
Because of the black sites’ remote locations, the photos in Paglen’s Limit Telephotography, an ongoing project, are shot miles away from these bases in places like the Nevada desert. Distance and heat convection combine to create abstract images that are hard to decipher. It is when we read the titles, such as Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV; Distance – 2 miles) (2010), that the photos start becoming clearer. Although they will never be totally legible, neither will the black sites and their operations ever be fully acknowledged. Still it is hard not to believe that Paglen’s images are “real” and to speculate about these locations and their clandestine operations.
Pointing his camera upward, Paglen has also made a series of astrophotographs titled The Other Night Sky. Using a specially designed camera mount and software model, he is able to track the flight paths of panoptic satellites that endlessly orbit the earth. As they pass overhead, the beautiful streaks of light, like that captured in LACROSSE/ONYX II Passing through Draco (Radam Imaging Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 69) (2007), become abstractions that Paglen has said could just as easily be described as shooting stars or scratches on a film negative. But if we accept his assertion that his astrophotographs are in fact images of satellites, we might be moved to reflect on the elaborate systems of surveillance that are behind them. Who is watching? Who or what are they looking for? Where is this data being stored, and how will it be used?
The combination of Paglen’s extensive academic research and his photographic documentation bring these “hidden geographies” into the light, making the invisible visible and the speculative real. While the exact functions of the bases and satellites may never be disclosed, his images become a record that they do somehow exist, if only as places where state secrets are confronted with photographic facts. —CA
- Dick Cheney, in conversation with Tim Russert on the NBC News program Meet the Press, September 16, 2001.
- Noah Shachtman, “Pentagon’s Black Budget Tops $56 Billion,” Danger Room (blog), Wired, February 1, 2010, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/02/pentagons-black-budget-tops-56-billion/.
Walid RaadBorn 1967 in Chbanieh, Lebanon; lives and works in New York
The focus of Walid Raad’s artistic practice is the history of Lebanon. For much of his career he has been specifically engaged with the events of the country’s devastating civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, during which thousands died or were displaced and many more fled into exile. He has often approached the topic obliquely. For example, from 1989 to 2004 he made his work under the rubric of the Atlas Group, an entity of his own invention whose mission, he said, was to form an archive of research related to the history of the Lebanese wars.¹ The group’s holdings, all of which were fabricated by Raad, deal with real historical events and include photographs, videos, notes, and documents supposedly produced by individuals on both sides of the conflict. With such a complex provenance, the Atlas Group archive cannot be understood within what Raad refers to as “the conventional and reductive binary of fiction and nonfiction.” He proposes that its holdings be seen instead as “hysterical documents,” fantasies built from his culture’s collective memories.²
Among them is a short video titled I Only Wish That I Could Weep (1997/2002). It was shot on the Corniche, Beirut’s popular seaside promenade, purportedly by an intelligence officer in the Lebanese army whose job it was to watch the area for signs of covert activity. With his camera hidden inside one of the food trucks that line the boardwalk, this officer performed his assigned task daily, except for a brief period every afternoon when he focused on the sun as it set over the Mediterranean. When he donated the footage, the officer told the Atlas Group that he had always longed to watch the sun set from this spot, but during the war years he had been barred from leaving his East Beirut neighborhood to come to the seaside in West Beirut. In his video, figures are reduced to shadows that speed by in fast motion as the sun’s orb sinks into the sea. The writer Judith Schwarzbart has observed that the narrative framework Raad invented for this video “permits [the sunsets] to represent the freedom, of movement and spirit, that was stolen from the population during the civil war—a freedom which this agent reclaims.”³
Raad has said that in creating the Atlas Group archive he intended to raise questions about the ways in which history is written.&sup4; How are official historical narratives formed? What gets omitted and what included? Where, in the end, do such narratives reside? Raad offers no answers. But he suggests that the only way one can possibly understand what happened in Lebanon during its civil wars—and, by implication, any history—is to enter a space in which fact, memory, fantasy, and fiction mingle comfortably. —JR
- See the Atlas Group website, http://www.theatlasgroup.org.
- Walid Raad, quoted in Alan Gilbert, “Walid Ra’ad,” Bomb 81 (Fall 2002), http://bombsite.com/issues/81/articles/2504.
- Judith Schwarzbart, “Walid Raad: I Only Wish,” SUM 1 (December 2007): 9.
- Alice Pfeiffer, “Paging Atlas Group,” Art in America website, posted November 4, 2010, www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2010-11-04/walid-raad-whitechapel/.
Dario RobletoBorn 1972, San Antonio, Texas; lives and works in Houston
Through his art, Dario Robleto looks deeply into the human experiences of loss and mourning in order to connect with what he calls “the truly extraordinary aspects of humanness…a sense of wonder and re-enchantment with the world that in a sense counterattacks the effects of extreme grief.”¹ Because he believes that music has transformative, healing powers, he has developed a studio practice that is not unlike that of a DJ: he samples and remixes preexisting materials, creating a new context that incorporates the materials’ previous history and meaning. Among the artifacts that he has repurposed are audiotapes of the voice of the last known Union soldier from the Civil War; bacteria cultured from the grooves of recorded Negro prison songs; and World War II–era surgical suture thread.
Robleto calls himself a “materialist poet” rather than a sculptor. Before he begins a piece, he writes out a narrative for it, and only after that does he set about looking for the objects and substances with which to tell the story.² The narratives that underlie each work can be inferred from their titles and lists of materials, which are given on labels that function almost like album liner notes. The battered pair of boxing gloves titled The Melancholic Refuses to Surrender (2003) was made from cast and carved bone charcoal, broken male hand bones, lead salvaged from the sea, horsehair, dirt, ground coal, pigments, string, rust, and a melted vinyl LP of Lead Belly’s The Titanic, a song about the ironic luck of blacks who were barred from sailing on the doomed ship. Deep Down I Don’t Believe in Hymns (2001) comprises a nineteenth-century American military blanket on which Robleto sprinkled dust from hand-ground vinyl recordings of Cortez the Killer by Neil Young and Crazy Horse and of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” By “infesting” the blanket with microscopic vinyl particles, Robleto refers both to the history of the American Indian wars, during which soldiers gave the native people “gifts” of blankets that were infested with smallpox, and the healing properties of music.
At times Robleto’s process seems almost alchemical or even magical. To make the sculpture Men Are the New Women (2002), for example, he ground into dust a bone from a woman’s rib cage, then cast and carved it into a facsimile of a bone from a man’s rib cage. Physically the object is a simulation created from the dust of the real; symbolically it inverts the Christian story of creation. In both ways, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality and plays with our notions of authenticity. He hopes that works such as these ultimately kindle hope for the future even as they carry and mourn the past. —NS
- Dario Robleto, “Artist Statement,” posted on the website of the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, http://www.artistfound.org/awards/artist.cfm?id=56.
- Robleto in a video interview posted on the website of Human Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet, http://www.artistsrespond.org/artists/robleto/.
Eve Sussman | Rufus CorporationEve Sussman: born 1961 in London; lives and works in Brooklyn
Rufus Corporation: founded 2003
89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004) was inspired by the artist Eve Sussman’s first encounter with Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), Diego Velázquez’s iconic 1686 portrait of members of the Spanish royal court. The canvas, which has been the subject of much art historical debate and discussion, depicts Velázquez in the act of painting the Infanta Margarita, Philip IV, Mariana of Austria, and their attendants. By placing himself and his subjects in the same pictorial space, Velazquez seems to imply that the artist—and, by extension, the art of painting itself—has been elevated by the presence of the monarchs.¹ Sussman has written that for her the figures in the painting “seem real, psychologically arresting, physically frozen in a snapshot that predates photography by almost two hundred years. It seemed obvious to look for all the other snapshots.”²
This was the starting point for 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a video that imagines the moments leading up to and immediately following the scene depicted in Velázquez’s masterpiece. Created under the auspices of the Rufus Corporation, a loose collective of artists with whom Sussman works to realize ambitious projects, the piece uses actors to play the royals and their servants and reproduces with extreme care their elaborate baroque costumes and the setting inside the Alcázar (the Hapsburg Palace). Sussman worked with a choreographer to block the actors’ movements, which gave weight and purpose to every gesture. One is never unaware that this video is a constructed fiction, yet it is impossible not to become fully subsumed by its gorgeous cinematic illusion.
Sussman and the Rufus Corporation have since collaborated on several projects, including the Rape of the Sabine Women (2005) and whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir (2009–11), that draw their inspiration from icons of Western culture. The former is an eighty-minute video that reinterprets the Roman myth—the subject of by Jacques-Louis David’s 1799 painting Intervention of the Sabine Women—as an operatic period piece set in 1960s Berlin and Athens. The latter, named for Kazimir Malevich’s painting White on White (1918), was inspired by “the Suprematist quests for transcendence, pure space and artistic higher ground.”³ The film’s continuous, constantly changing narrative is edited live in real time through a custom-designed computer algorithm that draws on three thousand film clips, eighty voice-overs, and 150 pieces of music. Although the experience of these works is very different, the productions of Sussman and the Rufus Corporation are marked by an interest in gesture and human interaction, and a self-conscious engagement with cinematic illusion. —JD
- Jonathan Brown, Velázquez, Painter and Courtier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 260.
- Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, 89 Seconds at Alcazar (Brooklyn: Rufus Press, 2006), unpaged.
- From the press release for the film posted on the Rufus Corporation website, http://www.rufuscorporation.com/media/files/light-installations-2009.pdf.
Mary TempleBorn 1957 in Phoenix, Arizona, lives and works in Brooklyn
Mary Temple says that the primary subject of her art is doubt. Whether she works in drawing, site-specific installation, sculpture, or painting, “themes of trust, transparency, and truthfulness” are her constant concern.1 Her Light Installations, a series begun in 2002, get at these themes through trompe l’oeil paintings of shadows and sunlight that seem to merge with the architecture on which they are painted. While completely believable as sensory data, the paintings depict situations that are architectural or meteorological impossibilities. Forest for the Sea (2006), for example, was a twenty-five-by-sixty-six foot-image of soft shadows seemingly cast by large, leafy trees as sunlight streamed through the windows of Brooklyn’s Smack Mellon gallery. But the shadows did not change with the movement of the sun, the leaves did not move in the breeze, and visitors’ bodies cast no shadows as they traversed the space. “As viewers began to solve the visual puzzle [of this piece] and understand the reality of the environment,” Temple has written, “they may have realized they were taken in by a simple illusion—that their senses were surprisingly untrustworthy.”2 But Temple is not out to trick viewers; rather, she wants to give them the chance to “enjoy not knowing” what precisely they are looking at.3
More recently, Temple has created light installation “fragments” on small sections of wall and floor. IT MUST BE TRUE (fragment) (2011) comprises a panel of white drywall that leans against the wall and abuts several interlocking hardwood planks assembled on the floor. A painted shadow of the hopeful phrase “It Must be True” rakes across the drywall and onto the floor panels. The piece has several layers of perceptual truth and fiction. It is made of actual building materials, so one could imagine that it is a fragment taken from another, disassembled room. The piece casts actual shadows in the space in which it is installed but also seems to have brought with it a patch of sunlight and shadow. To those familiar with Temple’s work, IT MUST BE TRUE might seem to be a section of one of her larger trompe l’oeil paintings. Its title allows for all these possibilities to be true while simultaneously suggesting that seeing should not necessarily be believing. —IH
- Mary Temple, statement on the artist’s website, http://marytemple.com/texts.
- Mary Temple, statement about Forest for the Sea on the artist’s website, http://marytemple.com/detail/light-installations/148/forest-for-the-sea.
- Mary Temple, statement about light installations on the artist’s website, http://s139022.gridserver.
The Yes Men (Mike Bonanno aka Igor Vamos and Andy Bichlbaum aka Jaques Servin)
The culture-jamming duo known as the Yes Men has become notorious for witty mass-media hoaxes that are meant to raise public awareness of unscrupulous corporate behavior. Led by media artists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (also known as Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, respectively), the Yes Men use various tactical media strategies to perform “identity corrections,” which they define as “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.”¹ In 2011, for example, during National Asthma Awareness Month, they launched coalcares.org, purportedly under the auspices of Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal company. The site, which promised to “make coal cool” for asthmatic kids, featured asthma-related games and offered free Harry Potter– and Justin Bieber–branded inhalers to children living near coal-fired plants. Another of the Yes Men’s targets, Dow Chemical, was spoofed by the duo’s fake announcement, on BBC television, that Dow intended to clean up the site of the deadly Bhopal gas leak, provide medical care for the victims, and fund research into other hazardous chemicals.² The Yes Men’s guerrilla activism takes full advantage of the reach and openness of the Internet, where fact and fiction are easily blurred.
In November 2008 the Yes Men engineered one of their most visible hoaxes. Playing on the country’s optimism after the election of Barack Obama, they issued their own special edition of the New York Times, created by a team of some fifty associates over a period of six months. The paper’s front page trumpeted “Iraq War Ends,” and inside were fourteen pages of hopeful headlines, such as “USA Patriot Act Repealed,” “Washington Redskins Renamed,” and “All Public Universities to Be Free.” Using real-world information and details, each story provided a fictional history of how these changes had been effected. Yes Men operatives handed out the paper for free in New York, where it was distributed at subway stations during the busy morning rush hour, as well as in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.³ To accompany the print edition, the Yes Men created a sham Times website with the same content.&sup4; Overall the spoof is estimated to have reached more than eighty thousand people across the country. One of the Yes Men’s collaborators on the project, Steve Lambert, said: “We wanted to experience what it would look like, and feel like, to read headlines we really want to read. It's about what's possible, if we think big and act collectively.”&sup5; —NS
- See the group’s website, http://theyesmen.org.
- After the announcement Dow’s stock fell by $2 billion, and the Yes Men issued a retraction that read in part: “Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care…Dow will NOT remediate (clean up) the Bhopal plant site…Dow's sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.” See http://www.dowethics.com/r/about/corp/bbc.htm.
- Sewell Chan, “Liberal Pranksters Hand Out Times Spoof,” City Room (blog), New York Times, November 12, 2008, http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/pranksters-spoof-the-times.
- See http://www.nytimes-se.com.
- See http://theyesmen.org/hijinks/newyorktimes.