Grasping the nebulous zone of art and politics can be arduous at best. The curatorial project of Agitated Histories attempts to do just that by compartmentalizing the political narrative. The Re-enactment, The Archive, The Persona, and The Intervention give some scaffolding from which the viewer can approach the work. The artists in this exhibition engage with the political, the social, and the personal through formal concerns and artistic research. We are looking at history (recent) here, through a distinctly political lens.
One of the most compelling pieces in the exhibition is Mexican artist Yoshua Okón’s Octopus (2011). Created during a residency at the Hammer Museum, the 4-channel video piece grapples with what is both humanizing and alienating. Day laborers re-enact the civil war in Guatemala, wearing in black or white clothing, depending on which side they had fought for. On the set of a Home Depot parking lot, the laborers replay scenes from their country’s history, but now the opposing sides point invisible weapons at an invisible enemy, not at their historical foes. “Octopus” is Guatemalan slang for the United Fruit Company, alluding to the company’s ambiguous role in Guatemalan politics and complicating the narrative further.
The pliableness of the document becomes evident through Zoe Leonard & Cheryl Dunye’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993-1996). A fictional African American performer is created through an archive of snap shots, film stills, and head-shots. Photography’s role in the construction of history becomes clear as we are left to conjecture about the possibilities of this figure.
While The Fae Richards Photo Archive plays with the divide between fact and fiction, Mike Tribe’s The Dystopian Files (2009-present) solemnly takes on the task of chronicling history. An archive of clips from footage of protest and the policing of these actions is gathered together as something that Tribe refers to as “ritualized conflicts”. The single channel video is disrupted by omnipresent black bars slowly creeping across the screen as eerie, unidentifiable tones collectively moan, the audio’s consistency giving a sense of a cohesive moment from the catalogue of moments.
A cardboard fabrication of a courtroom witness stand and judges bench illuminated with the theatrics of comedy lights and the occasional laugh track enact notions of truth in The People v. Bruce (Parrhesia) (2011). The term “parrhesia” loosely translates to free speech with an obligatory edge. In this installation, collaborators Eric Garduño & Matthew Rana engage with the trial and conviction of obscenity against comedian Lenny Bruce as a way to address the fluidity of truth and free speech amidst the conflicting territories of where one can expect to hear truth spoken – the comedy stage and the courtroom.
In the series The First and Last of the Modernists: (Charles and Michael), Lorraine O’Grady links the public personas’s of poet Charles Baudelaire and performer Michael Jackson through the language of conceptual photography, implying modernism’s hand in the cult and commodification of celebrity.
Perhaps the least convincing of containers is The Intervention, in which “works recall charged events in history that register cautions about the future”. Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but I don’t equate “registering cautions” to “intervention”, which for me has a very active implication. At any rate, Geof Oppenheimer’s Mason Dixon Lines, Raised and Lowered (2007-11) is a “two-unit” piece that encapsulates a formal tightness with a conceptual looseness. A neon portrait of Alan Greenspan leans against a wall, somehow in dialogue with a distant placed steel geometric form wrapped in red bandana material perched askew on an unfinished pedestal. There is something about systems and structures here, but ambivalence reins.
If you are after the redemptive, look elsewhere; what this exhibition offers are objects of discontent, agitation. In the context of our current political climate, we encounter the spiral of history in these works, rather than it’s unfolding.
Agitated Histories will run through January 15, 2012 at SITE Santa Fe, in New Mexico. It was presented earlier in 2011 at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore.