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Culture

Uncertain Verdict

Laurel Harris

'The American Effect' follows an important trend in contemporary visual art exhibitions, fusing visual representation with research on global realities.


Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, Chief, from the series German Indians, 1997-98.

Chromogenic color print, 30 x 25 3/8 inc. (76.4 x 64.4 cm).
Collection of the artists; courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.

The Whitney Museum of American Art's current special exhibition "The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003," follows an important trend in contemporary visual art exhibitions, fusing visual representation with research on global realities. The last Documenta exhibition ("Documenta XI"), for example, strayed from its traditional Kassel, Germany, location (where it has been held since 1955) to hold lectures and workshops in Caribbean, African, and other European cities before returning home to actually hang some art. Whitney curator Lawrence Rinder's "The American Effect" imitates this trend on a smaller scale at the self-proclaimed museum of contemporary American art.

Rinder begins his research into these global perspectives using the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a survey of 38,000 individuals from 44 countries. As Rinder notes in his catalogue essay, antipathy towards the United States is largely concentrated on its political and economic power, and the symbols that attest to this power, rather than its cultural products or proclaimed ideals. U.S. culture, at least according to Rinder, is an object of desire and fascination that often blatantly contradicts the nation's activities abroad.

Within this geopolitical riddle, the 47 international artists included in the exhibition cannot help but present multiple and often paradoxical viewpoints. Exacerbating this uncertainty, most of the included artists were born in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Cold War. This generation lived through a world divided into two monolithic extremes, and saw that division end with disastrous free market economies quickly introduced in the Eastern bloc, along with a massive influx of American cultural products. Today, as the U.S. stages another ideological "war," and as world opinion of the States wavers radically (as indicated by the Pew survey), visual representations from abroad are necessarily fractured.

Serbian artist Zoran Naskovski's video Death in Dallas (2000), for example, infuses recent American history with a nostalgia that posits President Kennedy's assassination as metaphor for the United States as a bulldozed Camelot. Death in Dallas is stitched together from old newspapers, home movies, and footage from the three films of the Kennedy assassination (including Zapruder's famous film). The images unfold chronologically to a traditional Herzegovian ballad written by Jozo Karamatic shortly after Kennedy's death.

Karamatic's solemn, 17-minute dirge narrates events leading up to and following the murder, providing gravitas for America's fascination with the personal lives of celebrities. In Naskovski's video, the images that have become cultural monuments and shared memories for Americans correspond to another traditional form of sacred memory, the narrative ballad. These mnemonic conventions, however, contradict one another: the films' images are scoured by conspiracy buffs who don't believe their eyes, while the ballad relies on the immediacy and "transparency" of the truth. In Death in Dallas, the oral track emphasizes what is apparent in the visual surface, and what Americans make ironic with their disbelief and paranoia.

There are plenty of other works in the exhibition, however, that use liberal doses of irony to comment on the States. For instance, Dutch artist Arno Coenen's frenetic video The Last Road Trip (2000) and South Korea's artistic team, YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRY's Dakota (2002) engage the visual signs and archetypes of American culture and its frontier mythos with tongue-in-cheek celebrations of explosive violence and nomadic wandering.

But perhaps most effective is French artist Gilles Barbier's Nursing Home (2002). The installation presents aging costumed superheroes reading Jackie Collins novels and watching television with IVs extending from their atrophied arms. The piece, for all of its cute pop playfulness, offers a wry commentary on the self-image of the United States as young and powerful through the distinctly American art form of the comic book.

The most powerful works in "The American Effect," like Nursing Home, either engage in imaginative inflations of the United States or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, deploy documentary stylistics. Chinese artist Danwen Xing's series disCONNEXION (2003), for instance, is a series of close-up photographs of "e-waste," the cast-off cords and circuits of the American computer industry collected in China's free trade zones to be recycled by the impoverished women who initially produced them for American consumption.

Croatian artist Andreja Kuluncic takes the technological aspects of "The American Effect" one step further with Distributive Justice: America (2003), the exhibition's only web-based work -- accessible on-line at: www.distributive-justice.com/america. Based in the theories of famous political theorists and popular movements, the work surveys individuals from different countries, with regard to the most effective and just means of distributing goods and services throughout a society. In blurring the lines between visual representation and sociological research, however, Kuluncic's work errs on the side of scientificity. The piece is didactic, visually unexciting, and ultimately unsatisfying, despite its earnest conceptual intentions.

The documentary film program is more compelling. Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's video From the Other Side (2002) cuts together interviews with illegal immigrants from Mexico, their relatives in Mexico, and American border guards with gorgeous static shots of everyday life at the border -- kids playing soccer in front of townhouses, hitchhikers along dusty roads into the mountains, people eyeing one another through the grates of a border fence. Akerman relies on the poetry of her video images to illustrate the desires to "be on the other side" voiced in her interviews.

The illusory draw of the United States evoked in Akerman's film is lost in Chilean artist Cristobal Lehyt's full-room installation The Arrest (2003), which posits the U.S. as one tragedy amongst many global tragedies. Faintly penciled wall drawings record images taken from the viewing platforms of the WTC's Ground Zero and from a military training school in Chile, frequently interweaving the two. Recognizing the correspondence between 9/11/01 when the WTC was destroyed and 9/11/73, when Pinochet violently overthrew Allende's government in Chile and murdered thousands with U.S. support, has been generally dismissed as blasphemy in the States (see the controversy over the film September 11 (2003) . But if The Arrest does seem to conflate the tragedies, Lehyt is too smart to compare the numbers of deaths or to point the finger at the United States alone for Chile's tragedy.

The most striking works in "The American Effect" are Colombian artist Miguel Angel Rojas' miniature collages, dating from 1999-2001. Created from small dots of cutout dollar bills and coca leaves, the pieces are brilliantly green. Rojas' two interlinked materials demonstrate the dependence of the Colombian drug industry on the complicity of the American government and corporate powers. The elegance of Rojas' work, like Lehyt's, articulates the infusion of American culture and history into a global context bound by uneven economic and political interests.

Curator Rinder has tried to resuscitate his career with "The American Effect," after critics lambasted his choices for the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Where the last Biennial tried to balance (unsuccessfully) "outsider art" (i.e., work created by non-New York artists) and conceptually fuzzy, fun pieces, "The American Effect" is pointed in its theme and investigatory aesthetic. Similarly, the new international model of the art exhibition, aimed at providing visual representations of global realities, has focused Rinder's vision.

Perhaps the next Biennial he curates should be something like "The American Effect: American Perspectives on the United States," to provide a self-critical exhibition of American artists as American artists in a global context. As the art community is a global community, such soul-searching could demonstrate how chaotic and contradictory American culture is and looks, from the inside as well as from without.

 

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