Group show aims to examine the visual language of historical moments
Published: March 30, 2011
Through May 1 at the Contemporary Museum
Political speeches from the 1960s still have the power to ignite the spirit. Whether it be Civil Rights figures such as Huey Newton or Angela Davis or a labor leader such as Cesar Chavez, student leaders of the anti-war movement or even politicians, watching newsreel footage from the time remains a potent, powerful experience. There are few things that can still pierce the heart and pucker the skin like watching Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr., deliver one of their many indelible speeches or debates.
Just what, however, do we respond to when we see these historical moments—and how did the process of capturing them shape what we think about when we think about them? Yes, the words, the ideas and passions they contain, and the sophistication of the delivery connect with hearts and minds. But, surely, the emergence of more portable cameras enabled television news programs to capture more of what we now call history as it was happening back then. Surely the prominence of black-and-white stock at the time shapes how we envision the past from right now. And, surely, these moments in time would probably look radically different if they were delivered during today’s climate of a highly codified 24/7 newspeak vocabulary.
New York-based Mark Tribe explores exactly that idea in his Port Huron Project, a series of reenactments of New Left protest speeches from the Vietnam War era. Three of those videos are currently installed in the Contemporary Museum’s Agitated Histories, the final installment of its Project 20 exhibitions commemorating the museum’s 20th anniversary. Using actors in roles of speakers and audience and returning to original locations, Tribe recreates speeches by Angela Davis from 1969 in Oakland, Stokely Carmichael from 1967 in front of the United Nations building in NYC, and Cesar Chavez from 1971 in Los Angeles. Tribe’s documents, though, follow the close-up, multicamera setups of contemporary news. It’s a disorienting delivery system, for as the words still pack a punch—and, given that they’re taking place during another unpopular military campaign and occupation, still resonate—but the televisual language of their presentation feels a tad neutering.
It’s an impression most clearly experienced in the Angela Davis video (you can see it online at marktribe.net), as the version installed at the Contemporary is a Times Square version that mimics contemporary news programming, with identifying banner, a crawl at the bottom of the screen, and subtitles. It’s installed right inside the museum’s entrance, one of the first things you come across, and it’s a bracingly calibrating entree into this exhibition. As you stand there watching an actress capably deliver this rousing anti-war speech, you realize you feel a little distanced from its content. You hear what she says—prescient statements such as, “It’s evident that the terror is becoming not just isolated instances of police brutality here and there, but that terror is becoming an everyday instrument of the institutions of this country”—and realize that the hairs on the back of the neck aren’t standing at attention in ways they might normally. Something about the presentation here feels off. Something about the visual organization practically works against the ideology of the content. It’s flattened, softened, and presented in the packaging that feeds us information. This is the default language by which we are supposedly educated about the world. And after watching nearly all five minutes of an incredibly articulate and impassioned anti-war speech, you realize you feel about as roused, engaged, and politically alert as you would if you just watched nearly five minutes of Dancing With the Stars.
This unstated chasm that exists between a historical message and its media feels to be Agitated’s thematic concern, though not all of the artists enter that dialogue with as much success as Tribe. And the reason for that might be the way in which the six artists—Michael Cataldi, Rodney McMillian, Ulrike Müller, Lorraine O’Grady, Geof Oppenheimer, and Tribe—are presented here. Individually each artist can pack a heady punch, but as arranged together the show’s throughline becomes a little wonky.
Take, for instance, the Los Angeles-based McMillian, a mercurial artist of often infinite impishness and a sneaky intelligence—qualities rewardingly easy to discern in his 2008 Whitney Biennial or his solo show at the Kitchen later that same year. McMillian has a generous knack for appropriating items and imagery and recasting them in ways that refocus the eye and brain, straddling art and socioeconomic history to yield something a little different and revealing in the process.
But it’s an aesthetic process indebted to his wily installation and presentation, and in Agitated his 2006 “Unknown” series—a studio shot of an old bust of some unknown but possibly “important” man, which McMillian coyly presents as unlimited edition of identically printed and mounted photos in the series—appears in the same gallery space as O’Grady’s “The First and the Last of the Modernists (Charles and Michael),” a photo diptych pairing Charles Baudelaire with Michael Jackson. O’Grady is another artist of Kleig-light intensity, and while these two pieces can have a dialogue, it’s not the conversation about commodification in the art marketplace and art’s role in popular culture as suggested in Agitated’s accompanying brochure.
And that’s the modestly frustrating experience of Agitated: not that the exhibition makes you work to get something out of it—pity the museum event that doesn’t—but that even the slightest familiarity with the involved artists makes you think what they create can address the exhibition’s thematic concerns stronger and with a more effectively elucidated wallop. Some of the artists fare well as installed—Tribe and Oppenheimer especially—while others (cramming Müller into the intimate space around the corner from the main galleries) don’t so much fare less well as feel a little off if you’ve seen their work in more ideal locations. Of course, these are the installation issues with which the Contemporary’s always-ambitious curatorial programming has always had to navigate in its current location.
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