Politics and Art and Risk

Mix the first two and you will encounter the third

Last month the world learned of the following Website message co-signed by Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and the Army of the Mujahideen: "Democracy is un-Islamic." An earlier posted manifesto held that democracy amounted to a Greek practice of idolizing human beings.

Such an awkward statement (even under the presupposition of American "puppet" elections) comes from within Iraq's Sunni insurgency. The Sunnis held absolute power in Iraq for decades. In contrast, leaders the country's Shiite majority have declared that voting in the upcoming election is every Muslim's duty. Which points to the importance of that perennial philosophical problem: What's the best form of government?

Today issues of justice, power, supervision, and legitimacy are finding their way into art with a range of gestures, from mourning innocent victims to condemnation of limitations on civil liberties in the name of national defense.

Detail from Martha Rosler's Unknown Secrets (The Secrets of the Rosenbergs)
Jonathan Postal
Detail from Martha Rosler's Unknown Secrets (The Secrets of the Rosenbergs)

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Through January 30. 305-455-3333
Miami Art Central, 5960 Red Rd, Coral Gables

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Though artists have strong opinions on governmental affairs, political art is risky. It can easily become clichéd and dogmatic. People prefer to discover instead of being told how and what to see. To make it more difficult, the realm of politics is one of constant fine-tuning between people's conflicting interests and values.

So it's good that Miami Art Central (MAC) and its new director Rina Carvajal have come up with "How do we want to be governed? (Figure and Ground)," exploring various themes around this important question. Curators Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack present a broad range of works by more than twenty artists that span several decades and which include video, installation, painting, and photography.

In the prologue to the exhibition catalogue (in which other artists and critics collaborate), the curators defend French philosopher Michel Foucault's thesis that power is never absolute or uniform, that political subversion is always possible, and that art can be a legitimate alternative to public anomie.

Visitors to the MAC are welcomed by Maria Aguiló's installation of photos of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 1340 frescos in Siena's town hall, depicting pre-Renaissance contrasts between a world ruled by an emerging bourgeoisie, a fading aristocracy, and the rising Italian city state's unruly proletariat. Lorenzetti's painting sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition in the sense that government "operates in a space between human beings."

Eleanor Antin is an early West Coast feminist performance artist for whom "sex, age, talent, time and space...are merely tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice." In the photo My Kingdom Is the Right Size, from her 1974 media work The King of Solana Beach, you see Antin (as the king) wearing fake beard and donning a floppy hat and lacy blouse with denim jeans while dispensing seditious ideas to a group of youths in that coastal suburb of San Diego.

Close to Antin's humorous delivery is úyvind Fahlström, a Swedish artist of considerable influence in poetry, graphic arts, and performance. In his 1966 short film Mao-Hope March, New York, Fahlström orchestrates a ersatz march of people carrying posters of a smiling Mao and Bob Hope down the streets of Manhattan in the middle of the day. You'll laugh at the answers of the bewildered bystanders (including some New York City police) to Fahlström's "Do you know any of these people?"

Antin, Fahlström, and Harun Farocki (also in the show) belong to an earlier generation of politically committed artists who worked in the Sixties, during the height of protests over the Vietnam War. With no precursors (and with the benefit of time), their gestures seem more genuine and spontaneous than their contemporary counterparts.

Danica Dakic's Deaf Dance is an absorbing video of a folk dance performed in silence by a Bosnian group wearing colorful costumes of different epochs. They follow the instructions of a female leader and the dance steps' implicit rhythms. I agree with Sophia Prinz's opinion that Dakic's piece works well within this idea of dance as a combination of self-control and external control, a model of the modern political subject.

Martha Rosler's installation hits a nerve. In her Unknown Secrets (The Secrets of the Rosenbergs), we observe a central panel image of Ethel Rosenberg in the kitchen, smiling to a photographer as she dries her dishes. She is surrounded by period snapshots of popular advertisements. Next there's a letter from President Dwight Eisenhower to his son (then in Korea) justifying his decision not to pardon the Rosenbergs, who were charged with spying for the Soviet Union and executed in 1953.

I liked Zona Oeste, a video by Olivier Zabat, which premiered at this year's Film Festival Rotterdam. Shot in cinema-verite style, Zabat takes us through three segments in which we see and hear of the plunder of a group of thugs, two military policemen, and a former preacher turned criminal. Zabat is clever to have them "play" their own characters, though for their protection, always indoors and in disguise. As we learn, they have a lot in common. The film has humorous moments, but these are real stories.

"Tucumán Is Burning" was a multimedia collective of about 40 artists who produced political work in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina, around 1968. The MAC's display of photos and writing from the group communicate a unique artists' project at a crucial time in the history of Argentina -- the years preceding that country's dictatorship.

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