Aldous Huxley, Meet George W.
The fifth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us, and to commemorate the event, television networks are rifling through their vaults for footage of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Some prime-time specials will ponder whether Americans are any safer, others why Osama Bin Laden hasn't been nabbed. Some will focus on heroic rescues at the Twin Towers.
Hollywood recently released World Trade Center, conspiracy muckraker Oliver Stone's restrained account of a pair of NYPD's finest trapped in the rubble of the calamity.
Weighing in on America's struggle to deal with the aftereffects of 9/11, "Brave New World," currently on view at Diaspora Vibe Gallery, is an exhibit that's timely but uneven.
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It features six artists pondering why we find ourselves mired in an endless war and whether the world has become less safe through militarism, terrorism, state surveillance, and repression.
The exhibit cribs its title from Aldous Huxley's chilling book about a society that sacrifices its autonomy and individual freedoms to ensure its stability. Likewise the artists here seek to question how much citizens in these uncertain times are willing to tolerate from our government in the name of the common good.
Some of the work in the exhibit, curated by Caroline Holder, doesn't always convey Brave New World's underlying theme.
Holder, whose work is also included, completed the graduate program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, along with the rest of the artists in the show. In a gallery handout, Holder describes beginning her first class September 11 just minutes before the terrorist attack and how she and her colleagues were bound together by the world-changing event. Holder goes on to cite that the work on display is a culmination of their explorations of art-making in the social and political environment of a post-9/11 world.
Amanda Burk's installation, Gesture, is a series of five hanging scrolls festooning a gallery wall like political banners. She uses graphite, acrylic, and silver leaf on vellum to depict disembodied hands in a subtle yet striking range of poses. At the bottom of each scroll she includes Arabesque geometric patterns typical of Islamic art. The absence of figural imagery within a religious context in Islamic art is related to the religion's disdain of any hint at idolatry, as explicitly prohibited in the Koran.
The starkly rendered hands, combined with the silver-leaf geometric patterns, create a sense of psychological tension despite the decorative nature of the scrolls.
Are these the hands of some of the thousands of faceless Muslims detained or arrested in the United States following the 2001 attacks? Burk never makes it clear, choosing to avoid outright indictments, but from a spectator's perspective, the hands appear as if they are handcuffed or supplicating across an unseen table and are depicted perhaps from an interrogator's point of view, fingers nervously fidgeting.
Scattered in grids across the wooden floor of Diaspora Vibe's main space, Mary Anne Wensley's Safe Houses is an installation comprising more than 400 tiny Monopoly game-shape houses. Fashioned from the desiccated lining of pig entrails, the delicate two-inch houses look as if they're made from yellowed parchment paper and appear ready to blow away in the slightest breeze.
Wensley has mapped out the structures as if they were gated communities observed from the window of an airplane, seemingly suggesting that Americans can no longer feel secure in their own homes.
Notions of an imminent attack on the heartland are played up for laughs in Denton Fredrickson's bitingly witty video-and-sound piece, Red News. In it the artist combines footage from 1976's The Bad News Bears with snippets of 1984's Red Dawn, lacing his video montage with Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man.
In one scene, Walter Matthau drives a jalopy across the plains with his misfit little-league team in tow. Patriotic music fills the air as he drinks beer and jawbones with the kids, until the footage cuts to a Midwestern city going up in smoke. In another scene, the little-leaguers ask new teammates Ahmed and Abdul what positions they play. As one of the boys tries to lay some salt on a sand-lot pitch, the scene jumps to a bunch of Cuban soldiers hosing a pickup truck with their AK-47s.
Combining violent Cold War propaganda from the height of the Reagan era with a schmaltzy celebration of the national pastime, Fredrickson delivers a skull-staving South Park-like parody of the Dicky and Dubya show.
Holder's Homeland Insecurity riffs on the "thin dust of fear that lay like anthrax over many an interaction" she says she experienced when she returned to New York from school.
The artist has created a six-piece dinner setting for four arranged on a table draped in black. The objects deal with the xenophobia and domestic paranoia she encountered at home. Ceramic cups bear inscriptions such as "Yo grandpa is a terrorist; rat the bum out," and "Yo cousin is a terrorist; lock that fucker up." Grenades and handguns are etched inside.
Painted soup bowls and dinner plates reveal frightened citizens spying on neighbors from behind curtains, and homes with manicured lawns and hijacked airplanes buzzing their roofs.
Other People, an installation by Nancy Price, includes eight photographs of the artist in bucolic settings where she holds up signs bearing cryptic messages. The outfit she wore in the pictures, a ruffled white skirt and blue silk blouse, is also on display.
In one photograph Price appears in a marsh, holding a sign that reads, "Insurgent: What does that mean?" In another she stands next to a wooden arrow that towers over her and points to the sky. She clutches a sign that states, "War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength." Price's Orwellian doublespeak is magnified by a sandwich board next to her that bears a profile of President Bush with the legend "Am I for real Big Ear" printed on it.
In one of Price's most provocative pictures, she is bouncing on a trampoline and holding up a sign that reads, "Hell is other people," echoing the commander in chief's notions that America has become a place where the "other" is a terrorist and that "you're either with us or against us."
It's difficult to see how Dorie Millerson's Attachments I and II fit into the rubric of this show. The exquisite installation made of needlepoint lace and cotton sculptures is isolated in the gallery's project room.
One of her delicate business card-size works, dangling from the ceiling on a string next to a wall, depicts a Twenties-era mother, daughter, and son rendered in monochromatic beige tones. In another she has painstakingly crafted a span bridge the size of a shoebox, which is suspended at eye level from a string attached to opposing walls. These works are dramatically lighted and cast long shadows that sweep across a vast expanse of the space.
Although it is quite lovely, Millerson's work seems to be more a commentary on the passage of time and might have been forced into the show as a nod between friends.
"Brave New World" raises plenty of questions about how 9/11 changed the world. Foremost among these might be: Is America better off now than it was before the war on terrorism? A visit to this show reminds us the answers are no clearer and the outlook just as muddy.
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