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

Politics and Art and Risk

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.


"How do we want to be governed? (Figure and Ground)"

Miami Art Central, 5960 Red Rd, Coral Gables

Through January 30. 305-455-3333

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.

On the other hand, Entre/acte by artist Alejandra Riera, about the clandestine economy between Argentina and Bolivia's frontiers, was a bit didactic. It's just another set of photos with text, only this time the situation portrayed isn't clearly developed.

For viewers of "How do we want to be governed?" there's a lot of reading to be done, which brings up an interesting connection between the art on display and the catalogue. Many of the essays are so theory-laden that the pleasure of going back and forth between reading and seeing (or remembering) becomes needlessly tedious.

Phrases like "neoliberal immanence," or "gesture describes a type of action that does not have an external objective, but is, rather, an objective in itself," seem straight out of Hegel's Science of Logic. But this is not a philosophy textbook; it's a catalogue for an art exhibit.

For instance, consider Harm Lux's notes on Francesca Woodman's photos: "Her works offer viewers the possibility of honing their sensory perception and awareness of the borders of their own realm of existence." Not just pointless but also pedantic.

Artist Ines Doujak's Follow the Leader is impenetrable. It can only be understood by reading Carola Platzek's attempt at deciphering in the catalogue. Platzek tries really hard to make sense of Doujak's diverse sources. Her narrative involves (among others) Herman Melville's short story Benito Cereno, Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, Carl Schmitt (the German Catholic intellectual and Nazi ideologue), Robert Wyatt's 1982 album Nothing Can Stop Us, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, Christopher Columbus, and imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. When you're done reading, Doujak's installation appears contrived, as if it had been built by following Platzek's instruction manual.

The same goes for curator Roger M. Buergel's validation of Rainer Oldendorf's disparate color photos. Acknowledging that the artist's work may be perceived as disconnected, he writes, "Perhaps interchangeability is but a cipher for contingency...which our neoliberal ego cannot experience as other than a narcissistic insult."

Finally there's the curators' effort to denounce neoliberalism as the West's fundamental problem with governance. Which would be fine if it weren't for the lack of any mention of seven decades of ruthless communism in the Eastern Bloc (an obvious example of bad governance), or the present rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Buergel and Ruth Noack seem nostalgic for a Cold War world, a longing that apparently led them, as curators, to ignore 9/11 and its aftermath in the Middle East. It left me baffled.


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