Shows at the Freedom Tower and the Moore Space explore strife and displacement
Now that the Basel whirlwind has blown out of town, a flurry of shows lost in its gale braces for the calm after the storm by providing plenty of provocative offerings for art-buffeted locals to enjoy at a leisurely pace.
One key exhibit chronicles the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia through startling photographs; the other examines migrations in Central America from a collective or individual perspective filtered through the lens of culture.
At the Freedom Tower, "Invasion 68 Prague" captures the spirit of a time when the world appeared to be spinning off its axis. The year 1968 saw Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinated. It also marked a period when civil protests erupted worldwide on campuses that became the battlegrounds for social change.
Here in the States and in cities across the globe, protests against the Vietnam War raged. In Spain, Brazil, and Czechoslovakia, demonstrations focused on repressive governments and were more widespread. In Paris, Argentina, and Italy, protests became violent and nearly toppled governments.
That year, on the night of August 21, Josef Koudelka, a theater photographer living in Prague, found himself caught between an anvil and the hammer.
The 30-year-old Koudelka, who the previous day had returned home from an outing in Romania where he was photographing gypsies, became an unsuspecting witness to the Soviet-led invasion of his homeland. Moscow had unleashed its vast arsenal against Czechoslovakia determined to crush the short-lived liberalization of that nation, which became known as the "Prague Spring."
He snapped an arresting series of images documenting the 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks that, with a noose of turmoil and fear, choked off the city of a hundred spires.
On display at the Freedom Tower are 60 of Koudelka's searing black-and-white pictures, many on public view for the first time and chosen by the photographer from his extensive archives.
In the midst of the bloody crackdown, Koudelka captured the chaos of the invasion and smuggled the photos out of the country.
One of his images shows a middle-aged woman lifting a hand to her cheek while fighting back tears. Behind her, passersby on a busy street stop to gawk at a convoy of trucks full of armed soldiers driving into the center of town.
Another powerful picture shows a young man wearing a dark jacket and yelling at soldiers cradling machine guns as they ride on the back of a tank. In the background, a city street is engulfed in what looks like either a plume of smoke from buildings on fire or a dark cloud of tear gas.
One of the most haunting images on display captures an eerily empty boulevard that radiates toward the seat of government at the road's end. The only sign of life is a man's arm jutting into the forefront. A watch strapped to his wrist indicates the exact time of the invasion of Koudelka's homeland.
When these images were first released by Magnum Photos, they were credited to "an unknown Czech photographer" in order to avoid reprisals. The historically vital images earned the then-anonymous photographer the Robert Capa Gold Medal, but years would pass before Koudelka could safely claim authorship of his work.
Now, four decades later, the photos offer a compelling look at the harrowing events during the extraordinary period in Prague.
Upwind at the Design District's Moore Space, the Spanish Cultural Center presents "Migrations: Looking South," a group show curated by Rosina Cazali that brings together more than a dozen Central American artists. Their works explore exodus, whether from social, political, or economic necessity, using a wide range of media: murals, videos, and complex installations.
In her video, Coexistence, Panama's Donna Conlon has filmed a foraging colony of leaf-cutting ants that hack plant life into tiny pieces and carry them to their subterranean nests. The vegetal material decomposes into compost, where the insects will grow fungi to feed their young.
In the mesmerizing footage, Conlon replaced some of the leaves with tiny sheets of paper emblazoned with the peace sign or the flags of the more than 190 countries that belonged to the United Nations at the time she filmed her tiny worker drones. The bugs march in single-file, carrying their minuscule banners as if participating in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. They appear to be working as a collective entity and commenting on how marginalized communities come together to survive and defend themselves in foreign climes that hinder integration.
Guatemala's Angel Poyon Cali uses a row of chrome-finished mechanical clocks devoid of numbers and hour and minute hands. Instead, the artist has covered their surfaces with what appear to be seismic graphs or an overlay of addled doodles. His piece, titled Studies on Failure Measured in Time and Space, is meant to evoke a migrant's journey and sense of disorientation, as well as a yearning for a return to the homeland. The clocks also hint at a needle-less compass guiding a lost wanderer from contradictory pole to pole.
Regina Galindo, who also hails from Guatemala, shifts the focus onto immigrants who are detained in U.S. prisons until their legal status is determined.
In a video projection, the artist re-enacts a scene played out daily by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private-prison company in the world, as it corrals entire families at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a detention facility in Austin, Texas.
This is the first pokey where the federal government allows men, pregnant women, teenagers, children, babies, and their mothers to be locked up together while awaiting release. Most of these people are not criminals, and the state covers expenses during their stay.
Galindo rented a family-style cell — a plastic shed-like structure with a metal toilet, bunk beds, and a crib — from a company that services the prison and inhabited it for 24 hours with her husband and baby before leaving the space behind as an art object.
It's a hair-raising reminder that the illegal alien, while in high demand as an integral part of our nation's labor force, remains ensnared between an unforgiving legal system and a homeland left behind in a time of increasing friction, soul-withering poverty, displacement, and an utter lack of forgiveness.
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