Political Art by the Book

John Haber
in New York City

Marlene Dumas, The Labyrinth Wall, and Emily Jacir

The tales date to at least the American Civil War—a life saved, a bullet stopped by a Bible. No one could conceivably sort out the miracles from the myths. How natural, then, to transpose them to another struggle, another divided land, and another book close to a man's heart. How natural, too, if the book turns on telling stories in order to live.

Alas, guns are more powerful these days, and cultural myths are more fragile. Wael Zuaiter, a poet and Palestinian spokesman, was carrying A Thousand and One Nights when Mossad agents killed him in Rome. He had meant to translate it from Arabic, and bullets pierced its pages. The 1972 assault came in response to the hostage murders that summer at the Munich Olympics. Zuaiter's supporters deny that he shared responsibility. Memorials have grown up around him, including plans for a documentary, shelved after one of the filmmakers died in 1982. Emily Jacir's Material for a Film (in preparation) (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2009)

Now Emily Jacir takes Zuaiter as the subject of Material for a Film, winner of the biennial Hugo Boss Prize. It shows the difficult promise of political art. Like the tale of revenge at the work's core, political art embraces violent controversy. And it does best when it accepts ambiguity and the cost to each side of violence. It also creates a myth, with its subject the violent myths of others. That includes not only torture and war as in the art of Leon Golub, but books—from the Bible and A Thousand and One Nights.

All that gave political art fresh urgency after 9/11, when it also gave most offense. A single image, by Amy Wilson, got the Drawing Center excluded from plans for Ground Zero. Now art about torture has grown perfectly acceptable, but perhaps for that very reason often more cut and dried. In the winter of 2009, three shows make clear what can go wrong with political art. With Marlene Dumas, its message becomes too simple, refusing even to admit controversy. With "The Labyrinth Wall," a group show at Exit Art, it becomes too diffuse, as if wanting to embrace every kind of suffering. With Jacir at the Guggenheim, it becomes both.

Innocents abroad

Dumas, naturally, would insist that you start with her. So repeat after me. Nobody is innocent, not even a child—or an artist. No, not even you, and definitely not a white artist from South Africa.

One had better keep repeating it, because Marlene Dumas struggles never to forget. She wants to believe it, but she still has to let one know where she stands. Her retrospective is one extended portrait of suffering. There they are, the body bag and the freedom fighter. There they are, the nude sex worker manacled between police, the dead Marilyn. There it is, too, the black man's face—beaten, bloodied, and swollen.

Obviously they cover a lot of ground. One wants to believe that they chart a very specific history, that of her country. In practice, they seem united merely by suffering. Overwhelmingly she paints women and children, and she paints them as victims, not excluding herself and friends. Sleepers appear dying or dead. In her struggle to forget, Dumas does not make explicit the cause of death, unlike the newly alive political art from Jenny Holzer.

For all that, she does believe that no one is innocent. Her children—when not already dead—look sullen, even sinister. In a room lined with nearly one hundred of their faces on paper, one has morphed into an insect's head. A naked infant stands like a street fighter. Dumas has painted his right hand painted an icy blue and his left hand red, as if covered with blood. For a moment, one could remember how Amy Wilson shocked The Daily News by juxtaposing blond little girls with the hooded figure from Abu Ghraib.

Dumas embraces her own responsibility as well, including the responsibility for the blue and red overpainting. She titles that portrait of an infant The Painter. Perhaps she is responsible for your suffering as well. With its rail-thin body and outstretched arms, a dancer could be you. As the painting's title has it, you could be Measuring Your Own Grave.

In this earnest conception of political art, even ambiguity needs spelling out. Dumas paints from photographs. She paints, too, as if nothing, however gorgeous or horrific, can speak for itself. A comfortable museum-goer like you has to accept guilt along with the artist. And you had better know just who is guilty—and of what.

Losers and no winners

The retrospective spans two floors by theme rather than chronologically, but Dumas hardly seems to have evolved. She has lived in Amsterdam for thirty years, and she has a far greater reputation in Europe than in America. The grays link her to the blunt reserve of Luc Tuymans, but without his cool literalism. The smears link her to Francis Bacon, but without his transformation of the sitter into dead meat. The basis in photography links her to Gerhard Richter, but without the allure of evil. She wants something much, much plainer.

Marlene Dumas's Jen (Museum of Modern Art, 2005)Like her arbitrary titles, her technique insists on the subject's anonymity. Sometimes Dumas adds a rectangle in black or white, in imitation of a censor's mask. One woman's nipple appears to have migrated upward. Imagine some kind of plastic stick-on, like a police marker on a corpse. Elsewhere, a reduction in gray scale and a thickening of the black outline gives her sleepers their aura of death.

The same newborn appears in two different works, as Cupid and, with black skin, as Reinhardt's Daughter. Of course, Dumas has smeared its flesh with black. The title once again alludes to the artist's culpability. It also marks her inheritance of black oil from Ad Reinhardt. Still, with their flat style and placement outside the exhibition's entrance, one could easily mistake both works for reproductions.

Americans tend to prefer the immediacy of the headlines to existential crises, at least in art since 9/11. They also tend to let irony and the viewer's culpability permeate the topmost layer of oil. Dumas goes back to an older ideal—a unity of content and form in which content clearly takes the lead. As with Leon Golub, art documents torture by torturing the painted surface. The formalists who mocked that ideal as "mere illustration" may have departed long ago, including Reinhardt. Yet she cannot top arguing with them.

At its most elaborate, a sheet of color escapes and half eradicates its outlines. It appears dragged across the figure with a dry, thinly loaded brush. It shows how much more she can achieve, as an artist and as her own subject. Yet it shows, too, her temptation to smother possibilities. She understands that political art inhabits that strange domain between public and private spaces. Somehow, though, Dumas's art always breaks down along sharp lines of gender, race, and culture.

From time to time, the clipped brushstrokes and poster colors have an eager, even comic frankness. In a self-portrait, they exaggerate her bushy hair and lend a welcome glint of light to her eyes. For once, she forgets to paint her subject as a victim. Elsewhere, she is the one stripping them of both their comforts and their innocence. She could never, as in late Goya, plunge headfirst into the abyss while laughing. In this war between an artist and her subject matter, no one is the winner.


Late last year, Edward Winkleman interrupted his art blog for an urgent plea: prosecute Bush. It will never happen, I thought, but I tried to find comfort in the violations of American laws, democratic norms, international treaties, and ordinary human decency. Trials for war crimes, I reasoned, nearly always depend on other nations, as at Nuremberg or in the work of Bradley McCallum. Already, a Spanish judge threatens to indict six Bush officials. So this is why art makes the headlines.

Exit Art may yet offer an alternative: shut them up in the labyrinth, with the Minotaur and, as in Iraq, no Ariadne's thread to guide them out. Jeannette Ingberman and Papo Colo line the space with "The Labyrinth Wall: From Mythology to Reality," inviting fifty-one artists to cover its sixty-two panels. For five days in December, the public could watch the artists work, much as the nonprofit had turned its 2003 reopening, "The Reconstruction," into a work in progress. The result typifies everything that makes Exit Art special—its openness, its ingenuity, and its urgency. It also typifies the downside of its curatorial approach, of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

The combined visual and physical spectacle feels great—as one tries to penetrate it, grabs the map listing the artists, and grasps where to begin. It is not really all that puzzling, and no one will get lost. That, too, though, contributes to the confusion of too many shared dilemmas. The maze offers itself as metaphor for anything from the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, and threatened immigration walls to a dead-end economy, abandoned city lots, and the morass of Iraq. The curators felt these urgent enough that they rejiggered their winter exhibition schedule for disaster. Happy holidays!

They all welcomed a range of submissions. I recognized few beyond Tom Otterness and John Ahearn. They play off one another, as well as off the walls. Otterness, better known for painfully upbeat urban sculpture, diagrams the housing crisis as outward spiral ending in international socialism and "everybody goes to heaven." Next door, Jayson Keeling begins with a more anxious salvation: "The Kingdom of Heaven Is Within I'm So Confused."

Even Daedalus barely escaped the labyrinth alive, and he had Ariadne's thread—a word related in meaning to the root of the word clue. Bush did not have a clue. But do the artists? All too often, they are as shallow as Otterness and as stammering as Keeling. Cartoon CEOs enjoy their money pots, and "Barack Obama will do a very good job as president." A kind of graffiti or grade-school composition comes to this bleak stretch of Tenth Avenue, but without the energy of competitive overload and only rarely with the wit of Dan Tague's badly worn dollar bill.

What fact or metaphor can connect or transcend so many historical walls, from the Cold War to Wall Street, beyond a curator's good intentions? Of course, one gets no end of labyrinths, or at least conventional mazes, like Yucef Merhi's old-fashioned loops of tiny, anxious text or Luis Camnitzer's Monopoly board fiendishly displaced into what one might call a liquidity trap. Artists may do better, though, to represent actual social and economic barriers—like Francisca Benitez's property lines, Carlo Quispe's border patrol, or Guerra de la Paz's four detour signs pointing ominously toward each other. They may do best merely to thrust the wall in one's face. Joan Linder paints brick with a furnace at its center, while Juana Gallo supplies only a narrow corridor between walls, each left to scuff marks and white. If it is never quite enough, this labyrinth wants a little too much to exceed the sum of its parts.

Bulleted lists

Material for a Film functions best as a single installation, broken only by a moment of silence. Partitions snake through the Guggenheim tower gallery that housed previous Hugo Boss Prize winners, Tacita Dean and Rirkrit Tiravanija. This time, Emily Jacir has packed it with book covers, other memorabilia, and quotes from friends. In a room at the back, halfway through, she stops for a second work. She took a .22 caliber pistol to a thousand and one blank books, which there line the walls. Also as part of that work, she photographed Zuaiter's bullet-pierced pages, for display by the gallery entrance.

Reporters and artists have something in common, which helps explain the potential for political art and art of the Arab lands. They both have to ask tough questions, to listen, and to know when their work must speak for itself. As an emerging artist, Jacir made empathy her signature in "Greater New York," "Open House," and a Whitney Biennial. She asked what she could do for her subjects anywhere in Palestine, if only she could. She then displayed their wishes in words, images, and other scraps. She was breaking boundaries—in her mix of media, in the imagination of her subjects, and in choosing them from both America and the Middle East.

An artist's reticence can allow ambiguity and other voices, as the stridency of Marlene Dumas cannot. It can also produce evasions. Does Jacir speak achingly of displacement, or does her question amount to special pleading for a right of return? Later she again crossed the limits of geography and media, videotaping convenience stores here and in the West Bank. She also reproduced in paint the email thanking her, pleading with her, and denouncing her. Does it resonate more now, after shrill responses on both sides to Israel's Gaza incursion, or does her silence amount to self-congratulation?

One focuses on her content because of its near banality as art. Her collection seems less like conceptual art than a project in junior high. It has the well-meaning air of bulletin boards in social studies, with literal bulleted lists. For all its frank record of brutality and dashed hopes, Material for a Film slips from empathy to hagiography. It presents Zuaiter as a lover of western literature, with only the barest hint of his politics. At the same time, it has no doubt whatsoever of his innocence.

It makes Steven Spielberg's exploration of revenge and self-doubt in Munich downright profound by comparison. I wanted a remake of Jaws, with Jacir bobbing on the water to John Williams music. I wanted time between the messages to meditate. Even that gorgeous room of bullet-marked white connects too tenuously to the rest. It never pursues associations with bullets and books. It never seems to notice how both define the canons and myths of East and West.

Jacir never once asks what A Thousand and One Nights meant to Zuaiter, any more than Aernout Mik deciphers the Bosnian wars on video. She never asks, too, what its heroine found in each morning's silence. As Henri Matisse inscribed on a popular print, Elle vit apparaître le matin. Ell se tut discrètement. She sees morning appear, and she discretely becomes silent. In different ways, Dumas, "The Labyrinth Wall," and Jacir have almost forgotten how to harness silence.

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Marlene Dumas ran at the Museum of Modern Art through February 16, 2009, "The Labyrinth Wall: From Mythology to Reality" at Exit Art through February 7, and Emily Jacir's Hugo Boss Prize installation at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum tower gallery through April 15. The section on Jacir first appeared, abridged, in Artillery magazine. An earlier article considers Emily Jacir at her best as a model for politically engaged art. A later note says farewell to Jeanette Ingberman of Exit Art.


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