The Art of War

John Haber
in New York City

John Gerrard, Cyprien Gaillard, and Elektra KB

Imran Qureshi and the Met's Roof Garden

In the days of competing empires, all of global politics may have seemed one slow, elaborate, and futile dance. Today, it must seem more like chaos, but the dance is not yet over. John Gerrard has choreographed the chaos.

Only very slowly. Cyprien Gaillard would surely recognize the pace, but less as choreography than torture. Even in the Mideast, however, he also finds a "post-industrial version of the picturesque." With Elektra KB, the dance is back—but fast, furious, and feminist. And with Imran Qureshi, the Met's roof garden feels the twin toll of Mideast history and of war. As they travel the planet, they give new meaning to the art of war. Imran Qureshi's roof garden commission (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013)

To choreograph the chaos

For John Gerrard, the art of war is a very slow dance indeed. Born in Dublin, he has studied at Oxford and in Chicago, and his art has taken him from Iran to the Horn of Africa. Not much seems to have changed, though, along the way. His video set in East Africa depicts a mud flat—where the operative word is flat, up to hills fading to blue along the horizon. Mud has caked dry to a tan indistinguishable from a desert. As for southern Iran, his camera finds little more than a narrow road across the plain, stretching to infinity or to nowhere.

Of course, all those are under western eyes, the kind for which Djibouti is French Somaliland and the Gulf of Aden is the setting for oil traffic and piracy. Gerrard is out to describe the limits of that gaze, starting with its focus on oil and violence. Exercise (Djibouti) unfolds on the site of military exercises, he explains, with athletes in team colors running a figure eight to the point of exhaustion. For all one can determine, they could be running ragtag or in circles—not so very far from the West Bank conflict as a game for Yael Bartana in 2008. Only smoke canisters punctuate or guide the futility. It may or may not matter that a figure eight stands for infinity.

A video from a year earlier, in Iran, has a still more Orwellian title, Infinite Freedom Exercise. It also has the assistance of an actual choreographer. Here a man dressed as a soldier slowly kneels and rises beside that long, empty road. A more recent video holds much the same scene, but with no signs of life at all. While conceived separately, more than a year apart, the two appear together as a single two-channel installation, which has a certain logic. The newer channel responds to the old one, and both respond to the same event.

They take off from a press photo of burning oil refineries in 1980. Not everyone then looked past the black clouds to notice the photographer's or viewer's surrogate in a soldier watching. Now the right channel recreates the blackness without him. Gerrard's soldier is looking away at left, while his exercise mimes releasing mortar. Presumably back then western eyes could not look away, after rising oil prices and gas lines in America, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and the hostage crisis. Yet the video makes none of those explicit, and one may not even see the burning.

That is because the exploration of limits extends to the camera. It turns in a full circle, but almost imperceptibly. Depending on when one comes in and how long one waits, one may see only the road vanishing to infinity. One may even grasp the change, see the road return, and think the show is over, without catching the other half of the circle with the smoke. It takes discipline, like the soldier's. To add to the perplexity of one's identification with either the camera or the actor, the video unfolds in real time much as for Claudia Joskowicz in Bolivia, corresponding to the light of New York.

Gerrard sees art and war alike through the eyes of popular culture, in a way that earlier Iranian art could not. As new media, his video also falls between political art and the formalism of an open plain, much like the view from outside his window in Tel Aviv for Barry Frydlender. Think of the slow motion of Andy Warhol's Empire, Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho, and Nam June Paik's TV set showing only a horizontal line. More recently, Ishmael Randall Weeks has addressed geopolitics indirectly, through the metaphor of topography. Gerrard may agree, but he keeps his distance from any one point of view, including the camera's. He also changes metaphors, from mapping to the dance.

Civilization and its discontents

Cyprien Gaillard's art has taken him across three continents and at least as many millennia. He has seen ancient ruins and war-torn nations, exotic rituals and luxury resorts, dark nights broken by fireworks and orange deserts bathed in the midday sun. He has followed soldiers on patrol in camouflage, women in burkhas and in shadows, and young men in nothing but their swimsuits, hardly aware that they have exposed themselves to danger. He has carried little in the way of protection himself, not counting a Polaroid camera or an iPhone to capture the scene without lingering too long. So why does it all look the same? I am glad you asked, and so, I suspect, is he.

If President Obama has trouble finding an appointment that he can get past the GOP, Gaillard has truly global experience. Born in Paris and still in his early thirties, he also has "The Crystal World." Yet he does not want anything to stand majestically alone. That would create too comforting a narrative, whether of decline or progress. This crystal world is neither a lost utopia or a future one. Rather than Romanticism and memory or Modernism and the shape of things to come, he means it when he speaks of his post-industrial version of the picturesque.

While Jerry Saltz has compared the art world to a "battle for Babylon," Gaillard has in mind the historical battle, in present-day Iraq. He also has in mind anything but a literal history. In the video centerpiece of a midcareer retrospective, the Ishtar gate or a dancer's flowing dress looks quite at home with abandoned tanks and crumbling prefabs. As for the annoying pop song on the sound track, it, too, is "Babylon"—and, he swears, was used as an instrument of torture at Abu Ghraib. But then this artist treats pretty much everything as tourism, including torture. He tricks kids in bathing trunks to dive into shallow water, and then he lingers over the blood like elements of set design.

Cyprien Gaillard's Artefacts (MoMA PS1, 2011)He first drew attention in 2006 with Geographical Analogies, seemingly endless grids of Polaroids tilted forty-five degrees. They make little effort at composition or insight, and for all one knows the banality could be deliberate. He appeared in "Landscape and Affect," at SculptureCenter in 2008, and again the next year at the New Museum, where his excess fit just fine with its first "Generational." He dares one to distinguish fireworks, a disco, and urban demolition, but mostly he wants to leave his audience hypnotized—as, no doubt, was he. Earlier he was content just to watch white smoke roll across a green landscape. Later he headed for Cancún, to cut between Mayan ruins and golfing by the sea.

Gaillard has a problem with modernity and complacency, while reveling in them both. When his travels include Passaic along with Mexico and Iraq, New Jersey should not feel flattered. When he visits New York and Los Angeles, inner city becomes just one more thing to drive past, like a corpse. Yet he is enjoying every minute of his extended vacation. Like Sari Dienes before him, he takes rubbings of manhole covers, like decorative shields from a lost civilization. The teeth from earth movers make entirely convincing pre-Columbian artefacts, awaiting ritual oil to set them aflame.

They are post-industrial, but eminently picturesque. The term dates chiefly from the late eighteenth century and Romanticism, when it encompassed ruined abbeys and formal gardens. A gentle human design could inspire the sublime. It makes a European a tourist and, ultimately, an invader, much as in Iraq. Gaillard, too, delights in civilization and its discontents, as a less bitter version of what Leo Marx called "the machine in the garden." Like William Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, he is reasonably content with "the still, sad music of humanity"—at least when it sounds like "Babylon."

Insurgents

Girls just want to have fun—and maybe, just maybe, to start a revolution. That may not sound easy, especially in a hijab and, at times, thick tape over one's nose and mouth in place of a veil. These are, though, "dancing warriors." Their dance just happens to require automatic weapons. Besides, black is always in fashion, and these women are plainly enjoying themselves without so much as firing a shot. One does call this kind of activity war games for nothing.

Elektra KB has high but eclectic ideals. She calls her two-gallery show "There Are Women at the Gates Seeking a New World," but the gates are all over the map. In a one photo, the women's headgear owes something to Islam and something to nuns, but after that they sport only flesh-colored body nylons and black fur boots. A silkscreen has Asian women crouching for what may be combat with America, and another has what may be an Aztec temple. A panel calls for the abolition of class society, in French. "My utopia," another explains in English (give or take the crazed line breaks and words separated only by periods), "is an environment that works so well we can run wild in it."

A massive artist book introduces its cast of "Magical-Insurgent-Spirits." These are, you see, Cathara insurgent women, in their uprising against the Theocratic Republic of Gaia, and I would tell you more, but one side or another in the epic battle has blacked out key words. The dance continues on the Lower East Side, in black silhouettes running down the stairs, like a wall cutout by Kara Walker but faster paced and with bright red and blue felt for the guns. Apart from a jerky video, though, both galleries rely chiefly on collage—the paint, photos, and patterned fabric held together by thread, as yet more women's work. The course seams look like a response to an emergency.

One should probably not have a private mythology unless one is William Blake or a comic book, and Elektra KB has something of both. She also has something in common with Amy Wilson, whose women have also lived through Mideast wars and domestic politics (and who is in a fine group show upstairs at the same downtown gallery, on the theme of "Sea and Sky"). Since the younger artist recently graduated the School of Visual Arts, it may not be a coincidence. A touch of Wilson's anxiety and introspection even breaks through on one panel, where the text speaks of "this pain I just want to disintegrate." Gender starts to disintegrate, too, even as Elektra KB boasts of it—for the male enemy takes its name from a primeval earth goddess, while the rather earthy spirits take theirs from medieval Christian ascetics. Mostly, though, this is about running wild and enjoying it, and for now I can almost convince myself that she cares a great deal whether the environment works or not.

Imran Qureshi is less sanguine. Okay, that may be the wrong choice of words, for an artist who has splattered the roof garden of the Met in blood red. Those looking for a drink and a view of Central Park may step right on it without so much as noticing. They may think that the museum has dispensed with its often elaborate summer sculpture on the roof, or they may think that it has not cleaned up after an alarming spill. Look more attentively, and one will discern hand-brushed flower petals, in burgeoning clusters like peacock feathers. One will also rediscover the air about and the ground beneath one's feet.

The artist, born (like Huma Bhabha) in Pakistan, alludes to illuminated manuscript from the Mughal court, with its walled gardens. He plays the luxuriance of the park against that of past centuries, in the Met's Islamic wing below, but he is hardly a miniaturist. One can experience the roof under random bombardment, and one can imagine the spilled blood as one's own. One can also, he hopes, see "a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope." I wondered whether that dialogue would survive the summer—or whether the usual foot traffic (weather permitting) would drown it out. To the contrary, alas, on a second or third visit, the scene seemed oddly bare and the people largely indifferent, but I still kept wanting the echoes of hope and violence to endure.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Cyprien Gaillard: The Crystal World" ran at MoMA PS1 through March 18, 2013, John Gerrard at Simon Preston through April 14, Elektra KB at BravinLee Programs through June 28 and at Allegra LaViola through June 22, and Imran Qureshi on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 3.

 

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