Art's Global Elite

John Haber
in New York City

Isaac Julien, Liz Magic Laser, and Martin Adolfsson

The global elite inhabits a very special place—of sleek surfaces, spotless interiors, untrammeled vistas, and unchanging privilege. So, too, do the films of Isaac Julien. With Liz Magic Laser and Martin Adolfsson, so does the art of politicians, gallery openings, and real estate.

One could dismiss Laser's video as a charming bit of fluff, but it is about the political circus. So much for charming. But then Absolute Event also draws on disco, a classic romance, and the gallery scene itself. With Adolfsson, Madison Avenue meets globalization as well. He finds an entire global middle class sharing American desires. He calls his photographs Suburbia Gone Wild, but one may have to look hard to discern its wildness. Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves (photo by Jonathan Muzikar, Museum of Modern Art, 2010)

The lucky few

A woman looks through a pristine window, from behind a conference table, on the dark night of a city's soul. A man leans into the strange geometry of a more opaque and colorful round window, from behind and in silhouette, as if a clock tower had recovered beauty by losing time. He also stands alone in an icy landscape, wrapped in a dark coat and volcanic mists. These ever so stylish stills accompany Playtime, by Isaac Julien, its only actors labeled the Collector, the Houseworker, the Artist, the Auctioneer, and the Reporter. One might just as well save a little breath and say the Assholes and the Victims.

The Auctioneer, in a black suit and a hipster's touch of a beard, walks briskly without missing a breath or mussing his swept-up hair. The inestimable value of his art, he explains, will confirm the inestimable value of your life. He makes no effort to disguise either his pandering or his disdain. Neither does Julien. "It is only an auctioneer," quipped Oscar Wilde, "who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art." Well, no, for apparently only an auctioneer can admire unequally and partially the lucky few.

The film's "chapters," as Julien calls them, are informed by David Harvey, the Marxist scholar of Postmodernism and capital. (He has also filmed himself and Harvey speaking at another bastion of art and privilege, the Hayward Gallery in London.) In others, a Filipino maid describes her isolation in Dubai, while well-oiled sheiks slip past in a slow-motion blur, and a photographer travels to Reykjavik, ostensibly to locate the roots of the global financial crisis. One may recognize the two from the still photographs, although one may have trouble making out her accent or his purpose. No matter, not when she can stand on rippling desert sand and he can play a figure out of Caspar David Friedrich, Peder Balke, and Northern Romanticism. This particular critique of capitalism has a way of erasing differences, along with the blood on anyone's hands.

If seventy minutes of this on a wide screen sounds unendurable, a three-minute version played on seventeen screens in Times Square every night in December, starting three minutes before midnight. (Symbolism duly noted.) Nine monitors suffice at MOMA for Ten Thousand Waves, which commemorates another sacrifice to global capitalism—the drowning of twenty Chinese cockle pickers off the coast of England in 2004. (What are cockle pickers? If you have to ask, you can't afford to profit from one.) And the scene sweeps across the globe, from echoes of an idyllic Chinese landscape through the highway to a congested city.

Along the way, a Chinese calligrapher exercises his craft, before a window washer spreads the letters into a black stain on the way to wiping them away. A woman in white floats overhead, representing a sea goddess responsible for guiding fishermen to safety. The job is just so much harder these days. And no question but the 2010 work tames the museum's outsize atrium as never before, whether crossing far above or exploiting, for once, the vantage points on higher floors. Yet the overwhelming slickness remains. Julien has even hired a noted orchestra and commissioned a classical score.

Hollywood styling can add irony to an outsider's point of view, or so thought Cindy Sherman and the "Pictures generation," but here it defeats the purposes of both. The very arrangement by disconnected episodes runs counter to avant-garde strategies of extended takes and unsettling juxtapositions. It also leaves little space for ambiguity. As a black, gay man in London, one who has filmed the Trinidad community in Baltimore, Julien surely knows exclusion, but his style is dressed for success. It has its obvious heroes and villains, and they look equally handsome. The rich are different from you and me, and so here are the poor and the creative artist.

The political hustle

For Liz Magic Laser, the meeting of politics and disco starts with the setting. Dance steps cross a map of the world on the floor, like an Arthur Murray studio for the era of globalization. The continents in black turn a disco ball above into a globe, like a prop for Jabu Arnell, while another world map on black plastic strips adds to the shine, like silvery Mylar for Tara Donovan. The backdrops also include more dance steps and a graph of political opinions, distinct (unlike the dance steps) for men and women. Opinions about what? Laser refuses to say, and her politicians have hardly a clue.

They do, though, want to dance. The one designated "the leader," a slim Paul Ryan type, attends a campaign event, but he is uncomfortable doing anything but "The Hustle." It takes him a good third of the video in the back room to get beyond thanking supporters for attending. Only music piped in by "the strategist" interrupts him, and only stopping the music gets him to sit the group down at the front room's black conference table. The focus group ends with a plea to rise, in a show of support that quickly becomes a choreographed performance. As for the overweight and impatient handler, he finally cannot resist stepping out from behind the scenes to join in.

The classic romance I mentioned at the start is Cyrano de Bergerac from 1897, that rare romantic comedy in which the hero dies in the end. It is also one of those bits of fluff still best read as one is entering one's teens. As in Much Ado About Nothing, a young soldier cannot woo the woman he loves without someone else supplying the words. Unlike in Shakespeare, however, that someone excels at both swordplay and language. According to Wikipedia, Cyrano "is responsible for introducing the word panache into the English language." Indeed.

Liz Magic Laser's Absolute Event (Paula Cooper gallery, 2013)Edmond Rostand's play is about the ultimate handler—and Laser borrows from it liberally, updated with actual talk from political strategists in collaboration with Sofia Pontén. References to Twitter and Facebook turn up within the first minute. Her leads, Gary Lee Mahmoud and Daniel Abse, apparently worked as Washington staffers before their acting careers. (I have not, this once, tried to verify the artist's statement, for fear it might be true.) The guy in the suit has no stomach for glad-handling rather than straight talk, but he also has nothing to say. The guy in shirt sleeves with a receding hairline has to feed him the words, through a technology left unmentioned and unseen, but it hardly helps.

Laser has tackled politics more than once before, stylishly and well, as with a mash-up of State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush and Obama. As an emerging artist in Greater New York 2010, she also showed the right way to cope with a lousy economy. (Hint: swipe someone else's purse and credit cards, preferably with robot arms.) She knows a political farce when she sees it—or directs it. "I just don't want to play a part anymore," the politician exclaims, but he does nothing else. Ill at ease with those cell phone look-alikes used to collect data in the focus group, he is also a throwback to disco.

All this no doubt spells out the obvious, for a good thirty minutes. It is also a tad cynical, with no party, ideology, or agenda to blame beyond that of the mass media. Laser does, though, point to another kind of spectacle and another kind of fluff, the art world. If the awkward socializing resembles an opening, she recorded the video in performance (twice during the show's run), with the gallery's front room as its "situation room." Anyone watching the video another day, from behind a mixing board and six additional monitors with the script on the table, is in the "control room," in the place of the handler. "Before disco," the politician temporizes, "the country was a social wasteland." What does that say about the country this long after disco—or about art?

Model cities

And here you thought suburban sprawl was a local problem. Maybe it has turned the northeast corridor into an extended traffic jam. Maybe it has gutted Detroit on the verge of bankruptcy—or of a losing its art museum. Maybe it means cookie-cutter dreams of luxury and the institutionalization of bad taste. Who knew, though, that the greater New York area, south Florida, or LA had grown so large? Who knew that "sprawltown" now extends to Bangkok?

Martin Adolfsson calls it Suburbia Gone Wild, the title of a book and a pop-up exhibition. "Many times I had the distinct feeling that I was witnessing an entire social class going through a turbulent period akin to teenage angst." Yet his photographs are more striking for their utter lack of wildness. Not only are they both ever so familiar and empty of people. They are also a deliberate taming of the picturesque, for that vision of grandeur as domesticity held out in the style section of The New York Times. If globalization for Thomas L. Friedman promises that the world is flat, like an assembly line in Colombia for Oscar Murillo or the shipping industry for James Benning and Peter Hutton, these are its flatlands.

Adolfsson first saw them unexpectedly from the sky, on a trip to Bangkok, and he knew that he had to return. He also knew that they could not be unique, and he soon found himself hunting out planned communities in Shanghai, Bangalore, Cairo, Moscow, Johannesburg, São Paulo, and Mexico City as well. He and a woman posed as a couple and as potential buyers, rather than asking permission. His book boasts of forty-four suburbs, eight countries, five continents, twenty-six hundred photographs, and six years. One might never know it. The developers do their best to ensure that, with much the same Spanish-style ceramic roofing, central swimming pools, model kitchens, and flat-panel TVs everywhere. Martin Adolfsson's Sens, Mexico City, Mexico (courtesy of the artist, 2013)

So, for that matter, does the photographer, born in Sweden and now based in New York, with quite a body of commercial work. The book pairs almost identical scenes in distant cities, right down to twin beds for the kiddies. He finds few particulars beyond their stuffed animals—and few bows to existing cultures beyond the red logo, perhaps a dragon, at the bottom of a pool. He also accentuates the regularity and symmetry, whether in shots of identical row houses or, more often, in single mansions. Somehow, despite having shot all these on the sly, he reproduces perfectly the style of travel and architecture magazines. One could find oneself at home in the United States, right down to a framed picture of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Of course, that is the point. One should find a disjunction between appearances and reality, and one should find that disturbing. I am not entirely convinced, though, that one can. I admire the sheer magnitude of the project, and I am surprised that Adolfsson does not have a wider audience. Yet appearances have absorbed even him. This is not suburbia for Amy Bennett as voyeur and comedian or landscape painter, Jeff Wall as perpetual tourist, Gregory Crewdson as a futurist, Terry Evans as a mapper of the human and natural landscape, or Thomas Demand as an illusion. For its sole furtive break in the cleanliness, it shoots household cleaners like Spic 'n Span.

That leaves open the question of what it has found. Joseph Grima, in his preface to the limited edition (published by Visual Structures), describes it as "new wealth," Tina Essmaker in her text as "model homes in emerging economies." One might never know that these countries already had concentrations of wealth and poverty. One might never know how other classes have seized on and in turn influenced the "American way of life"—or that Adolfsson would never have pulled off his deception without the expectation that everyone carries a mobile camera nowadays. One might never know that the most wrenching shifts, especially in China, are coming from forced displacement into crowded and polluted cities, and one might never know that the upper class has repopulated American cities, while ordinary people have long felt the limits of suburbia. Suburbia Gone Wild tells a terrific story, but it will take others to tease out its complexities and its strangeness.

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Isaac Julien's "Playtime" ran at Metro Pictures through December 14, 2013, "Ten Thousand Waves" at The Museum of Modern Art through February 17, 2014. Liz Magic Laser ran at Paula Cooper through November 30, 2013, Martin Adolfsson at Site/109 on Norfolk Street through July 10, 2013.


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