Politics or Protest?

John Haber
in New York City

Martha Rosler, Ardeshir Mohassess, and Yael Bartana

Does political art deserve a day off? The end of the Bush presidency offers one excuse. A year's end offers a few more. For a good six months before, though, the holiday may already have begun.

Not that artists no longer feel a sense of urgency. This site has often argued that art always has the potential for public engagement and public controversy in public spaces. It has tracked the outpourings of political art since 9/11 and memorials to the "summer of love." As I write, another show on largely Middle Eastern themes is opening at Pratt. Others keep probing the politics of art itself, including feminism, multiculturalism, and art as a commodity. Still, is it an accident that several shows now have come across less like a protest and more like despair? Yael Bartana's Kings of the Hill (Annet Gelink/Sommer Contemporary Art, 2003)

I could call it a trend and invent any number of reasons for it. Art reflects the world, and Americans as a whole started to tune out the Iraq war once they could agree on its stupidity. Art is making too much money to worry about anything but its own future. Art, like everyone else, is facing too many disasters to choose one as its subject. Trends tend to look less real six months later anyway, but consider one last factor: political art changes depending on what counts as politics, and the answer may differ after 9/11 for those have experienced other wars.

Traditionally, political art is about protest, and it stands outside political institutions. Meanwhile, a younger generation no longer remembers the Vietnam War and the civil rights marches, although Henry Taylor has created imagined portraits of Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. It thinks of grassroots politics as net roots or the Obama campaign rather than marching in the streets. Meanwhile some of the most compelling shows of political art in 2008 come from artists old enough to remember past wars, other countries, or both. Martha Rosler simply reworks her protest against one war for another, and Duston Spear fills the Mideast with warriors from many centuries ago. Ardeshir Mohassess had his last show after a lifetime of protest in Iran, and Yael Bartana reinvents protest art for Israel's occupied territories today—with humor, sadness, new media, and the very idea of art's detachment at its core.

Deserts eleven

When Martha Rosler looks at war, it makes her nostalgic for her youth. "Great Power" sets stylish figures out of forty-year-old advertising amid tanks and explosions. For a quarter in the turnstile, the proceeds all going to right and just causes, one can catch the main act. Men in dark suits stride toward the camera like a trailer for Oceans Eleven—or Twelve or Thirteen or however far along in a culture of sequels. Exactly which Gulf War is this anyway? Which Bush or Clinton?

The past styles extend to art as well, and I mean her art. Rosler has revived her own techniques and images from the Vietnam War, although on a somewhat larger, more collectible scale—along with the same lecture on militarism and consumer capitalism. Her collage then already looked back to the first crude Pop Art satires of Richard Hamilton, just as Rosler's funniest video put her as the angry feminist in an old-fashioned kitchen. All this recycling has a sour, didactic taste, but it does put things in perspective. Rosler's 1975 The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems sounds slippery, delightfully so, but it documents a community's exploitation all too literally, in photographs and real-estate values. With her new work, one can had best not take the images at face value.

The casual installation helps gives up the pretence of a lecture hall, and a turnstile has its own nostalgia value after the MetroCard. Worse comes to worse, one can insert a dollar in the change machine, pocket the change, and finally snag a parking spot in Chelsea. For a dollar, too, one can instead climb onto a dance machine, the kind that one may never meet again. Another old dance kick belongs to an oversized prosthetic limb, a nasty conjunction of the war's injured and music halls. Besides, a little recycling makes sense, now that a neocon wish to refight Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Culture Wars has found its fulfillment in Baghdad—or in the view from Alaska to the former Soviet Union. When Rosler's Bowery project helped to open the New Museum downtown, perhaps it reminded her that what goes around comes around.

Neocons may talk ominously of a clash of civilizations, but art takes the long view in stride. Duston Spear steeps her paintings of the Gulf wars in layers of art history. If only the Bush administration had shown the same respect for antiquities in Iraq museums and human lives on the ground today. Mongol warriors out of ancient manuscripts ride through tarnished fields of yellow. Fragments of text add cryptic allusions to violence, suffering, and the limits of language. Larger marks of black tear across them all, in curls that may evoke Middle Eastern script or scabbards.

They also resemble modern graffiti. Spear likes to incorporate text and images, with a debt to Cy Twombly. In the past, she has juxtaposed Steven Crane's poetry with the walls of Twombly's Rome. She took something like Rosler's two inadequate descriptive systems as her subject, and both looked lovely and pertinent, though at a remove from the grit of Rome's streets or Crane's Civil War. She still has trouble leaving anything out, but this time it seems only right that things will not exactly add up—across the centuries or now. In this way, they are more able to represent real divisions.

In an echo of Eastern art, Spear calls her show "Floating World," but war is finally bringing some high hopes back to earth. Her images insist on their illegibility, even amid the clear colors. Roughly textured white leaves individual warriors effaced or scraped away. A loose vertical of black and white cuts through each painting like a bolt or chasm. This three-part division and a consistent palette give the paintings a consistent structure, and the dominance of words in the center section of each draws one into the chasm. The text no longer has an independent narrative, but sometimes artists know better than to supply one.

The king is dead

Ardeshir Mohassess was not afraid to take sides, only the combatants kept shifting, as tends to happen in the Middle East—and Iranian art. Although he moved to New York in his early forties, before the 1979 revolution, already he imagined it, pleaded for it, and feared it. The Iranian satirist lived through the British coup that brought the shah to power in 1953, and his drawings from the 1960s and 1970s bear witness to the regime's follies and crimes. At once all-powerful and pathetic, "the king is always above his people." Meanwhile the king's victim hangs by a noose high above ragged, haunted, and curious observers. They invite viewers to pick out their faces one by one, but they do not promise that anyone's individuality will survive.

His early drawings have the subtlety of cartoons and agitprop, but with some notably dark heroes. A shawl gives a woman oppressive bulk. Crowds mass, men and women in modern dress celebrate and die, and the figure of the revolutionary stands bravely alone. After the 1980s, even the hopes are gone. Mullahs populate his later work as scraggly, disembodied heads with evil eyes. Iranian dissidents know enough to differentiate those rulers from the ranting of the Iranian president, but they are none too fond of either, a reminder that the sides may yet shift again.

The revolution neatly divides a small retrospective this past summer at Asia Society, the last show of his work that he lived to see, and it concludes a later show there of Iranian Modernism. Between exile and the pain of seeing his dreams of revolution fulfilled, Mohassess had reason enough to lose hope. However, he also began to suffer physical degeneration. As his facility with a pen gives way, the cast of characters thins out, and so does the ink. For a time around 1980, the bodies had filled out, with a sexuality that crosses Islamic art with Surrealism. More often, the horrors of war resemble Francisco de Goya as interpreted by Saul Steinberg, the New Yorker cartoonist.

Conservatives like to denounce political art, in part because the targets are usually conservatives. They also claim to decry messages at the expense of a sense of beauty, as if Christian art and history painting had come as a minor blip in an eternity of abstractions and flower paintings. Most of all, they distrust art's habit of extending and complicating its sympathies. Mohassess does take sides, but not to root for the home team. That may explain why he has had little exposure in the United States but exhibitions in Tehran each of the last three years. Shirin Neshat, the video artist and a friend from their years together in Iran, has sought a venue for his work again and again.

He distrusts people most when the sides in a dispute remains most fixed. He cannot take his eye off Iran to denounce imperialist outsiders or to cheer on western liberalism. He depicts Israel and the Palestinians as smiling swordsmen who cannot quit while their limbs fall away. Hosting a panel at Asia Society, Neshat said that his shrouded masses remind her of the arc of revolution in her own breakthrough video, Rapture. She also has a similar conception of political commitment. When her women get caught up power games, one cannot easily distinguish the rebel from the dreamer.

Mohassess did not have the younger artist's power of evoking individuals, especially women, caught up in a specific place and time. He did, however, share her sometime weakness, of looking beyond events to the eternal human condition—what right-thinking people used to call "man's inhumanity to man." Politically and stylistically alike, his limited repertoire would look comfortable on the west side of Manhattan. Perhaps his increasingly limited facility did more than even his honesty to cut through the simple-mindedness. His late scenes no longer resemble badly staged costume dramas, the kind where the actors stand around facing front. A broken line alternates with collage elements, the hectoring titles vanish altogether, and one can almost surrender to anger—or a dream.

Displaced people

Yael Bartana makes art about displaced people. She describes how Palestinians have lost their homes. She remembers Israelis who have suffered the ultimate displacement—soldiers and others who have given their lives. As an Israeli, she knows the politics of displacement at first hand. However, she focuses as well on more hopeful, voluntary displacements—in acts of protest and remembrance. She documents clashes with police and a movement to rebuild Palestinian housing. She lingers over a small but meaningful displacement on Soldier's Memorial Day, as drivers in Tel Aviv step out of their cars for a moment of silence.

If acts of memory or protest redouble displacement, Bartana has much the same strategy, and redoubling does not often leave the original untouched. Her video of that highway in Tel Aviv, Trembling Time, unfolds in slow motion, as if she herself had brought the nation to a halt. The heavily amplified soundtrack turns a moment of silence into a din. In Summer Camp, she projects the home builders on one side of a screen, a 1935 film of Zionist settlers on the other. The style of one film, familiar from the WPA here at home or Socialist Realism, collides with the makeshift efforts in the other. Yet the hammering proceeds in eerie parallel.

P.S. 1 houses these altered documentaries in what it insists on calling its painting gallery. (Talk about new media as displacement.) The adjacent drawing gallery rings even more severe changes on the recent past. Bartana digitally alters one video there and stages the other two. One might instead call the show's two halves the tragic stage and the comedy club. Together, they bring out the irony in the documentaries and the serious issues at stake in the silliness.

For Wild Seeds, young Israeli pacifists act out the forced removal of settlements from the occupied territories. They divide up into settlers and authorities, and the game quickly becomes a free for all. Girls giggle. A guy screams in mock pain, in Hebrew, "He grabbed my balls." Kings of the Hill reenacts the Israeli army's acts of retaliation as acts of futility. Instead of bulldozers raising their front ends, ATVs repeatedly charge up a hill and come right down, as isolated in solidarity as the drivers in Tel Aviv or the soldiers there for Barry Frydlender.

Like the pacifists in her game, Bartana always takes sides, but not so obviously her own. The two sides of the screen or the two sides in the game do not privilege either one, and she makes it hard to tell them apart. The 1935 propaganda film reflects both Zionism's nationalist and socialist origins. Wild Seeds makes me think of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment, in which student volunteers devolved into torturers, while Kings of the Hill makes me think of Robert Smithson and his steam shovels. One last video displays a political protest in monochrome and low relief. It turns both protesters and police into figures from an ancient Babylonian relief.

The five videos span six years, and at P.S. 1 they undergo one more displacement. For an Israeli every scene must have an uncomfortable clarity. Even with the wall text, a New Yorker will wonder what is going on. I had to learn whether the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions speaks for Palestinians or West Bank settlers. Still, maybe only an outsider can fully appreciate Bartana's mix of anger, empathy, and trembling time. Her political art brings home the strangeness of personal experience in a political world.

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Martha Rosler ran at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through October 11, 2008, Duston Spear at Sara Tecchia through October 31, Ardeshir Mohassess at Asia Society through August 3 with a panel June 10, and Yael Bartana at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through January 19, 2009. A related article looks at Rosler's wonderful garage sale at MoMA in late 2012.


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