The Politics of Obscurity

John Haber
in New York City

There is no place to put such facts, not properly. There is only one's mournful horror, one's worthless moral vanity—which can do nothing. The bad news of the world, like most bad news, has no place to go. You tack it to the bulletin board part of your heart. You say look, you say see. That is all.
      — Lorrie Moore

The X-Initiative: Hans Haacke and Artur Zmijewski

Emory Douglas and Claire Fontaine

Can political art be numbingly obvious and obscure at the same time? As 2009 wound down, several artists gave it their best shot. You fill in the blanks, if you dare—or care.

Do not call it a trend, not by any means. Political art, after 9/11 a target of right-wing hysteria, has resurfaced everywhere. It includes every media, from painting and sculpture to video and conceptual art. It can be obvious, but then so in a very real sense are torture and war. It can be obscure, but then so in a more healthy sense is art. That is one reason you need critics to keep you informed—and excited. Artur Zmijewski's 80064 (X-Initiative, 2004)

For some artists, obscurity is actually a formula for ethical conduct. For Hans Haacke, it even comes as something of a relief, after years of hectoring. For Artur Zmijewski, it is his very subject matter. It goes with a running concern: who bears true responsibility for divisive and manipulative acts? Is it individuals, events, the artist, or the viewer? He knows how to put them all on the spot, although he avoids some other hard questions all the same.

A far less thought-provoking artist, Emory Douglas, has earned his obscurity. After all, he outlasted the Black Panthers, for whom he was minister of culture, by thirty years. Still, I appreciated most Claire Fontaine. The French conceptual artists care enough to make up their own fantasies of revolution. So what if the installation is more than half empty? Half will never do, not when politics takes matters to extremes.

Political art as a bonus

Hans Haacke, who stirred up the 2000 Whitney Biennial by labeling Rudy Giuliani a Nazi, does not exactly have a reputation for subtlety. He wants political art to hit one like a blast of cold air. And this time he really does hit one with a blast of winter air, from the open windows of the X-Initiative, the nonprofit dealer collective that will soon give way to Independent, a 2010 art fair. Like much of the work, it feels urgent and even far ahead of the curve. Inside, though, things look strangely empty. One may be left with only hot air.

Haacke starts out obvious enough—all too obvious. The Invisible Hand of the Market faces one coming in, in black letters high on the wall like a marquee. Just to rub it in, a visible hand wags its finger back and forth. It might be chiding a Paine Webber annual report (before UBS bought out the firm), in two posters hung just around the corner. One version replaces the shot of well-dressed executives with a famous photo from the 1930s, of a man with a sign begging for work. Nearby, Bonus in neon reminds one what executives still take home.

Thank you, Paine Webber, but things get fuzzy after that. Bonus shares a wall with electric fans. A tin-foil airplane, suspended from the ceiling by a string, flops around in the chilly drafts. Otherwise, the entire floor holds only tall gray lockers, the kind from an old high-school gym or factory. A few stand here and there, and one or two others lie knocked to the ground. Haacke supplies little illumination beyond the five neon letters.

The X-Initiative has a fondness for dark, empty spaces. It also knows how to keep a secret. Nothing lets on that "Weather, or Not" consists of several works from a long career, which explains a lot. The posters date from another bad economy, in 1977, and the fans from Ripple, first shown in 1967. One can think of Bonus as a new work or as announcing what the show as a whole adds. Jacques Derrida might call it "the logic of the supplement."

Surely Haacke wants one to experience the installation as a whole nonetheless. Capitalism blows through like a storm, leaving only abandoned schools, abandoned factories, abandoned children, abandoned workers, and an abandoned museum. Older work seems awfully prescient after corporate bailouts and global warming. Two instruments on a pedestal claim to be recording the climate in the gallery. One can imagine a right winger relishing the cold and Haacke giggling, presuming he knows how to smile. This is art as weapons of mass instruction.

Obvious and obscure are two versions of ponderous—and two signs that a version of political art has closed itself off. The wagging hand all but screams, "Get it?" The posters just spell out associations that the Depression-era photo has earned on its own. For the rest, I kept thinking that I was winging it by reading anything into it all. What do the open windows, the lockers, and the tin foil really mean? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Democracies and survivors

Artur Zmijewski likes cacophony, and his subjects shout right back. Also in the final phase of the X-Initiative's one-year lease, he lines the entry walls with their protests. On each of twenty tightly packed monitors, people take to the streets of Europe. Little distinguishes one city or cause from another, beyond a title at the end of each documentary clip. God himself might have punished their ambitions with the babel of voices. The footage in Democracies even starts at different times, to make sure viewers have no idea what is going on.

Is Zmijewski letting others speak or refusing to listen? Is he pleading for harmony or nurturing discord? Maybe both at once. Inside, on the largest screen, the hearing-impaired form a devilish choir. Their youth, their bright smiles, the tall church interior, and the organ seem angelic enough, but naturally they sing off-key. At least they do if one listens long and closely enough, for Democracies all but drowns them out.

Zmijewski's eight videos share the same dark space, a full floor of the former Dia:Chelsea. While five videos come with headphones, the cast speaks mostly Polish anyway, with English titles. They also speak at cross-purposes. Supporters of Palestine and Israel, clearly neither an artist, draw competing cartoon visions. Five Polish groups—left and right, Catholic and nationalist—fight over the same banner for a single image of their nation. Nudes play tag in a windowless basement, and they play hard.

Play is ambiguous in its politics, too, much as for Liz Magic Laser with her mock political campaign. Does Zmijewski give people a voice or treat them like puppets? Again, maybe both, and I do not buy eliding the distinction, unsettling and manipulative as that makes his art. The choir looks so happy, as if no one had let them sing before, but Singing Lesson 1 could be teaching them a lesson. The nudes play together, but nudity and the body blows do not flatter their aging bodies. They enter the cold room as if on a death march, and they leave it as grim as before. A closing title says that The Game of Tag takes place in both an ordinary home and a former gas chamber.

In merging the two settings invisibly, editing is itself a form of manipulation. So is 80064, an interview with an actual Auschwitz survivor. Zmijewski draws him out and allows him pride in his memories, including the concentration-camp number of the video's title. Then the artist asks to tattoo it over—just to neaten it up, you see. The survivor protests over and over before finally giving in. Just let him go home, he says, and he will be happy. The Nazis saw the concentration camps as a tidying up, too.

One last video, Repetition, restages the infamous Stanford prison experiment, in which students who volunteered as guards and inmates lived their parts all too well. Is Zmijewski bringing people together or driving them apart? The five Polish groups in Them rip out one another's symbols, then tape the remains together as well as they can. The prisoners and guards fall into passivity and cruelty, but they also reflect on their roles and, by the end, almost all walk out. I admire the ambiguity, even as I despise the cacophony and the casual exploitation of the Holocaust. Perhaps a gulf will always separate Europe from America, as with Gustav Metzger on the Holocaust—where grass-roots protests are Astroturf and history filters through the media into the passive comforts of a living room.

Minister of the culture wars

Who knew that, in the culture wars, one side had a minister of culture? At least one party did, the Black Panthers. Emory Douglas assumed the role in 1967, on the recommendation of Eldridge Cleaver. And for a few years he turned out a torrent of posters, in monochrome and thick black outlines. So many appear at the New Museum that they spill over from the museum walls to display cases.

They were not politics as usual: they were a call to arms. Only a few represent party leaders, and then they mostly show the co-founder, Bobby Seale, strapped to an electric chair. Malcolm X, not a Black Panther, appears smiling and well on his way to sainthood. The rest are grim indeed. They are also anonymous, armed, and dangerous.

Most visitors will be seeing them for the first time. Douglas never really entered the popular imagination. Some images share conventions still familiar today, with Shepard Fairey's Obama poster—the earnest faces looking off to a greater goal. None, though, became an icon. They mostly ceased altogether after 1972, although Douglas has created new ones for the show. Nothing much, the latter suggest, has changed in forty years, as he says himself in an interview.

No doubt the whole idea of taking up automatic weapons did not go over too well. Armed resistance became instead the watchword of right-wing sects, while the left more often sought government action on behalf of racial and economic equality, not resistance to government. Besides, the images already belonged to the past—with a mix of Socialist Realism and old-style book covers, themselves in debt to woodcuts and film posters. They also grow numbingly alike. Seale's pose echoes his gagging during the trial of the Chicago Eight and anticipates his trial for murder, at which he was found not guilty. They imply that justice in America has already made up its mind, but so had Douglas about American justice.

Sam Durant, the curator, himself exhibited in "Unmonumental" when the New Museum opened on the Bowery. His political art, too, leans to extremes—whether in soft focus, as in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, or heavy-handed. Douglas reflects much the same certainty, with the same odd mix of populism and top-down design. His lithographs rally African Americans to the cause, but they do not bother with ordinary people, racism, street culture, or human suffering. Admirably, the early ones mix feisty young women alongside the feisty young men. By the end, the mothers in traditional clothing look too close for comfort to stereotypes on pancake mix, only bearing rifles.

A show like this could have fresh relevance, now that pundits talk of an end to the culture wars. It could illuminate the divisions in America, including divisions within the left, as the Whitney's "Summer of Love" did not. It settles instead for dated propaganda, much like the history of the Black Panthers on the wall behind the elevators. It traces a noble ancestry, from uprisings on slave ships to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After a flurry of events, it comes to an abrupt end after 1970—with only Angela Davis's release from prison in 1972, a triumphant trip of party officials abroad in 1974, and the party's formal end in 1982. That trip overseas, followed by a long silence, has the comic pathos of an all-seeing totalitarian leader's last statement before a real revolution.

Strike three

For such an unfriendly space in Chinatown, Reena Spaulings can look surprisingly domestic. For a month the grim second-floor walkup had a litter box, houseplants hang from the ceiling, and a vacuum cleaner purrs away. The Lower East Side even holds a little magic: unlike cat litter, the box's fine grains have a crystalline shine.

Do not settle in too quickly. The long raised platform looks as gray and empty as ever. The artificial plants twist slowly in an artificial wind. The industrial-scale vacuum cleaner pumps air into or out of a pressure meter. No one sweeps up when "litter" spills onto the floor, and it would probably not help with odors anyway. The only wall decoration is a threat.

The wall reads Grève Humaine, or "human strike"—Claire Fontaine's modest successor to a general strike, or mass worker's uprising. The big block capitals fade to white, as the bright red of kitchen matches falls away, leaving only holes. They could be enacting the strike, its failure, or the trace of police bullets. The matches make the message that much more incendiary, but also more domestic and everyday. They also make a nice bilingual pun on strike, and trust me: it all makes more sense in French.

If nothing else, the French can still remember a general strike as a threat, and Claire Fontaine (who also exhibited this spring at the Independent art fair) remembers art in crisis. The artist collective—or, as "she" prefers, readymade artist—takes its name from France's best-selling school notebooks. As part of the lesson, Fontaine navigates between the "originality of the avant-garde and what Michel Foucault called "the death of the author." The artist exists, Fontaine writes, but as "herself the equivalent of a Brillo box" (or maybe litter box). In fact, "we are all readymades." The only promise lies in that human strike.

In the year-end issue of Artforum, Hal Foster looked back on the twenty-first century so far. He admires responses to 9/11 by Paul Chan, Jon Kessler, and others that capture the precarious state of existence. It is not easy to refuse closure while denouncing the Bush administration as lawbreakers who stole an election. Even Foster's troubles, however, reflect the precarious state of art. Can it navigate an open border between public and private, convention and experience? Could that give it the potential to deal with the personal and the political as well?

Someone dismissive of critical theory may throw a fit, and it does not help that Fontaine conceives each object lesson as a separate work. The hanging plants, based on a Miami storefront, look especially dull by themselves. Together, though, the works hold out a comic vision, not to mention an alternative to overblown installations. The vacuum and pressure meter regulate each other, like one last hope for creature comforts. And maybe one day the art scene's creative spark, like a box of matches, will explode.

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Hans Haacke and Artur Zmijewski ran at the X-Initiative through February 27, 2010, as part of the nonprofit's "phase three." Emory Douglas ran at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through October 18, 2009, Claire Fontaine at Reena Spaulings through January 31, 2010. Portions of the fourth and last review first appeared in Artillery magazine.


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