Theater of Operations

John Haber
in New York City

Love/War/Sex at Exit Art

"Love/War/Sex" presents a battle for hearts and minds—only not the one in Iraq or even in the bedroom. Rather, it plays out in the expanse of Exit Art itself, between a curator's earnest history lesson and the eerie matter-of-factness of the work.

Ultimately, it is no contest. The work never has a chance in such a dark, imposing lecture hall. Then again, neither does the lecture. One remembers instead the battlefield, and one feels that one has walked through it oneself. In the work, war interrupts sleep or follows one through an ordinary day. In the installation, however, it assaults one from every side, like wide-screen theater, and an impressive theater it is. Guerra de La Paz's Crawl (foreground) (Exit Art, 2007)

Should people make love not war, or can they just make art? A related article looks further at political art at the start of 2008, with Raymond Pettibon and Ahmed Alsoudani.

Heavy artillery

At least one critic, Anna Somers Cocks, has cried out for more overt criticism of the Iraq war, as does Laura Poitras in her art, and "Love/War/Sex" does not deal well with nuance. Thankfully, it never has to bother. The entire installation becomes a minefield of art and war, and if its own best ideas are exploded along the way, all the better. One can see why the military speaks of a theater of operations.

A lecture hall amounts to its own kind of theater, and this lecture begins right with the exhibition title, practically right out of Woody Allen. Leaving nothing to chance, Papo Colo also makes his curator's statement as much a part of the exhibition as the art. It covers the wall by the curtained entrance, in black and white, set out in a vertical column like free verse—or perhaps like successive moments in a crawl screen by Jenny Holzer: "war makes freedom happen," it cries. "Sex is chauvinistic." Love is merely "its intelligent component."

More curatorial text, column after column of it, lines two long gallery walls, as if daring anyone to finish it all. It runs from the comforting sizzle of a newsweekly to postmodernists on the press itself, from raw accounts of human casualties to critical theory that sees only images even of pain. Taken together, they suggest a country just beginning to deal with death and overwhelmed by it. A visitor has to feel overwhelmed as well. For the short version, one can always grab the press release. It spells out such loaded themes as "weapon infatuation, war nostalgia, and the sexualization of violence."

Something strange happens, however, when one comes to the work. It may not have the hope and quiet of art after 9/11 that has contemplated lower Manhattan or its absence. As often as not, though, it seems remote from cynicism, nostalgia, and especially sex. In Margot Herster's video, the families of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay plead instead for trust—trust in the lawyers who will represent them. By extension, they beg for trust that freedom can happen again one day without war.

The drab, static shot of huddled people seems anything but sexy. So does the drone of another language without subtitles. So, too, does the weapon specialist in Rebecca Loyche's three-channel video. He explains how to kill, but without ever urging it on or getting an obvious rush from it. His words, which may or may not match up with the three distinct images, add yet another layer of detachment. Only the soldier's youth and detachment, like the work's, makes it at all scary.

Yes, infatuation and the thrills do come—but they come from the installation, much as for Bettina WitteVeen at the scene of a hospital. One enters through black curtains, past a mortar supporting a Christmas tree. More artillery rests inside at the center of each room, of World War II or Vietnam vintage, each with its own history on wall labels. Wire netting looms above, as protection or a threat. One looks for the name of the artist, but the weapons are actually on loan from a military museum in Connecticut. This is art, but it is very much the curators' show.

Crawl space

Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman, Exit Art's longtime chief curator, have created a theater of operations—and not just a military theater. Loud noise from two large videos in the dark central room further associate it with the movies. Francesco Simeti's patterned wallpaper based on explosions in Afghanistan serves as the theater backdrop. His green clouds could well echo the Christmas tree and mortar out front.

For once, too, Exit Art has put on display only nine artists, all but one with just a single work. Often the gallery picks a broad topic such as "The Reconstruction" or "The Building Show," asks for proposals, and fills the space with variations on a theme. One navigates them all at one's own risk. Here it does not want one's attention to scatter. Those videos, both on movie screens, and other curtained divisions help disguise the room's columns, which usually break up the space.

For all that, something humbler resumes at the exhibition's very center, with the art and the sole free-standing sculpture. Guerra de La Paz's cloth soldier in camouflage, Crawl, huddles on the floor bereft of head or limbs. War has dehumanized him without crushing his humanity.

Ellen Lake returns to the epicenter of American nostalgia, World War II. A woman who lost her husband in combat tells her own story, intercut with images of their time together with a new-born child. Here, too, though, art does without sex, glamour, or certainties. "The war hadn't started when we married, I don't think." In an elderly woman's fading memories, the past has all its warmth but none of its authority.

Things actually go downhill when the art gets explicit. Fawad Kahn's wall drawing in red of a car crash with chili peppers represents a suicide bombing. It does not, however, look all that chaotic, sexy, or for that matter much like its subject. Tessa Hughes-Freeland does better when she mines a vintage TV talking head, sexually active bears, and disco lighting. At least she keeps her sense of humor. She calls the work an "educational video," with obvious irony, but she could easily be making fun of fancy lectures on the meaning of war.

Nick Waplington supplies the one clear display of female flesh. He mixes photos from Iraq with backyard partying at home. When women climb over one another, one might look for parallel sexual overtones in war or displaced desires from men sent away. One might, that is, if only the array of snapshots carried more visual weight. They look mostly like they have to be here to fit the show's theme. Even so, they attest to an everyday picture of the world not easily shaken by media overload or unconscious motivation.

Dreaming on the surface

Jakob Boeskov supplies most of the noise and the one obvious exaggeration of reality. His video starts with a child put to sleep by a picture-perfect mother. Soon enough come dark dreams of a bearded man in white robes. Worse, then come from the rescuers. Two faceless soldiers rush toward him in pursuit, their torture rising into a dance. They pursue the dreamer and the viewer as well.

The boy and his mother look right out of Leave it to Beaver, but the soldiers have the look of ninja warriors. Obviously their victim resembles bin Laden, who has haunted more than enough dreams today. The gap between the 1950s ideal and contemporary America approaches cheap sarcasm. Still, the warriors and their dance suggest that violence really does arise from desires as well as fears. Children and adults today could share them.

Again, though, love and war do not so much interpenetrate as remain at odds. Sex would feel out of place here. For all its sophistication, "Love/War/Sex" tells a simple story. Here war is the nightmare that rides upon sleep. And a mother's love might return if only the nightmare ended.

Boeskov's child, for one, attests to that nostalgia. So does the woman's memories of World War II, the old weaponry, and the educational video. So does the show's educational mission. All that wall text clings to Newsweek, as if to insist the plain sense of things still matters. It quotes a scholar equating the coverage of heroic women in combat with the sexualization of war, as if Jessica Lynch still carried weight. The news seems as dated as public support for George W. Bush.

Not all of the art or text would hold up all that well on its own. Together, though, they offer up war and peace as pure theater. Above all, so does the installation, in what is still New York City's exemplary nonprofit space. At Exit Art, a curator may actually pop by to offer a stranger some help on what the work means, at a time when trendy dealers are making it hard even to get on a mailing list. More important, Exit Art is exemplary because it knows what it is creating. Like the dying soldier at its centerpiece, the entire gallery becomes a dark, empty shell, and it makes for an exhilarating show.

All those explosions add something else, too, and something very American—violence. In its earnestness and its theater as well, it is in touch with America, where dreams live so openly on the surface. The title of the show sounds like Freud as well as Woody Allen, but the exhibition thrives on the visible. Things at Exit Art may not always make perfect sense, but that, too, seems so very American. The woman struggling with fifty-year-old memories could speak for others: "it's pretty complicated."

BACK to John's arts home page

"Love/War/Sex" ran at Exit Art through January 26, 2008. Related reviews continue the story of violence in political art now, with Raymond Pettibon and Ahmed Alsoudani. A later note says farewell to Jeanette Ingberman of Exit Art.


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