Seeing is Believing

Art Papers | 2012

January 2012

Review for Art Papers.

This past September, news and entertainment media were overflowing with information and testimonials about the anniversary of the attacks in New York and Washington DC, on September 11th, 2001. Everywhere you turned, an affective story awaited you. As the strikes were among the most pictured in history this isn’t surprising, yet they have remained somewhat underrepresented in the field of contemporary art. Marking this 10-year anniversary, a number of exhibitions addressing the events and the effects of them, opened across the world. Major institutions have finally begun examining the attacks, their causes, and repercussions including the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Berlin on the evening of September 10th, Kunst-Werke opened Seeing is believing, an international group exhibition featuring works by twenty-five artists and groups. The show’s title and statement by curator Susanne Pfeffer, draws lines between the creation and circulation of images and terrorist attacks and war, photography as evidence and the insight that pictures renders their own truths, their own realities. This statement positions Seeing is believing within a century long debate about photography as a factual representation of reality and mass media images, which is hard, verging on impossible, to overview or engage critically with, even when these discussions coincide. Rather than tying the show together, the title offers a simple statement that the works prove wrong. This unnecessarily easy conceit undermines more complex readings of the works.

My reservations are temporary dispelled when I enter Kunst-Werke, and is confronted with Alfredo Jaar’s piece in the lobby, May 1st, 2011 (2011). One half of this photographic diptych, presents the instantly iconic picture of Barack Obama, flanked by the most powerful men and women in the U.S., watching the country’s elite soldiers assassinate Osama Bin Laden via a real-time video-link to the White House Situation Room. Alongside it hangs a completely blank screen, compelling us to mistrust pictorial representations, especially ones produced as political propaganda. From the entrance, you are led into the venues temporally darkened main space. As your eyes slowly adjust to the dim lighting conditions, shapes start to emerge from the shadows. With the picture from the White House Situation Room still on my retina, a series cage-like structures placed on an angle in the gallery evoke visions from the ten years between the 9/11 attacks and the killing of the self-proclaimed mastermind behind that operation; from Guantánamo Bay detention camp to the Abu Ghraib prison. What I first perceived to be cages is in reality a model of a truck designed based on the satellite photo that the former Secretary of State, Colin Powel, presented to the U.N. security council in 2003, as proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program. “Proof” that soon thereafter led to the invasion of the country. But neither Saddam Hussein’s regime nor Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Phantom Truck (2007) features any weapons of mass destruction, only the haunting realization that one can see ghosts everywhere, if you are looking for them.

This ground-level installation is outstanding but the show loses momentum across the following three floors which are packed to tightly with a plethora of works. The first includes a few excellent pieces, from to Khaled Hourani’s postcards, The Zebra Copy Card (2009), showing two donkey’s painted as Zebras in a small zoo in Gaza Strip, photographed by the animal keepers on behalf of the Ramallah-based artist, as an absurd souvenir from an equally preposterous Palestinian situation, over Sean Snyder’s Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars (2004/05), a meditative video essay about the consumption of images and goods in ideological wars, to Abbas Akhavan’s Makeshift Objects (2008-present), for which the artist has turned everyday items into deadly weapons. On the upper floors, Paul Chan’s Re: The_Operation (2002), stands out. Created prior to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, this half-hour long video puts caricatures of the members of the Bush administration in the line of fire. Here they are portrayed as wounded soldiers or low-ranking officers struggling to make sense of a conflict that they haven’t chosen to be part of. Finally, the last floor has turned into a small cinema for the purpose of showing the now 84-year old Kenneth Angers’ Uniform Attraction (2008).  The film takes a satirical look at how costumes not only change our self-perception but ultimately our actions. Combining exceedingly patriotic U.S. Marine recruitment commercials, which are usually screened in theaters before action movies geared at teenage boys, and his own footage of adolescent men mimicking military men, it is campy to the point of being hilarious.

The individual artworks set aside, Seeing is believing, does not hold together as one exhibition. The abundance of works points in too many different directions which waters the individual pieces down. I trace this back to the curator’s statement, were she wasn’t precise enough when defining the thesis of her exhibition, resulting in a over confidence that the combination of works would create the synthesis she wasn’t able to articulate in writing. It is only when the works are allowed to breathe, like on the main and top floor, that they realize their full potential, as individual pieces and in relation to the theme of the show.  Ultimately, it doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the better shows in Berlin this season, and one of the better Kunst-Werke has organized in recent years.