Issue #197
Clues By The Thousands September 28, 2012

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Phantom Truck, 2007. Installation View Documenta 12. Photo: Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images

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More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness

SITE Santa Fe

January 6, 2013
by Tanja Baudoin

As I walked into the exhibition More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, I wondered whether we are indeed living in a time in which our relation to what is truth and what is fiction has become more problematic. According to the exhibitions curators, what we wish to be true has become more appealing to us than what is actually true. Naturally our wishes are more appealing than the truth, and I would say this has been a constant characteristic of the human condition throughout the ages, the cause of countless deceits and forgeries as well as a source for innovation in artistic practice. Hasn't art always presented itself as something it isn't?

Much of the work in the exhibition demonstrates art's penchant for trickery. A few of the works incite a momentary jolt of surprise, but most of them are exciting and intelligent explorations of the thin line between truth and fiction. More Real? includes excellent work by established contemporary artists such as Omer Fast, Walid Raad, Cao Fei, Sharon Lockhart, Mark Dion and Ai Weiwei.

The exhibition brings an urgency to its subject matter by connecting the art to a political context through the utilization of the term 'truthiness.' This notion signifies an eagerness to accept what's plausible rather than what's factual, and was coined on the satirical T.V. show The Colbert Report in 2005. Several works in More Real? reflect on this episode in U.S. history, such as Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's Phantom Truck (2007). Presented in a dark room, the life-size truck is a clever if rather literal comment on the fabricated imagery that validated the necessity of war. The Yes Men's 2008 special edition of the New York Times presents a more optimistic approach with a fictional issue of the paper reporting the end of the war in Iraq. It includes news about peace spreading to conflict zones worldwide and president Bush's indictment for high treason. Though these works connect to a specific moment in political history, in this period leading up to presidential election they are also timely reminders of the false promises that may infest our current political reality.

Taken together, the work in this exhibition imposes a demand on the viewer due to both the physical scale of many of them and the intensity of their content. One work that exemplifies this is Zoe Beloff's Dreamland: the Coney Island Psychoanalytical Society and Its Circle. I've encountered Beloff's elaborate installation before, in Belgium and the Netherlands, where the work was, on both occasions, presented as an exhibition itself. Looking at Dreamland in the context of More Real? doesn't do justice to the finer details of the work, that involve a slide projection, a series of home movies, built models, photographs and intricate drawings packed with Freudian symbolism. It is a challenge to muster up the attention needed to fully engage with this within the density of the exhibition.

As a result, the work in this show that is unassuming at first sight was the most enjoyable. John Herschend’s video, placed at the entrance, masquerades as an informational video about the exhibition, but unravels into a tale of personal crisis involving the narrator. Another subtle work is Vik Muniz' series of three framed paintings that lean against the wall with their backs facing us, dotted with labels. The labels on the back of paintings typically trace where they have traveled and are a sign of their authenticity. They also communicate the identity of the work, in this case Grant Wood's American Gothic, van Gogh's Starry Night and Fernand Leger's The Smokers. What is most absorbing isn't whether these are the originals, but the stretch of imagination required to visualize these famous works. Their titles immediately provoke familiar images, but what I think I know turns out to be fuzzy and fragmented as soon as I try to focus on specific features of the masterpieces.

Johan Grimonprez' three minute film I may have lost my umbrella forever (2011) layers materials by various authors who are separated from each other in space and time, but united by a common concern. It shows footage shot by witnesses of Japan's 2011 tsunami and earthquake posted on YouTube, that Grimonprez played on his computer screen and filmed with his iPhone. The pixelated scenes of a frightened deer and a shaking chandelier gain a poetic quality thanks to the voice of a girl reading an excerpt from Pessoa's Book of Disquiet in Portuguese. The film is an affective and straightforward contemplation on the distantiated experience of other people's tragedy through first-hand accounts. Its form encourages us to consider what it is that creates a sensation of realism and how images that surround us are complicit in this.

While high definition photos and videos are slick and life-like, it is the low quality image in Grimonprez' film that we generally associate with a documentary first-person perspective and therefore with authenticity—think amateur porn and reality television. Videos of war and revolution reach us via cell phone and show events that media or governments may withhold. The democratic potential of the 'poor' documentary image is only one aspect of the complicated ways in which images are determined by, as well as determining of social conditions and power structures, something that artist and theorist Hito Steyerl has written about extensively. The role of the image in the production of truth and its relation to politics is so much more complex than the notion of 'truthiness' can point at, and it is a shame that the exhibition doesn't create a broader conceptual framework for thought. This is pertinent considering the scope and content of the works presented here.

Tanja Baudoin is a researcher-in-residence at Fieldwork: Marfa, and works at If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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