Opening on the eve of Independence Day, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition (through October 12), “The American Effect,” continues the institution’s tradition of combining contemporary art with fatuous political sentiments. This is the museum, after all, known for its politically tendentious “Biennials,” like the one in 2000 which presented an installation by German artist Hans Haacke comparing then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani to a Nazi. This time around, Whitney curator Lawrence Rinder has selected works by nearly 50 artists from 30 countries having to do with perceptions of America since the end of the Cold War. The result, surprising enough, is a somewhat mild exercise in America-bashing that contains a few good artworks, and one outstanding piece. In the end, the show raises more questions about artists’ prejudices, fantasies, and superficial thoughts about America than it does about America herself.
Take, for instance, photographer Yongsuk Kang’s silver prints of a U.S. bombing range on Nong Island, off the coast of his native South Korea. These spookily tranquil works, done in 1999, show a kind of lunar battlescape, while the wall text reminds viewers that the bombings have killed and injured numerous villagers. Kang’s implicit criticism of America is clear — yet nowhere is there a sense that without U.S. weaponry, Kang’s photographs of devastation might have featured downtown Seoul rather than a sparsely populated island. Similar questions arise with Hisashi Tenmyouya’s Tattoo Man’s Battle (1996), a painting done in the heroic style of 19th-century musha-e (“warrior”), prints which depicts a Japanese horseman fighting a fire-breathing U.S. monster — the very monster, of course, that has protected Japan for over half a century and thus allowed Tenmyouya, a former graffiti artist, to pursue a successful art career. Even more galling is Pakistani-born Muhammad Imran Qureshi’s 2002 gouache To Be or Not to Be, which shows crosshairs superimposed on an aerial view of trees — indicating, the artist writes, “no matter whether for good or for bad, everyone today is a target of America.” Excuse me, but wasn’t it Muslim fundamentalists, many of whom operate freely in Qureshi’s country, that have targeted all Americans for death?
Call me a philistine, but I broached these objections at a press preview for the exhibition. “What do you expect?” yawned an arts reporter. “We’re dealing with artists here.” But that cynical response — surprisingly common in the art world — begs a more serious problem with Rinder’s show. Why should we care what artists think about America? Artists in this country can barely construct logical critiques of our nation — how seriously should we consider those who don’t live here, and, in some cases, have never set foot on these shores? Very seriously, Rinder believes. “As the global hegemon,” he writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “America bears the weight of humanity’s hopes, but it must also bear the brunt of resentment and, some of these artists suggest, assume responsibility for humanity’s shattered dreams.” Fair enough. Yet at the same time, “The American Effect” does not apply similar criteria of responsibility to many of the artworks contained in the show.
The most glaring example is Japanese artist Makoto Aida’s A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns). The 1996 work, rendered on a 12-foot wide, seven-foot high folding screen, depicts a flight of Japanese Zeros flying in an infinity pattern over present day Manhattan, transforming the city into a sea of flames. What, exactly, is Aida expressing with this lurid fantasy of destruction? In the wall text accompanying the visually beautiful piece (the Zeros seem almost ethereal, like a squadron of glistening silver butterflies), Aida assures us that he is “not in favor of attacking America” — yet the text continues on to explain that his work deals with “lingering resentment over America’s devastation of Japan,” in addition to “cycles of revenge in general.” Resentment? Revenge? Are these the “shattered dreams” Rinder speaks so eloquently about? If so, aren’t they better left in the artist’s studio than exhibited in a major New York museum?
Fortunately, Aida himself was present at the press preview and I had a chance to question him. Through a translator, the boyish 38-year-old, luxuriating in the sudden attention the Whitney has granted him, told me he wanted to do an image of a city being attacked and thought of New York “because I never thought it would actually happen.” When I pressed him about issues of resentment and revenge for World War II, he looked uncomfortable. “This is just my imagination, that’s all,” he pleaded. “It’s just an image that came into my head.” Later, I asked Rinder if Aida’s vision of a devastated New York was simple “make believe,” why was it included in the show? “Artists respond in different ways to America,” he explained, seeming to grope for answer. “Some rationally, some irrationally.”
And there, in a nutshell, is what is so infuriating about shows like “The American Effect.” On one hand, they want to be taken seriously as barometers of public sentiment, yet when critics bear down on their conceptual inconsistencies, their defenders retreat to the realm of artist fantasy, denying that the public has a legitimate right to hold their views accountable. It’s art, they argue, implying that only a boor would restrict the creative spirit. They want the right to editorialize their views like journalists, but without the messy necessity of responding to ensuing criticism.
Not every negative sentiment expressed in “The American Effect” is as irresponsible as Aida’s screen. Dutch artist Arno Coenen’s digitalized video “travelogue” through Los Angeles is at once ideological, nihilistic, yet utterly mesmerizing — the perfect work for L.A.-haters everywhere. Nor is every work critical of the US. For example, Sergei Bugaev Afrika’s installation Dream Machine, featuring a mound of Russian painted chests, many with American flags peeking out and arrayed behind carpets woven with images of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, evokes a sense of how the U.S. penetrated the unconscious of people behind the Iron Curtain.
It is JFK, in fact, who serves as the subject of the show’s most gripping work. In 2000, Zoran Naskovski, an artist born in Yugoslavia, combined a recording of an early 1960s Balkan ballad lamenting the president’s death and combined it with footage of Kennedy in his early days and during his presidency, together with shots of the assassination and its aftermath. The ballad’s translated lyrics are painfully detailed, the video images excruciating to watch (they include Kennedy’s autopsy) and the final freeze-frame shot of Jackie, staring at the viewer from behind her funeral veil, inexpressibly heartbreaking. Elegiac, utterly sincere, Death in Dallas dares to suggest that Americans suffer sorrows and tragedies like the rest of humanity.
It’s a point that “The American Effect” seems to forget. By giving a platform to artists’ biases against the U.S. — and, worse, by failing to challenge those biases — the exhibition legitimizes the resentments that many in the world feel increasingly free to express against our nation and its people. This fact came home to me on the night of the exhibition’s opening. I was standing in front of Aida’s screen, discussing it with a friend, when I heard someone behind me mutter “Angry…so angry….” I turned to see an elderly Japanese woman who suddenly threw up her arm and cried “Nationalism!” In accented English, she told me that she had experienced the American raids on Tokyo, when many of her friends and loved ones had died. A little taken aback, I asked her what she felt when she looked at an image of New York being obliterated by Japanese warplanes. Her eyes lit up like beacons. “I feel…excited!” she replied breathlessly.
— Steven Vincent is a freelance writer living in New York.