Love/War/Sexby Hrag Vartanian
Exit Art December 1, 2007–January 26, 2008
Exit Art is an oasis, one of the only professional alternative spaces in New York that takes a chance with carefully curated new work, effortlessly interspersing established and emerging talents. Saying that, their current show is a mixed bag of ideas about the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their resulting impact and their mind-numbing role in our lives. The exhibit proposes to look at the lascivious love triangle that is love, sex and war but the curators have defused the potentially heated topic to bring together highly intellectualized works with little emotional traction.
Love/War/Sex has an unusual preponderance of video work and large wall installations. To augment the mystique of the show, actual war weaponry (courtesy the Military Museum of Southern New England in Danbury, Connecticut) is scattered about, but with no discernible rhyme or reason. Most of the military hardware on display dates from World War II and seems practically romantic next to the contemporary artworks.
An exception to the otherwise cerebral art is Jacob Boeskov’s “War Wizard” (2005). A five-minute video heavily salted with obliquely angled and shadowy scenes, Boeskov’s cinematic language seems to pay tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s melancholic alienation but never recedes into contemplation, instead showing a preference for overwrought narrative. A young boy cowers in his bedroom as two soldiers (one male and one female) shimmy until the scene degenerates into a stereotypical rape (the man dominates the woman) and the child watches the sick fantasia unfold. The boy’s fear is tangible if obviously staged.
Guerra de la Paz’s “The Kiss (from the GI Joe Series)” (2006) and “Crawl” (2004) are more in line with the rest of the art in the show. Focusing on various aspects of the war, sex, love triangle, they obstruct potential meaning with vague metaphors of violence, torture, and homoerotic love. In “The Kiss,” two soldiers in camouflage embrace, never revealing their faces or gender, yet their similarities suggest secret desires—an obvious reference to the U.S. military’s ludicrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In “Crawl,” a limbless soldier seems to slither across the gallery floor. The reference may be to torture but the work is too unfinished and undeveloped to say for sure.
The other works are well-intentioned, sometimes insightful, but mostly unfocused. Margot Herster’s almost academic-sounding “This is an introduction tape [from an Accidental History of a Very Secret Thing (aka Guantanamo: pictures from home)]” (2007) is a great idea lacking structure. Composed of a single-channel video screen and framed laser print, Herster presents an actual video of families telling their detainee relatives to trust the lawyers representing them. This formalized family scene points to a major cultural gap between American notions of family and those in southwest Asia, but the overall message seems lost in translation. Fawad Khan’s “Citroënasia Grand (with chilipeppers)” (2007) attempts to make the violent chaos of a car bombing cool, but he succeeds only in making it bizarre. Veteran photographer Nick Waplington’s “The Longest Way Round is the Shortest Way Home” (2007) tries too hard to contrast the lives of soldiers at war in Iraq with the very unwarlike lives of families home in the West. Sexy women back in America strike suggestive poses and play with guns, while the soldiers get baptized and look bored.
The statement by curator Papo Colo is quite moving and poetic. “We live from war to war/ Our lives are marked by this time frame./ It is the price of power./ War makes freedom happen./ It confirms the human need for property love and the violence to keep it,” he begins and then meanders through his curatorial thoughts until he ends with the essence of the exhibition: “Sex / War images are so common they make us immune to death./ Love / To declare war is not only an act of barbarism but a result of civilization. / Art / These artworks are a chapter in the history of art that tell war stories.” The exhibition poster is succinct and clever, an artillery shell sheathed by a condom against a black background. It was unfortunate that little of the work delivered the promise and depth of the initial curatorial vision.
There is one piece that took the topic of the war into a whole other direction and didn’t seem overtly related to sex or love, Francesco Simeti’s “Watching the War” (2002). A 15’ x 25’ field of wallpaper, Simeti combined various published Afghanistan war photos culled from newspapers into an elaborately elegant pattern. His arabesque of billowing smoke, burka-clad women and Taliban fighters gives the Afghan adventure a colonial feel. The artist diffuses the violence in the photographs by repeating images, which eliminates any sense of shock. It is a little repulsive to experience beauty when looking at such war-ravaged scenes, but—as Simeti seems to say: It’s not what you show, but how you decorate it.
Love/War/Sex was a brilliant idea that I hope Exit Art tries again in the future, but like love, sex and maybe war, if it lacks passion it just doesn’t work.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.