The American Effectby Jill Conner
Whitney Museum of American Art
Through October 12, 2003
There is no question that American policies and globalization have oppressed citizens in Second and Third World countries. The riots waged against the World Trade Organization convention in Seattle in 1999 protested the use of corporate sweatshops, where low-wage laborers have literally worked their lives away while creating commodities for Western capitalist markets. The protests also highlighted America’s keen interest in exporting bio-engineered foods for profit and revealed globalization’s contribution to the growing gap between rich and poor. The events of September 11th once again pointed to the problems that have grown in response to America’s increasing military and economic dominance across the world. As Whitney Museum curator Lawrence Rinder points out in his catalogue essay, most citizens of the United States are oblivious as to how citizens in other countries view this country, much less how they are effected by it. In The American Effect, Rinder brings together work by 47 artists in the hopes of helping Americans develop a critical view of themselves and their country. While self-criticality is essential for self-awareness and progress, the point of the show and the intention of the Whitney Museum to see this through is far more interesting than the art itself.
Much of the work on display depends upon deadpan irony. Gilles Barbier’s installation "Nursing Home," depicts six superheroes reclining in old age. The piece attests to the influence that fictitious cartoons have had on every young persons’ understanding of gender roles, the dichotomy of good and bad, as well as the role of zero-sum relations within Western societies. Barbier points to the overuse of the medium within American culture, but beyond this simple point, the superhero figures do not indicate anything more profound that we are not already aware of. A large, monumental painting of Rudolph Guiliani titled "Libertas, Dei Te Servent!" by Zhou Tiehai uses photo-realism and the style of a portrait representing Mao Tse Tung to protest the action that Mayor Guiliani took against the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum in 1999. But once again, the irony is very flat, leaving this work a short-lived statement.
Makoto Aida’s "A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City" depicts Japanese war planes swirling over the city’s skyscrapers, which are nearly buried in smoke and flames. Although this piece utilizes the Japanese style of Senbazuru, it comes across largely as a dark, personal fantasy. Unfortunately there are no visual cues that spark the process of self-criticality. Pakistani artist Saira Wasim also reached into his native culture’s art history, using Mughal painting to forge a personal commentary on contemporary political events. In the "Bush" series, Wasim portrays allegorical scenes such as the moment Bush took the Presidential Oath and his subsequent diplomatic relationship with President Musharraf.
The strongest pieces in this show deal directly with both history and current events surrounding American imperialism. Yongsuk Kang’s photographs convince one of the subversive nature of covert U.S. military operations. The untitled black-and-white pictures that comprise the "Maehyang-ri" series document remnants of bomb tests that the American armed forces once carried out in Korea. Buried within hills of rubble, the bomb shells pose as artifacts and seem to reference a moment that has long since passed. The ominous mystery created by these images is a measure of their strength. Rinder’s catalogue essay points out that the casualties caused by these militaristic endeavors have hardly been discussed in the American media.
Maria Marshall’s poignant video depicts her children wrapping and unwrapping boxes with the soundtrack of the voice of her son reciting part of a speech given by President Bill Clinton on November 13th, 1993. As Clinton’s beliefs in the value of hard work, self-esteem and the meaning of life are reiterated, the quick process of packaging seems to reference the endless hard labor demanded in low-wage jobs. Stephanie Black’s video "Life and Debt" confronts the working and living conditions of sweatshop laborers. Since American companies have outsourced production to far flung Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries, the idea of success within America’s democracy is often not hard-earned by Americans themselves.
"How to Neuter the Mother Tongue" by The Builders Association and motiroti is equally disturbing, since it exposes the new dilemma hitting the telemarketing industry. Phone agents are now based in India, given American names and trained to speak with American accents so that U.S. consumers will not be disturbed when receiving a call from an unknown foreigner. As the programming industry is also being outsourced to foreign countries, where does this put the average American worker and the purpose of American higher education?
Danwen Xing’s untitled color photographs from the "disCONNEXION" series frame the detritus of our technological era. Piles of motherboards, headsets, and other hardware components that are harmful to the environment attest to Americans’ obsessive-compulsive nature. The exhibition closes with a large sculptural installation by Ousmane Sow that attempts to revive the Battle of Little Big Horn. Native Americans and U.S. cavalrymen writhe from gun shot wounds, marking the growth of the divide-and-conquer perspective that has gripped America quite regularly through various phases of nation building.
The American Effect also conveys the limitations of political art. As a style, it is very literal and draws from well-known sign systems. Bound to the message, political art always carries a specific meaning and relies heavily upon the dialectic between word and image. However, The American Effect is not only a critique of recent political events. It also serves as a point that marks drastic, historical change. After U.S. citizens led sweeping anti-war protests in concert with many others from around the globe, it was humiliating to witness the White House’s persistent desire to isolate itself from the international community, transforming this country from a source of effective diplomacy to that of a military powerhouse. The American Effect questions whether art can ever serve as an effective site for the transmission of divergent cultural ideas since international diplomacy has failed everyone so miserably.
Jill Connor teaches at Parson's new school.