Travel Agentsby William Powhida
Eric Heist’s latest solo show at Schroeder Romero is an ambitious critique of Western military and economic hegemony through the theoretical languages of montage and appropriation. A monolithic black desk, a single black chair, and gray felt push-pin boards covered in photo/text montages occupy the main gallery space. At the entrance, a cheery female voice narrates a breakneck tour of an opulent hotel. A stark dichotomy is immediately created between the austere interior and the slick, commercial video.
The collision between the two sources is precisely what Travel Agents is about. The show itself is a series of destructive collisions between word and image, calling into question language itself. Heist presents two specific sets of graphic montages, posters overlaid with the names of U.S. military operations and photographs with captions. The large format posters present the beautiful, exotic “other” transposed with the formal names of each military intervention, like “Operation Silent Promise,” “Guardian Retrieval,” and “Ghost Zone.” The later boards are covered in an array of beautiful photographs from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America where the operations occurred during the last forty years. The photographs appear to be vintage shots used to promote tourism with placid lakes, sparkling white beaches, and lush sloping mountains.
Beneath each picture, below the surface of the idealized image, are captions pulled from nonfiction accounts of the brutality visited upon each region during war, civil war, and genocide, such as Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families. Passages of Gourevitch’s account of the Rwandan genocide collide with the pastoral images of nature in a way that fractures the meaning of both. The horror of the words, pinned to the wall in place of the commercial language of tourism, collides against the audio tour of the anonymous five-star luxury hotel.
The resulting critique is not merely a downer, nor is it didactic. Heist’s worldview, that art can contain revolutionary thought, is an act of resistance in an increasingly irresponsible art world that has retreated from the intellectual challenges of the early 1990s into an infantile formalism that leans heavily on the largely discredited theory of modernism. It’s not that Heist has outdone Hans Haacke, but with the current lack of critical art, Heist’s willingness to forgo formal notions such as touch, authenticity, and ego seems like an act of bravery. Heist counters the critical language of the installation with a series of beautifully rendered pencil drawings of car bombings and other terrorist acts. The soft-focus beauty of the drawings softens the journalistic objectivity of the scenes, giving the tragedies a terrible intimacy.
Together, the two rooms become a container for a social sadness, a conscience for action and inaction in the name of American foreign policy. Behind the desk, which Hei.st transformed into a glass vitrine, a shrouded figure lays prostrate on a bed of dirt. The figure, or victim, is a powerful indictment of the way we ritualize class structure to cover terrible decisions whose consequences are hidden, denied, and buried in history. Heist’s attempt to make them visible, to give voice to important but widely unread texts, is done without perpetuating violence. He is able to revisit the violence on the idealized Western images of the exotic “other” without shock value. The most disgusting aspect of the show becomes conspicuous consumption and extravagant displays of wealth in places that have endured terrible events almost beyond imagination. The directness of the passages prevents the possibility of such a denial.
Beauty and leisure become intertwined with the imbalanced economy of tourism, where Westerners lounge at the expense of the local population, ignorant of their history. Heist is able to use tourism as a metaphor for the continued Western hegemony over the “third world” nations it continues to colonize or ignore. It shouldn’t be a surprise that such economic and social iniquity should breed contempt, resistance, and terrorism in beautiful and exotic places. In Rwanda, thousands of refugees died on the shores of the Great Lakes as a cholera epidemic ravaged the population. Heist’s dialectic montage brings the social narratives into the same space, preventing leisure, class, and beauty from masking the horrors of modernity. The female narrator’s voice comes back, trying to describe the carefully constructed opulence of the hotel while the rest of the world burns. The installation is less a work of art than a personal memorial of conscience for the price of beauty.