Visual Notes for an Upside-down World
June 29 – August 18, 2017
With the phenomena of instantaneous interaction that are now our lot, there has been a veritable reversal, destabilizing the relationship of human interactions, and the time reserved for reflections, in favor to the conditioned responses produced by emotion. Thus the theoretical possibility of generalized panic.
It can be said that we are in the panic of our own Weimar belly produced by a toxic communications environment where far right popular political positions are constructed from emotion, innuendo, and misinformation. This bombardment of a vitriolic and deceiving nature has debased critical discourse and allowed consequences of a very real kind to take form. For instance, on Wednesday, July 27th, 2017, the current administration released a three-pronged attack on the LGBTQ community: 1) declaring that the protections provided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do not cover workers on the basis of sexual orientation; 2) the nomination of anti-gay rights Governor Sam Brownback as the nation’s Religious Freedom Ambassador; and 3) by the President’s very own declaration, via a series of tweets, that no transgender individual will be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity. The ramifications of these attacks spread like a ripple in water. Regardless of one’s sexual/gendered identity, they enhance the conditions of panic, fear, and powerlessness from which Ur-fascism2 gains its power and which curator Jack McGrath’s Visual Notes for an Upside-down World at P∙P∙O∙W gallery aims to upend. The totality of the show offers understandings and explanations of the conditions we are in and reminds us that the guerrilla tactics of our forebears have resounding effects far beyond the historically determined periods of their respective disruptions and oppression.
To take the show in at once is to be disoriented, spread thin, and deluged. It consists of over a hundred years of scattered art works that McGrath has drawn together in the spirit of détournement, the Situationist International’s tactic of turning preexisting meaning on itself so as to undermine the intended messages, revealing underlying motives at play. An installation of early 20th century photographic works, the largest a photomontage by John Heartfield titled The Executioner and Justice (c. 1933), depicts a blind, bloody, and bandaged figure, the arm of justice mangled, the scales tipped as if swinging wildly, while the executioner’s arm remains taut and strong. Originally a criticism of the 1933 Reichstag Fire Trial, Heartfield’s message continues to resonate today.
Yasi Alipour’s The (un)Raveling of a Thought (2016) is a two-sided chalkboard with repeated phrases spelled out in block print and then in script , summoning associations with forms of punishment, indoctrination, or incantation. Two works from David Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series (for Marion Scemama) (1988-89) and two works from Martha Rosler's Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72) hang opposite one another and are balanced by Louise Bourgeois’s Femme (2005) and Hugh Hayden’s Mortgage (2017 ). In each, the melding of dualities (public and private, hidden and seen) unmasks the social structure that keeps such things as class, race, gender, and sexual identity hypothetically separate.
Mona Hatoum’s kinetic sculpture + and - (1994-2004) consists of two blades, each positioned at opposite angles, spinning counterclockwise through a bed of sand. One blade has sharp teeth and draws lines in a circular motion through the sand. The other, straight-edged, performs the opposite: a blade that doesn’t cut but smooths, erasing lines. Near Hatoum’s piece hangs Cassils’s Advertisement: Homage to Benglis (2011) (inspired by Lynda Benglis’s 1974 Artforum advertisement), a 40 x 30 inch digital c-print depicting Cassils in bright red lipstick and a jockstrap, biceps pulsing with cutaneous veins at the culmination of a 160-day performance. The print is backed by several 11 × 17 inch press releases from the Schwules Museum detailing an incident of transphobia, the banning of the work’s display at German train stations by Deutsche Bahn AG.
To see these works as notes, as McGrath suggests, is to remind us of their power as strategies of resistance and critique, as if we are asked to read the works as secret notes passed from generation to generation. In this sense, Visual Notes for an Upside Down World offers a cacophony of the very tactics needed to fight the panic of disinformation produced in our age of semiotic warfare. It is a celebration of the very critical dimension of art as reflection itself.
- Virilio, Paul, with Bertrand Richard. The Administration of Fear, translated by Ames Hodges (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012), 31.
- Ur-Fascism or “Eternal Fascism” consists of 14 non-hierarchical, non-systemic features, such as “fear of difference,” “machismo,” and “cult of tradition,” that are characteristic of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, parties, groups, or individuals. See Eco, Umberto. "Ur-Fascism." The New York Review of Books (NYREV, Inc, 22 June 1995). Web. 02 Aug. 2017.
Colin Edgington is a visual artist and writer currently living and working in the greater New York area. He holds a BAFA in studio art from the University of New Mexico, an MFA in studio art from the Mason Gross School of Arts, Rutgers University and an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts, NYC.