Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy
MET BREUER | SEPTEMBER 18, – JANUARY 6, 2019
In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstader labeled entire groups as pathological based on their inclinations to see events through the lens of conspiracy. While his essay has influenced political discourse ever since, Hofstader was wrong about conspiracy thinking as aberrant. To the contrary, it belongs to the quintessential human drive for pattern recognition. Think of it as the conceptual equivalent of pareidolia: the tendency to see patterns where none exist, such as the face of Jesus on a piece of toast. What’s more, actual conspiracies do happen, the Russian hackings of the 2016 election as a recent example. The eighty-three works in Everything is Connected, evidently the first museum show to tackle the topic, look at both sides of conspiracies, real and imagined, from the Vietnam era to the George W. Bush years. Most of the art functions as anti-entertainment, prodding us to wake up and see what’s actually around us. Some—particularly Jim Shaw’s—satirize conspiracy mainstays such as the Kennedy assassination. The most disturbing pieces address conspiracies by authorities who, to realize their agendas, brainwashed their charges.
Curators Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer divide the show into two parts: art about actual conspiracies, and art about conspiracy thinking. The works of the first typically delve into research to shore up their conspiracy claims. These politically engaged conceptual pieces belong to the anti-entertainment camp and are often exercises in systems thinking. One of the giants of this genre is Hans Haacke, represented by an artwork that led the director of the Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Messer, to cancel Haacke’s 1971 solo show. Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, (1971) is an installation with several panels pinpointing on Manhattan maps the exact addresses of the partnership’s holdings, which ranged from the high end to the sleazier parts of midtown including Times Square. Goldman and DiLorenzo hid their unsavory connections through shell corporations, which Haacke methodically uncovered by investigating the public record. A Haacke admirer, Mark Lombardi’s vast hand-drawn diagram BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972 – 91 (4th Version), (1996 – 2000), charts the Bank of Credit and Commerce International’s byzantine connections to other institutions in its pursuit of money laundering operations for the likes of Abu Nidal, Manuel Norieaga, and Reagan’s Iran-Contra operatives.
The curators describe the second part of Everything is Connected as “when we go down the rabbit hole.” It is here that we confront conspiracy thinking and other psychological subversions that blur fantasy and reality. Jim Shaw’s UFO Photos: Zapruder Film, 1978 – 92, is a series of grainy stills from the Zapruder movie doctored with images of UFOs. Shaw’s joke, conflating two of the most popular unsolved conspiracy theories to grip the American imagination, points to the tendency of the human mind to search for ever more outlandish compound explanations in the face of uncertainty—aliens killed JFK!
In the age of “QAnon,” Shaw’s serious fun has a chilling aspect we understand all too well, but more timely and unsettling are the works that explore how fragile our grasp on reality can be under the knuckles of institutional malfeasance. Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex, 1995, is a diorama recreated from memory of all the educational buildings he occupied, from grade school to CalArts. Many of the building models have voids that reflect the gaps in his recollections of the buildings’ details. The idea for the building came to him in the wake of the McMartin scandal of the late 1980s, when children were falsely accusing the McMartins and other day care operators of sexual abuse and Satanic rituals, false memories psychiatrists and social workers had implanted in the children’s imagination. In Educational Complex, Kelley perhaps is asking if the gaps in his school memories are symptomatic of hidden traumas.
Traumatic doesn’t begin to describe Sarah Anne Johnson’s nightmarish House on Fire, (2008 – 2009) another architectural model that dramatizes her grandmother Velma Orlikow’s unwitting induction into the CIA’s MK-Ultra, a program that illegally experimented on unsuspecting participants. Originally admitted for postpartum depression, under the “care” of Dr. D. Ewen Cameron, Orlikow became mentally unhinged through the clinical administration of LSD, electro-shock therapy, and other psychiatric techniques in Cameron’s attempts to formulate mind control techniques. Each window in House on Fire shows another stage in Orlikow’s iatrogenic descent into insanity, and the lasting damage it caused to her family.
Everything is Connected deserves credit for bringing up the subject of conspiracies as subject matter but leaves us hungering for answers as to why we inhabit a political landscape that has weaponized conspiracy thinking. Perhaps that is not a question that art can answer, or can only answer retrospectively.
is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.