On ViewGalerie Lelong
Krzysztof Woidczko: A House Divided
January 25 – March 7, 2020
There’s politics, and then there’s political art. The first is treacherous and swampy, brimming over with all the moral contradictions of the human soul, while the second tends toward the earnest and reliable, tightly managed to conform with articulate views of this world, its human habitants, and the endless problems those habitants create for themselves and others. Very rarely is political art willing to embrace the visceral depths of the nightmare that American politics has become, which is why it is particularly resistant to providing a platform for viewpoints that don’t readily conform to those liberal-progressive ideologies that are polar opposites of the current administration. And why should it? Most of the art world seems to either embrace or tacitly abide by those precepts, with the result that few self-respecting artists wish to be seen by their peers as amplifying talking points that amplify those promoted by Fox News.
The reason that’s a problem, as Krzysztof Wodiczko eloquently proposes in his installation A House Divided. . . , is that such viewpoints are held by fellow Americans, who happen to be flesh and blood members of our own communities, professions, and families. And how should one respond when political notions that are deeply repellent from a moral standpoint are espoused by someone for whom we might otherwise feel some form of empathy or personal bond? Can otherwise good people believe monstrous ideas and promote inhumane practices, or does the one automatically cancel out the other? And to play devil’s advocate, what does it mean to operate inside of a societal context wherein everybody holds harmonious political opinions? These questions are pressing today in the US, where the intensity of political polarization has cast some of our fellow citizens in our eyes as more than just ideological opponents, but also address themselves essentially to the very ideal of a just and civilized society. Once we reach the point of pointing fingers at enemies, as Wodiczko might argue, we start to mirror that which we most despise.
To test his hypothesis, Wodiczko gives us two identical replicas of Abraham Lincoln seated high up as if in his DC memorial, towering over us in the dark while facing each other, as if in perpetual discourse (there’s a small seating area between them). Using the projected interview technique that has become his signature technique, Wodiczko shares the results of his field research in New York’s own version of a swing state: Staten Island, where 57% of the voting public pulled the lever for Donald Trump in 2016. But even there, a stark division exists between north (liberal) and south (conservative) coasts, which is why it was not much of a challenge for Wodiczko to locate dozens of individuals willing to be videotaped as they discussed political issues that they felt passionately about.
The results, while borderline hypnotic in the ease with which each speaker’s face wraps itself around the silhouette of Lincoln’s head, are also starkly uncomfortable. As you listen to the speakers alternate from one Lincoln to the other, it’s nearly impossible to avoid feeling a passionate advocacy for what the face on Abe No. 1 is saying, without just as strongly opposing the speaker who will quickly appear as Abe No. 2. Sometimes the interviewees give each other the opportunity to express themselves, and at points one seems to answer what the other is saying, but at other moments the very idea of a civil discussion breaks down, and they begin to talk over each other, in effect canceling out each other’s voices.
The structure for Wodiczko’s sequence of speakers is a standard dialectic: points of view in A House Divided. . . are continuously juxtaposed with their opposites, and neither side gets the opportunity to gain a decisive advantage before one speaker fades away, to soon be followed by another. The frustration triggered by the ping-pong effect of hearing one’s own point of view validated, then rejected, then validated again, is slowly overtaken by a different frustration, this one rooted in our inability to perceive the full humanity of the other side’s position, just as we’re fully convinced that they fail to appreciate ours.
A House Divided. . . comes nowhere near attempting to spell out a resolution for our societal division, and if anything, its doubling of Lincoln’s iconic resoluteness suggests that we might remain in this heightened state of mutual antagonism for a long time to come. What Wodiczko’s artistry does hint at is a possibility of mutual accommodation, whereby we learn to perceive each other as having strong viewpoints, and give ourselves the opportunity to listen to them, although not in order to change our minds. The installation functions as a veritable safe space, where we might gradually accustom ourselves to the voices and faces of people whose political opinions are diametrically opposed to ours, while perhaps attempting to perceive a crucial distinction along the way between the message and the messenger.