In Ericka Beckman's video installation You the Better, a team of uniformed men play a game called Take a Shot at the Wheel, a betting game in which they take turns lunging at spinning red and green targets with a yellow ball in their hands. They treat it like a sport — they high-five and dribble the ball and one guy says, "Here it is. Our big chance. At last!" — but it appears to be a game of chance. No one has any control over anything: The players don't have control over what blurry mass they hit, the "better" doesn't have any control over what the players do (in fact, at one point, the players seem to celebrate when the better loses) and the viewer doesn't have any control over what the better chooses, even though we're supposed to feel like we're the ones placing the bets (hence the installation's name).
It's terrifically fun to watch, almost like a kids show that sucks you in with its bright colors and seeming inanity, but there's something depressing about it, too. We're brought face to face with our general lack of control — and, like the players and the betters, our eagerness to pretend that we have control over the world around us.
Since Donald Trump took office in January, many Americans have been overwhelmed by the feeling that disaster is just one incendiary tweet, one pen stroke, one press of the red button away. We feel we've been stripped of control over our own futures, even though, c'mon, we didn't really have control to begin with. The Broad's new exhibit "Oracle" — which opens April 29 — professes to be about globalism, but it touches on something much more sinister. As the exhibit's description puts it, "Just under the surface of the works in 'Oracle' is an air of anxiety, as if individuals’ freedoms within these man-made phenomena are illusory or beyond reach."
Incidentally, the show was conceived of before the current political debacle was set into motion. In conversation, the Broad's spokesperson referred to it as "prescient," which is the perfect way to put it.
Works by more than 30 artists fill several rooms, but the room featuring Sterling Ruby's diptych SP272 (1) and (2) feels like the heart of the show. Wind sweeps across what looks like a devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape. The piece is so large and has such depth, it's easy to feel as if you're being sucked into the Mad Max–esque scene. On an adjacent wall is another devastating piece (that features devastation), Kara Walker's Pastorale. In graphite and pastels, she's drawn a world that's in the process of being torn apart, by people but also by a sort of disembodied chaos. A pair of minstrel eyes peers out from a brick wall and a disturbing Mickey Mouse–looking character runs by minus his ears. It's impossible to tell whether he's fleeing the melee or he's a participant.
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In the room that features still photography, the most striking piece is Jeff Wall's Search of Premises, a highly staged image of a police search in progress, which mimics documentary photography. Two men examine documents they've pulled from a box, and a third man lingers in a doorway, perhaps on his way to search other rooms. They're wearing gloves, bulletproof vests and belts adorned with tactical gear, but no official insignia to indicate they have permission to be there — upon first glance, most people will take for granted that they're cops, but who knows? The person who presumably lives in the house has literally been disappeared from the scene; his clothes and shoes are left in a pile, as if he was hastily sucked into another dimension so people can go through his stuff. And now we're standing and watching his privacy be betrayed. We're practically consenting.
"Oracle" certainly isn't a feel-good show, but in a way, it feels good to have our anxieties echoed on the walls of a museum.
"Oracle," the Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave., downtown; April 29-Sept. 3; free. thebroad.org/art/collection-installations/oracle.