|Photo by Tim McAfee|
In Dark Star Safari, his devastating account of a post-9/11 trip through Africa, the American novelist Paul Theroux has an amusing anecdote about a Sudanese tour guide. Laying eyes on Theroux for the first time, the guide skips the preliminaries (“Hello,” “How are you?,” etc.) and gets right to the point. “Bush is Satan,” he tells him. When Theroux replies noncommittally, the guide says, “Clinton is Satan.” And when this also fails to get a rise out of the author, he announces that he wants to live in America. Could Theroux help him get there?
Something like this must happen to American travelers every day. If America is the Great Satan, then the rest of the world is rapidly turning into the Great Schizoid, railing against the U.S. one minute, drooling over it the next, like the Judean revolutionaries grousing about Rome in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (“Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”) It’s in this contradictory territory that “The American Effect,” a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, has set up shop. Curated by Lawrence Rinder, it showcases “global perceptions” of America, with works in various media by 47 artists from 30 different countries.
The tone is set in the first room by a satirical portrait of the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. The painting, which is done in a Socialist Realist style presumably meant to provoke thoughts of Stalin, is by the Chinese artist Zhou Tiehai. At the bottom of the canvas the artist has painted two balls of elephant dung — a reference to Giuliani’s contretemps with the Brooklyn Museum a few years back over a dung-inflected portrait of the Virgin Mary by “Sensation” artist Chris Ofili. A joke? Presumably, but it’s not a great start to the exhibition. Fortunately, things get better. Also in the front room is Nursing Home, an installation by French artist Gilles Barbier, in which decrepit, life-size sculptures of comic book superheroes — Superman, Catwoman, Captain America, et al. — lie on gurneys, lean on walkers and sit around in wheelchairs, with only a TV set for entertainment. A prophecy of America’s eventual fall from power? Perhaps. But in that case, who’s taken over? What’s on the TV? And who and where are the nurses?
One of the best things in the show is a series of miniature paintings by the Pakistani artist Saira Wasim. Here the fun is in seeing contemporary subject matter (America’s post-9/11 alliance with Pakistan) wedded to a venerable artistic technique, namely the miniaturist tradition of the Mughal dynasty (1526–1857). In Friendship After 11 September 1, George W. Bush and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hug each other under a silk-draped pergola, while a flag-waving crowd beneath them, including Ronald McDonald and mullahs dressed as clowns, celebrates their union. Rather than critiquing or siding with the Pakistani-American alliance, Wasim depicts it as part of a centuries-old tradition of imperial politics and deal making — history, in short.
Summer art shows are traditionally a mishmash, and this one is no exception. As well as paintings and installations, there are videos, drawings, photographs, cartoons, interactive computer games and enough documentaries to furnish a small film festival. In one video, Polish artist Pawel Kruk pretends to be Michael Jordan and recites lines from the basketball player’s autobiography. “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to be Michael Jordan,” he says, deadpan.
In a series of elegant tableaux, Chinese artist Danwen Xing depicts the mounds of American “e-waste” — millions of computer parts — dumped in China’s Guangdong province. And 10 gelatin silver prints by South Korean artist Yongsuk Kang soberly document the results of half a century of American test bombing on Nong Island. “Though America is our ally, its military exercises are like a real invasion,” the artist is quoted as saying in the accompanying wall text. Looking at the photos of the pulverized island, one believes him.
Amazingly, there are still some people out there willing to express fondness for the U.S. Yes, a few works are openly hostile — a large painting by Makoto Aida depicts the firebombing of Manhattan by a squadron of World War II Japanese bombers — but there are some very different takes, like New Manhattan City 3021, a large sculptural model by Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez. Done after 9/11, it portrays downtown New York as a colorful Las Vegas wonderland studded with giant dollar signs that have the saucy allure of showgirls. Unusually affectionate in tone, it’s the work of one of the oldest artists in the exhibition (Kingelez was born in 1948). Perhaps that tells us something.