A Foreign Affair

America in the Spotlight (and the Crosshairs) at the Whitney

It negotiates between Andrea Robbins and Max Becher's color photos of East Germans pretending to be Native American squaws and chiefs, and aboriginal Australian artist Fiona Foley's Edward Curtis-like sepia shots of herself dressed as a Seminole in the Everglades. It contrasts Yongsuk Kang's photos of earth flattened by U.S. bomb practice in South Korea with Danwen Xing's images of an American e-waste dump in southern China. And it presents one deceptively stark projection—Dakota, by a duo based in Seoul called Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries—that manages to embody pure contradiction as well as to endow printed words with startling power. Using great timing, perfect pitch, and spindly black text bopping on a white screen to the beat of Art Blakey, it convinces us we're watching the rant of an alienated American kid—and then exposes the narrative as a Korean teen's fantasy.

It's impossible to say which is scarier: the dying mud-clotted giants from The Battle of Little Big Horn, by Ousmane Sow from Dakar, who didn't become a sculptor until he was 50, or the terrifyingly ornamental depiction of midtown Manhattan in flames on Makoto Aida's Muromachi-style folding screen. We can't help but assume that the screen's infinity of Mylar airplanes is a shocking reference to 9-11. But, created in 1996, it's a bit of gilded vengeance carried forward from World War II.

How are we seen through the eyes of others?: Ousmane Sow's The Battle of Little Big Horn (detail, 1998), at the Whitney.
photo: Robin Holland
How are we seen through the eyes of others?: Ousmane Sow's The Battle of Little Big Horn (detail, 1998), at the Whitney.

Details

The American Effect
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through October 12

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A decade ago, when the predominant artspeak had to do with peripheries versus centers, inspiration versus influence, and appropriation versus derivativeness, a Turkish curator explained to me that kids all over the world grow up in identical housing blocks, listening to Bruce Springsteen, watching Dallas, eating Big Macs. His point, which at the time the smug New York art world didn't get, was that artists outside the U.S. have the advantage because they can pick and choose from among two cultures, adapting and subverting ours while partaking of their own traditions, too. Do they still have the advantage, now that American culture, products, money, and military might are so globally pervasive? The catalog essays make clear that in the real world, all the cards are now stacked in our favor. But as far as art goes, this exhibition suggests a resounding yes.

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