“This show doesn’t suck,” commented a fellow art writer with a smile of satisfaction on her face, as I stepped out of the elevator into “The American Effect.” Call that an understatement. The Whitney Museum of American Art has strategically transcended its mandate to show only American art, and has done so in a tough, serious, funny, intelligent, biting, sometimes startling, and absolutely relevant exhibition that lets us see our nation as others see us. This isn’t just an important exhibition. At a moment when Uncle Sam seems to be morphing into Godzilla, it’s a necessary one.
In this summer of disbelief, it’s the perfect antidote to conjured uranium and missing WMDs. Well, maybe not the perfect antidote. But while we’re wondering where our constitutional principles and institutional balances of power went, it’s instructive to read—in a newspaper installation by Durban-born Siemon Allen—that South Africans are in stitches over Survivor. It’s satisfying to see, in a chromogenic color print from a series called My Grandmothers by Miwa Yanagi from Kyoto, an exhilarating update on the dream of our country as the land of opportunity and eternal youth. A fantasy of unlimited freedom, glamour, and self-delusion, it’s this exhibition’s quintessential image.
Each work, in its own way, is engrossing; there’s not a dud among them. The perfectly paced installation has a cumulative logic, and the DVDs and films, such as Dutch digital wizard Arno Coenen’s road trip, or Finnish filmmaker Veli Granö’s A Strange Message From Another Star, are worth every minute. And, though the Whitney’s catalogs have long been criticized for lack of scholarly rigor, this one contains nine smart, readable essays and a comic-book insert. Curator Lawrence Rinder writes about the art; scholars from across the globe, including Luc Sante and Edward Said, swathe the show in social, political, and intimately personal contexts. The insert, by a Serbian cartoonist who arrived in New York on a grant shortly after NATO bombed his hometown, perfectly expresses everyone’s increasing sense of bewilderment as we try to wrap our minds around an avalanche of irreconcilable global and national contradictions.
Look to the right when you arrive. An oversize, glorified picture of Giuliani, borrowed by Shanghai artist Zhou Tiehai from Time‘s 2001 Man of the Year cover—and presented, like Mao or Stalin were, as a great leader and icon of veneration—is the first thing you see. What complicates matters and tweaks this image into ambivalence is that it rests, as Chris Ofili’s black Madonna did, on two balls of elephant dung. Besides tempering an homage to the former mayor’s fine 9-11 leadership with a reminder of how petty, stern, and boorish mayor Rudy could be, it’s a tricky bit of trompe l’oeil: The whole thing is a photo-image printed on a hanging scroll that curls onto the floor. Already, this piece has fooled the minds of more than one New York journalist into describing it as if it were made of paint and dung.
Or look left, at Gilles Barbier’s equally ambivalent and hilariously deadpan take on the American hero. In this French artist’s life-size tableau, Nursing Home, our beloved comic-book superheroes have been aged since the year of their tabloid births, as if fictional archetypes of invincibility were subject to mortality, too. The Incredible Hulk, flabby and in tatters, vegetates in a wheelchair. Catwoman dozes. Superman leans on a walker. Mr. Fantastic dangles his overstretched limbs. And Captain America lies comatose on a gurney, attended by a decrepit Wonder Woman. The TV plays, but the sound is pure golden oldies from the Platters. This piece isn’t subtle. But it’s deserved: An artist from “Old Europe” has succeeded in suggesting (tempus fugit, sic transit gloria mundi, gotcha!) that others may have a more sophisticated understanding of superpowerdom than we have ourselves.
Every one of the works in this show offers multiple readings, mixed feelings, and contradictory emotions, as well as formal elements that meld the foreign and the familiar. Read into them what you wish as you navigate various mixtures of admiration tempered with sweet disgust, affection tinged with sadness, and emulation imbued with cynicism as well as envy. Death in Dallas, Zoran Naskovski’s video dirge of hope, youth, beauty, horror, and heart-wringing loss, pulls out all the stops, combining a Balkan ballad about JFK from the 1960s with documentary footage and foreign-syntax subtitles. Retelling our national trauma in an unfamiliar way, the Belgrade-based artist leaves unsaid his own region’s history of agonies inflicted and endured, yet that too resonates through this work. When you emerge, the superannuated lyrics of “Only You” and “The Great Pretender” wafting from Barbier’s tableau take on new meaning, purely by chance.
The idea for this exhibition arose, one might say, from the ashes of 9-11. “What on earth does the world think of us? What could possibly have inspired such hatred? How are we seen through the eyes of others?” Rinder started to wonder. It percolated while he worked on the 2002 biennial. He claims that in choosing the 47 artists and three groups from 24 countries for “The American Effect,” he wanted to avoid preconceptions. He says he had no agenda. Believe him. He has orchestrated an exhibition that probes the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between incompatible realities and fantasies. This show splits hairs between simulation, impersonation, appropriation, cross-cultural self-identification, adulation, and critique.
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.
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.