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February 2017
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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The Future Isn't What It Used To Be . . . from page 1

The most gentle nudge toward awareness comes right at the gallery door, where Stephanie Syjuco’s “Dark Matter (Grey Cloud)” resembles a scene from an expensive clothing store. Here a constellation of handsome display racks gives the saturation treatment, after all, a standard strategy of high-end merchandising, to a collection of identical grey hoodies. While ”color” opens an entire category of raw social and philosophical questions, a place to start is with this fashion query: what is the difference between the association made by Trayvon Martin’s murderer, between a hoodie and a hooligan, and the association made here, between a perennially popular garment and its potentially tony application? What, besides what is, after all, a minority taste—the preference of those who feel threatened—separates a garment, or the person who wears it, from being seen properly as a human being?

Nearby, Rosa Naday Garmendia’s “Rituals of Commemoration” ambivalently invokes two nearly identical looking, popular tropes with very different meanings. Her wall of names, custom built to fit the location where it is shown, resembles the most popular modern form of memorial, where in place of a generic image, the names and death dates of the victims individualize those it means to hold in memory; in this case, persons killed in encounters with the police. The obvious associations are to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and the hundreds of monuments that have followed its lead, with the difference that in place of a static story of the past, here the lively, colorful, blank bricks that apparently once made up this wall are being inexorably replaced in the present by the somber bricks bearing names. Yet at the same time, the use of bricks also suggests something less tragic, and even potentially optimistic. Along with the use of names carved in stone, in mourning and reflection, countless communities have sold similarly inscribed bricks to raise money for their popular projects. Thus “Rituals of Commemoration” can also be seen as a kind of spiritual investment: one that looks forward to a communal solution to the problem of authoritarian violence.

Another work that looks forward, this time with tongue in cheek, is “Whistle Loudly,” an excerpt from a continuing project by Octavio Abúndez that sees him produce a generous shelf of fake books every year. Printing books, like planting trees, is a powerful expression of faith in the future. So the overall title for the project, The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be, which presumably also provided the exhibition’s overall title, seems particularly apt for a potentially vast library of books, given how often being in print is mistaken for proof of referential reality. Some titles, like “Interstellar Etiquette for Dummies,” unambiguously point to the future while indicting the rude present. A black volume titled “An American Nightmare” all but disappears between “The Fall of Christendom” and “The Last Stand of Communism.” Surely “Whatever” denotes a new encyclopedia, one that doesn’t pretend to care about its contents. And jokes abound, some in English but many more in Spanish, perhaps in part to incite the mono-linguistic in the crowd. Now, this library asks, where’s the future in that?  

Some artworks focus on imagination and creativity, but Antonia Wright’s “Are You OK?” feels taken from universal, quotidian experience. Everyone who goes out in public has had the experience of witnessing someone who appears to be in trouble, and wondering whether or not to get involved. Wright stands alone on a street corner in a black dress and appears distressed, going so far at to cry desperately. And she waits to see what happens. Cameras set up to film the faces of passers-by capture their confusion and distress. Occasionally, someone or a small group stop to offer help, a moment every bit as revealing of human complexity as the reactions of those who, as in the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, see her and hurry past. It’s a potentially problematic piece: one that uses deception to evoke an emotional response from its audience. In so doing, though, Wright reminds us of the subterfuge and artificiality of all art, and sets up a rare ethical challenge, not only to the alien targets of so much Contemporary art, but to its producers and consumers as well.

Another video that begins in a common human predicament, “Under the Rug”by Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker displays the border between a lawn and a smooth floor littered with trash. In a series of quick takes, during which sequence the quantity of debris increases dramatically, hands working a broom to sweep up the detritus lift the lawn, revealed to be sod, and sweep the refuse under it. As the rubble grows in quantity and size, what began as an innocent shortcut becomes ever more untenable. If ever there was a work of art that didn’t require an explanation, this should be it; the human impulse to bury what we can’t deal with, from daily inconveniences to the inevitability of personal extinction, is laid out here in what is often the only way we can deal with the unbearable: with laughter.

Looking in the other direction and moving from the environmental perspective to the personal, Leandro Lima and Gisela Motta’s “I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device)”contemplates material choice in terms of personal wellbeing and individual survival. Here a handful of commonplace compromises—unhealthy products and their seductive packaging—have been assembled into the simulacrum of a destructive device most will recognize, even if only from media images. Then, through animation, the potential bomb becomes a beating heart. Asking whether we want this heart to continue beating like this, or to stop, is a little like asking how to let go of a tiger’s tail.

Curator Caraballo’s promise not to subject her audience to images of actual violence needn’t be invoked to explain why she placed artist Ananké Asseff’s “Rueda de econocimiento (LineUp)” apart, in a room of its own. Rather, the full, visceral impact of this brief encounter requires an elaborate setup, precautions, and discretion both technical and journalistic. The monitor that stands outside the door, showing the gallery floor within, carries the message:

PLEASE VIGILANTLY WATCH THE MONITOR
THE EXHIBITION SPACE MUST BE
EMPTY BEFORE YOU ENTER

and neither further signs, nor this review, will disclose what happens to those who follow the instructions and, when it’s ready, enter the gallery. The purpose of the sign is not as nefarious as it sounds: the exhibit is automatically triggered by the viewer’s presence, so a proper viewing requires waiting until the previous viewer exits. Then it’s best experienced by one person at a time. Afterwards, the unusual procedure will make sense, and so will the art—on an initially visual, but ultimately somatic, and pre-linguistic level.

We live at a moment in history when dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs has made the future of paramount interest to us, yet we so often envision that future not as inviting, but as dystopian. The seven artists gathered for us by Susan Caraballo recognize that, but instead of wallowing in hopelessness, ask that we reflect on how the present, which after all was yesterday’s future, failed us . . . or we failed it. And they go on to suggest, with enticing visuals and no small humor, that there is no time to lose if today’s future is going to be any better when, inevitably, it becomes the present.


Exhibition Review: Orem
From the Eyes of a Child
Brian McCarty's WAR-TOYS at the Woodbury Museum of Art

No one is as greatly affected by the violence of war as children. The most vulnerable population, children absorb the physical, emotional and psychological traumas of war in unique ways. Brian McCarty’s exhibit WAR-TOYS: Israel, West Bank, and Gaza Strip, at the Woodbury Art Museum through March 16th, approaches this phenomenon from its own unique perspective, re-creating the drawings by Israeli and Palestinian children with toys that he bought or found in those areas.

Started in 2011, McCarty’s WAR-TOYS is a nonprofit humanitarian effort to bring awareness and help to those affected by the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Since the mid-20th century and the creation of Israel as a separate Jewish state, Israel and Palestine have been in near- constant conflict, the tensions especially heightened as Israel contains many sites sacred to both Jewish and Muslim communities. The conflict has led to millions of refugees, thousands of deaths, and military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, causing civilians in these areas to be worried of constant attack. For McCarty’s project, children from both countries were guided to a “safe room” with art therapists where they were given a simple request – to share a story about the world of violence they had experienced. The process functions both to help McCarty generate compositions, and acts as a therapeutic exercise to help children make sense of the horrible violence they have witnessed. 

McCarty re-creates their compositions with toys shot in the same locations depicted in the drawings. Even though the pictures are of plastic toys, the photographs can be quite graphic, preserving the feelings of fear and powerlessness experienced by the child artists. Yet, McCarty also explores the idea of resilience that children, through their mechanisms of play, can come to terms with much deeper tragedy than adults. Quite a few of the children’s drawings feature flowers or figures that are smiling even as they are threatened by bombs and guns. The exhibit includes 22 archival C-prints of McCarty’s photography, 18 children’s drawings, various toys, and a “safe room” installation.

Some images may seem benign. The photograph “Unseen Al Aqsa”depicts a Fisher Price-like male figurine with brown hair and skin standing in front of a pool in which the Dome of the Rock mosque is reflected. The Palestinian child who drew the original sketch expressed the desire to go back to the Dome of the Rock, a sacred location for both Jews and Muslims that can be difficult for Palestinians to visit. The photograph is made striking, however, by the figure, which is eyeless. Missing facial features are common among toys in this Middle Eastern war zone — they are often defective toys sold at steeply discounted prices from manufacturers in China. This eyeless figure sends a message deeper than a commentary on the commercial difficulties of a land at war, however. It also highlights the helplessness experienced by children in war zones as they attempt to reconcile their situations and survive.

A child’s experience of war often reduces complicated experience to bare facts. McCarty points out that to children, “whoever is shooting at them is the ‘bad guy.’” Though he interviewed children on both sides of the conflict, their drawings are extremely similar, featuring Israeli and Palestinian soldiers in the same roles as aggressor and often in similar compositions. The children do not understand political rights or religion in the same way as adults, but they can identify who is a threat to their happiness and their family. In “Arms Long Enough,” McCarty re-creates the drawing of a boy whose greatest desire is to have arms long enough to catch the bombs that would fall on his house.

Though McCarty includes several types of toys found in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, the civilian toys are far outnumbered by the militaristic ones. In 1977, Abie Nathan launched a campaign against these “war toys,” to try to combat the culture of war in these two countries. His efforts, however, were unsuccessful and these toys are still the most prevalent and economic in Israel: bags of green army figures can be bought at local markets, stores, and found in abundance in abandoned areas.

Though McCarty’s WAR-TOYS relies on the firsthand accounts and drawings of Israeli and Palestinian children, the child artists themselves are left unnamed — reminding the viewer that feelings of fear and powerlessness are universal. And the use of toys familiar around the world — Cinderella, Playmobil© families, and green army figures — invites the viewer to reflect on their own experience with toys, fear, and childhood in a way as powerful and compelling as the horrific experiences of children in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

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