The Usable Past: “The concept that a self-conscious examination of historical figures, moments, and symbols can shape current and future political formation.”
This is how the Whitney defines the title of one of five galleries in their ongoing permanent collection exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest. The works in the gallery present memory and nostalgia as both powerful and yet often insufficient vehicles to re-experience the past. Sharing tropes of obfuscation and anonymity, the works materialize the incomplete nature of memory and documentation.
Annette Lemieux’s painting Black Mass (1991), in which she replaces the protest signs in a civil rights march with black, empty squares, hangs across the room from Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (Speech/Crowd) #2, a photograph of the Million Man March which Ligon has blurred and layered with coal dust. These works recall acts of censorship and evoke the fading hope of social change in a world where battles for civil rights must be repeatedly fought. However, the works in the exhibition that truly express the concept of “the usable past” are those which feature the museum as their main subject.
Lining the walls of the museum’s new Meatpacking building, a multiplicity of letters of protest written to the Whitney by artists and organizations related to the institution emerge from the Whitney’s archives. In a letter from 1971 addressed to former director John I.H. Baur, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition announced their opposition to the 1971 exhibition Black Artists in America and declared their plans to demonstrate on the museum’s premises. Their initial discontent stemmed from the Whitney’s seemingly empty promise to hire and consult with black art leaders for the curating of the show. The BECC’s correspondence with the Whitney attests to the fact that the institution has dealt with issues surrounding the cultural agency of marginalized groups in an art context. Alongside this letter, dozens of other requests from artists implore the museum to remove their work as acts of protest or solidarity during moments of political unrest, and urge the museum to take a stance on current socio-political debates.
To get to the Whitney’s 8th floor exhibit Laura Poitras: Astro Noise, I stood in line for about twenty minutes, taking note in the museum’s glass exterior of my reflection and those of other visitors waiting in line to see the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. I thought about Poitras’s past documentaries, including the Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR, and wondered how her exhibition would reflect on her chief topic – the United States in the post-9/11 era – in ways that her documentaries could not. Watching my reflection slowly inch forward proved to be a fortuitous entrance to the immersive exhibit, which, according to the program, “asks viewers to actively consider their position and responsibility in the ‘war on terror.’” Indeed, Astro Noise implicates and arranges viewers in “immersive media environments” that compel active looking and embodied contemplation.
I stepped out of the elevators and into the first “immersive media environment” (the program’s reinvention of the word “room”). The space is split in half by a single screen, onto both sides of which are projected videos that respond to 9/11. Titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016), this two-channel digital video bifurcates the room, a setup that divides viewers into opposing groups that face each other as they face the central screen, as if an audience reflected in a mirror. Playing on side A of the screen are slowed images of the faces of New Yorkers as they look upon the remains of Ground Zero days after the attacks. Here viewers confront, and perhaps even remember firsthand, the emotions of that terrorist event: disbelief, shock, fear. These same feeling could be registered on the faces of viewers looking at the other side of the screen, where uncovered U.S. military interrogation videos of two prisoners in Afghanistan, Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdam, represent the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks.
Wade Guyton is, in many ways, an art historian’s artist. He engages with the questions that get us going: questions of aesthetics, medium specificity, and the iconography of modernism itself, not to mention the very directness with which he prompts his viewers to wonder what’s “relevant” in art today. Lots of ink has been spilled attempting to define Guyton’s artistic practice, and many have asserted his status as a painter. A painter who, despite his use (primarily) of Epson inkjet printers and tabletop scanners, tips his hand both by very consciously employing that ur-signifier of painting—canvas plus stretcher bar—and by articulating the limits of his medium. Guyton’s current retrospective at the Whitney (on view October 4, 2012 to January 13, 2013) gives us an opportunity to re-examine these interpretative strictures and consider the work through the varied art-historical lenses that it demands. Continue reading “Wade Guyton: X is to Y as”