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(More) Art of Confrontation

Walk into the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center this political season, and you’re part of the show.

Sometimes you’re under surveillance. Sometimes you’re invited to look at your own reflection, wander among long lines of trees growing in coffins, or simply ask “why?”

The group of five exhibitions of politically engaged art is collectively called (More) Art of Confrontation. But while the show coincides with the campaign season and includes a great deal of social activist art, it’s not art as politics in any simple or obvious sense. There’s no bashing of political enemies; no biting satire of the powers that be.

Instead, it’s a confrontation with expectations. The assumptions the viewers bring into the gallery are, in many cases, the prime targets. Can a political banner be art? Can art be taken off the wall, scribbled on with chalk, or used to hold a meeting? Can art be political if it’s about silence rather than persuasion, or is absorbed in a conversation with a long-dead fellow artist?

Visitors to (More) Art of Confrontation will have to answer those questions for themselves.

The name, of course, harks back to last year’s much talked about Art of Confrontation, the centerpiece of which were paintings of torture at Abu Ghraib by the renowned Fernando Botero. They were huge, shocking, and in-your-face, designed to spark a visceral reaction.

In contrast, (More) Art of Confrontation is often quieter and more conceptual, and seeks to involve the viewer not as an emotionally charged voyeur but as a participant—acting within the art in some way, or taking an action because of the art. It could be said the focus is less on politics than on the nature of involvement itself.

The involvement begins the minute viewers enter the exhibit, though at first, they may not realize it. The tall, sterile, tree-like post at the entrance is an artistic Big Brother, filming visitors and projecting their images on video screens. Stepping into the museum, the viewer becomes the viewed.

The surveillance tree is part of Garden of Mistrust by Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea, now working in Spain, whose work shown at AU is all about questioning the authority of one’s own expectations.

Take the artwork called Conspiracy, pictured left, a towering model of a building, 87 feet high, that is held by a single chair. Something that is supposed to be small and safely contained inside four walls has grown and taken on a new role. This conspiracy is changing the world as we expect it.

Then there’s America (Wrecking Ball), pictured right, a handblown glass ball that hangs near the entrance and is shown in a video, further inside, swinging into a building, silently and with no effect. It bounces eternally on the same course, a wrecking ball that never wrecks. Viewers will have to ask themselves why this America is always stuck repeating a single pointless course, never achieving its intended impact.

The role of individuals is central to Close Encounters: Facing the Future. In one sense this show is a survey of social activist art, from an installation by Yoko Ono to a 2,000 pound ice sculpture of the word democracy displayed near both the Democratic and Republic National Conventions. The ice sculpture is shown at AU in photos; the original melted outside the convention halls as, in some cases, convention-goers nibbled away at the words.

Ono’s Zen-like installation of live ficus trees planted in rows of plank coffins that viewers can wander among is both serene and unsettling, raising questions about the environment and the constraints and resiliency of nature.

Some of the art invites the viewer to participate, like the chairs lined up on a wall that could, in theory, be taken down for an impromptu meeting. They’re by a working chalkboard with chalk ready to hand; recent visitors had scribbled a game of hangman on it.

Many other works are the products of artists’ collectives, and blur the line between art, protest, and social action. There’s a truck parked outside the AU Museum that serves as the workshop and moving museum of the Floating Lab Collective, a Washington, D.C.-based group that drives to suburban parking lots where, for instance, day laborers were recently asked to build a model of their dream homes.

The art in the show is varied, but the artists share an ethic of using their art to make a difference.

One criticism of political art has always been that it’s tied to the moment, and loses power as people forget the events of a time. That notion is implicitly given the lie by two of the shows in (More) Art of Confrontation, which are dialogues between a contemporary artist and an artist from the past who dealt in events of his time.

The Thirty Years War was a current event for seventeenth-century printmaker Jacques Callot, who cataloged its atrocities in a series of etchings. In The Depravities of War, Sandow Birk recreates Callot’s etchings, placing the updates in Iraq. The originals, shown in large-scale reproductions that display every gruesome detail, are bloody indictments of war and its effect on soldiers and peasants alike. Birk’s response, in 15 masterful woodblock prints, use both Callot’s work and news photographs as jumping-off points.

Ricardo Calero’s dialogue is with the famed nineteenth-century artist Francisco Goya, well known for his portrayal of atrocities that followed the entry of French forces under Napoleon into Spain. A decade later, he produced Los Disparates, savage and surreal critiques of the political and social customs of the day. It’s hard to fully grasp how radical this was in the early 1800s, but Goya precedes surrealism by a hundred years.

So when Calero sets out to engage with Goya, he does so in a way that is also radical—in his case, by using light, time, and nature as elements of engraving. If Goya’s creatures seem to exist in a realm outside of time, Calero turns time into a physical presence. If Goya’s emotions are violent, Calero shoots bullet through pieces of paper, solidifying violence into something whose impact is literal.

Outside in the sculpture garden are massive, huddled forms that evoke corpses and mountains, fallen monuments, and the detritus of war. These are the sculptures of South African artist Ledelle Moe, and they serve as a kind of exclamation point to the work inside. They’re as massive and hard to ignore as war itself, and yet they seem to be bound into immobility. Perhaps they’ll simply fade into history; or perhaps they’re filled with an energy about to burst forth. In the end, the answer depends on the viewer.