Is the art in artifice the same as the art in artifact?
It seems they are, at least as far as the Station Museum's latest exhibition, Artifactual Realities, is concerned. The show runs through May 13 in association with FotoFest 2012. Artifactual Realities features, appropriately, an invigorating mix of photography and collage, artifice and fact that speaks to the current political moment.
"Truth or illusion?" has had a long run as defining or at least a fashionable question. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? finds the famously combative old married couple, George and Martha, hurling that question back and forth as if it could wound.
The defining questions of a post-9/11, post-downturn, post-Occupy America seem to be these: What is a fact? Is it possible to document something? Does artifice more accurately reflect reality than documentation? What's more important, what a thing is made of or what it means?
To enter Artifactual Realities is to come face to face with the photo-documentation of the faces of Occupy Houston by Ernesto Leon, and recent political demonstrations in Russia by photo-journalist Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr. These emotionally evocative photos are the least artistically complex in the show, but they index the contentious nature of the current moment.
The defining questions of a post-9/11, post-Occupy America seem to be t hese: What is a fact? What's more important, what a thing is made of or what it means?
To turn the corner, however, is to be immersed in worlds in which there are good reasons to resist being documented. Charif Benhelima's Semites: A Wall Under Constructions features an impressive rectangle of wall composed 135 41-inch square black frames, some flush and some recessed, each containing an overexposed and therefore blurry face.
The photos could be yearbook, driver's license, or passport photos, but we're not able to identify anyone. This is, perhaps, an advantage, for in Benhelima's world being documented as an Arab or as a Jew could have devastating consequences. The artist seems to imagine a world in which identity categories and affiliations might be stripped away to reduce conflict and violence. At the same time, these figures, who do and do not have faces, are oddly generic. Is the threat of violence worth surrendering a sense of particularity? The wall may not be able to answer, but the questions it poses satisfy.
Iraqi-born Nazar Yahya, now a Houston resident represented by Wade Wilson Art, also imagines a world full of obscured faces, but the motivation might be very different. In a rectangle composed of 72 photos, appear figures covering their faces with their hands. Is this a gesture of weariness? An attempt to pray or to conceal? The images are sharper than Benhelima's hazy portraits, but they are no less mysterious. Perhaps it isn't so simple to document someone, to show their face and to reveal their inner truth.
The extraordinary and madcap heart of the show is Houston-born Mel Chin's The Funk and Wag from A to Z, which occupies an entire room. At the center a small table displays the volumes of the Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias, which provide Chin with materials for a series of countless collages, pinned up on black paper in columns corresponding to the volumes. Chin labored precisely and extensively to slice images from these books and reshape them through collage.
Chin demonstrates that knowledge can be reshaped and recombined to produce images of compelling oddity not unlike the hilarious and unsettling animated credits of the Monty Python show. Take, for instance, the column of collages drawn from Volume 5: Celini — Comic Strip. One panel features a series of cut-out streets scenes along with the interiors and exteriors of buildings, which are reassembled into a large skeletal figure with columns and monuments for limbs, fingers, and toes.
Chin demonstrates that knowledge can be reshaped and recombined to produce images of compelling oddity.
In another, what looks like a Victorian washerwoman has been carefully cut out and pasted next to a medieval Christian relief, which she dusts with a massive feature sliced, no doubt, from another page of the volume. The collages are often anthropomorphic and architectural. Some constitute wonderful visual puns. Franz Kafka of Metamorphosis fame is pasted as the head of a butterfly whose wings are composed of two bats and a flower.
Strangely enough, The Funk and Wag from A to Z, speaks to the odd jumble of fact and factoid in an information age of exponentially increasing rapidity.
Spanish artist Linarejos Moreno documents an ever-declining age of production with a fascinating set of invented rituals. The works photograph obsolete factories and plants. In one series, the artist asked the wives of the workers to dress in black and process through the space and weave webs. The result is an oddly haunting photographic and sculptural elegy for fading industry.
Where art meets politics
There are many provocative works worth dwelling on. But the most captivating work returned to the opening theme of the show: the Occupy movement. August Bradley's "99 Faces of Occupy Wall Street," selections of which appear in Artifactual Realities, added a gritty and textured particularity to the show. Each portrait hones in and enlarges a series of eloquent faces. The size of the portraits also added a sense of monumentality that changes a face into an artifact. They needn't say anything, their presence alone speaks volumes.
Perhaps this is why Bradley's series felt more anchored and interesting than Vanessa Bahamani's "We are the 99 Percent," which featured a series of 99-percenters holding white signs with messages like "Money for education, not for war! I AM the 99%." I understand the emotional appeal of these statements and agree with most of them, but they may be too programmatic to be interesting as political art. They document important and heartfelt assertions but do little more.
After all, the essence of the political lies not merely in clarity of the message but in the power to capture the imagination.