BY Benjamin Carlson in Reviews | 01 APR 09
Featured in
Issue 122

The Greenroom

CCS Bard Galleries and Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, USA

BY Benjamin Carlson in Reviews | 01 APR 09

Gerard Byrne, New Sexual Lifestyles, 2003. Video installation and C-prints, dimensions variable.

Combining vérité photography, film essays and immersive installations in a sprawl of information that extended from the Hessel Museum galleries into the hallways, classrooms and library of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, ‘The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art’ attempted, through sheer quantity (over 175 works by 80 artists), to make a case for its own relevance. An excess of compelling narratives, from Matthew Buckingham’s history of colonialism along the Hudson River to Joachim Koester’s re-examination of Aleister Crowley and his legacy, competed for attention. Walking through the exhibition was at times uncomfortably like channel-surfing. With one gallery of already-in-progress video after another, the show’s layout called to mind nothing so much as Walter Benjamin’s characterization of the newspaper: ‘subject matter that denies itself any other form of organization than that imposed on it by the reader’s impatience’. In this hodge-podge the works that fared best were those least concerned with straightforward reportage.

In exemplary fashion An-My Lê’s series of war photographs occupied an ambiguous space between photojournalism and theatrical staging. ‘Small Wars’ (1999–2002), luxuriant silver gelatin prints documenting a group of Vietnam War re-enactors operating in the wilderness of North Carolina, was, in the light of the Vietnamese artist’s firsthand experience of the war at the age of 15, a psychologically charged exercise in repetition. Similarly, Lê’s ‘29 Palms’ (2003–4), shot at Marine combat simulations in the desert of California after the artist was repeatedly refused permission to visit Iraq as an embedded photo-grapher, revealed more about the imaginary war (heroic, John Ford-esque) being fought in the heads of the invasion’s strongest supporters than about the actual perils soldiers would imminently face (lack of body armour, reckless private contractors). In each case, eschewing the elaborate tableaux of Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, Lê’s ready-made fakes connected real events to the psychological lens through which they are commonly perceived. Yet, flanked on both sides by the equally posed imagery of Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971), Lê’s calculated photographs seemed downright academic.

This tendency for images to be devalued by accumulation was more directly thwarted by Michael Rakowitz’ The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series) (2007). The artist’s papier-mâché stand-ins for artefacts looted from the Iraqi National Museum following the US military’s seizure of Baghdad in April 2003 were each paired with an accession card amended to include the words of a government official attempting to mitigate the damage. Donald Rumsfeld’s typically detestable assertion was particularly telling: ‘The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think: “My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?”’ Accepting that images, however despicable, do have a tendency to blur together, the installation gave an undeniable material weight to the facts. That the sculptures were made from scraps of Arabic-language newspapers and the packaging of Middle Eastern foods and accompanied by a cover band’s version of ‘Smoke on the Water’, by Deep Purple, however, all seemed like a completely unnecessary, framing device.

Carles Guerra’s N for Negri (2000), an archival video documenting a conversation between the artist and the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri, in contrast, was made strange by its oddly site-specific installation in one of Bard’s office-like classrooms. As Negri’s talking head comically projected a flow of ideas into a room of empty seats, one wondered how to approach this outwardly traditional documentary. The transcript of this speech, originally published in the journal Grey Room, provided a better point of entry to Negri’s ideas. Watching the video, however, brought a heightened awareness of the circumstances in which he spoke – having returned to Italy after years of exile to complete a 17-year prison sentence for charges of ‘association and insurrection against the state’. The encounter suggested that an effective use of documentary materials might rely less on rigorous self-reflexivity than a seemingly accidental thwarting of expectations.

As the initial stage of a three-year research project, ‘The Greenroom’ was frustratingly broad in scope. From Edouard Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1867) to Andy Warhol’s Flash – November 22, 1963 (1968) and Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1997 (1988) art history has long centred on the use of documentary. Lacking more specific criteria than this, the collection of works on view seemed rather arbitrary. In this regard the show clouded more than it clarified.