BY Tirdad Zolghadr in Reviews | 01 NOV 06
Featured in
Issue 103

We All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

BY Tirdad Zolghadr in Reviews | 01 NOV 06

The exhibition’s press release begins with curators November Paynter and Krist Gruythuysen distinguishing between artistic ‘reconstructions’ informed by historical accuracy, which trace common understandings of a given event, and artistic ‘interpretations’ of events that concoct ‘new layers of meaning’ and are driven by a form of infatuation. By and large, their show was a concise and inspired perusal of the latter option. One might contend that the very time-lag that underlies the interpretation of anything from, say, 1492 to the Battle of Orgreave to the art-historical canon itself repeatedly proves ‘simply subjective’ gestures to be deeply complicit with truth production on a grander scale, and vice versa. But as no narrative ever achieves complete objectivity, it’s pretty much an epistemological lose/lose either way.

A more interesting question is how these interpretations frame their own relationship to the ways in which we suspend disbelief, and this exhibition's bracing polemic eagerly encouraged reservations and uncertainties. This was quite an effective strategy for drawing you into the conversation, as you quickly found yourself pondering just what it is that differentiates historical research from artistic exploration, the respective roles played by props and backdrops, and whether the above historiographic dichotomy could be reframed as a ready-made, as opposed to an objet trouvé.

The curatorial input largely reflected the intellectual temperament of the six art works, displayed in polished open-plan relation to one another. The mood was set by Amalia Pica’s To Everyone that Waves (2005), a projection showing an old sailing-ship leaving Amsterdam and a crowd waving farewell from the harbour. Watching both the Ford Transit vans on the piers and the antiquated emigration scenario – all in grainy black and white reminiscent of early film – I realized that if ships, seagulls and handkerchief waving are usually a recipe for disaster, here they’re put to use in a chronotopic back-flip that is amiably deadpan, presenting placeless nostalgia as a case study rather than a strategy.

On the floor nearby a tiny billboard projection featured the phrase ‘We all laughed at Christopher Columbus’, the title of a 2003 work by Runo Lagomarsino. The phrase (presumably taken from George and Ira Gershwin's 1937 song They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus) is all too fitting in our era of colonial conquest rehabilitated, but also the sculpture served as a semantic vortex, a conceptual souffleur to the show as a whole, rising and falling in volume and relevance according to the propensity of the works themselves. The most conspicuous piece was the late Ola Pehrson’s 2005 remake of the TV documentary Hunt for the Unabomber, flanked by an enormous collection of clay and polystyrene props that were used in his version. As others have pointed out, the piece lends the terrorism-and-art discussion a poignant twist, with Pehrson playing on the Unabomber’s love for aesthetic detail, his fear of co-option by the mainstream and his appetite for both recognition and hermeneutic ambiguity. Across the room, Florian Wüst’s Protecting Freedom Until There Is No Freedom Left (2004) is a second film embedded within a shrewd and purposeful scenography, but if Pehrson’s props merge with his movie, Wüst’s wall drawings are insistently naive, clashing with the dizzying moral intricacies of his film plot – a hearing investigating Robert Oppenheimer’s political credentials following his regrets over Hiroshima.

Jeremiah Day’s Reconstruction (2004), meanwhile, is a wall display of photographs and text addressing the shifting clout and significance of monuments in Washington. The most unassuming work in the show was Roderick Buchanan’s video History Painting (2005), which portrays the Scottish Infantry Division and the Madras Regiment in Tamil Nadu, who, according to the press release, fought alongside each other at the 1803 Battle of Assaye, thus still carrying the commemorative colours.

I was unable to trace said colours on the uniforms in the video, which underscored the constructive paranoia that pervades exhibitions in which you’re not sure if the epistemological priorities are meant to spill over into the modes of persuasion that structure the exhibition experience itself (we all laughed at the delighted audience?). The suspicion of a prank being played was enjoyably reinforced when curator Grythuysen pointed out an art-historical tribute hidden away in Day’s Reconstruction. The picture in question is apparently a furtive attempt to monumentalize an avant-garde emblem, using the very foil of art-world folklore as a gripping example of scrappy historical circulation, and on this count I would urge you to ask the curators for the full story if you have a moment to spare.

Tirdad Zolghadr is a curator and writer who teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY.