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"The American Effect": Whitney Museum of American Art.

Taking a brief holiday from the Whitney's declared mission to survey and promote American-made art, curator Lawrence Rinder offered up a gallery last summer to recent international artworks that explore the image of the post-cold war United States--a timely and quite brave gesture in a moment of "wars on terror," "coalitions of the willing," mid pervasive self-censorship. To the extent that the United States now regards itself variously as beacon of freedom, misunderstood victim, and/or indispensable global policeman, the exhibition promised to provide a corrective; the fact that the US is regarded as an armored fortress and blinkered crusader by the rest of the world would not have been au unsalutary thing for an American audience to have to confront. Unfortunately, most of the art on view was hectoring and jejune and did little to advance the terms of that encounter.

Numerous photographic and video works and figurative drawings depicted the harm caused by US military, labor, environmental, consumer, or immigration policies. Typical were Yongsuk Kang's Maehyang-ri, 1999, photographs of spent US missiles abandoned in South Korea, and Danwen Xing's series "disCONNEXlON," 2003, pictures of telecommunications equipment dumped in China. The few sculptural and painted works on view included Ousmane Sow's mixed-media sculptures showing cowboys, Indians, and animals in the battle of Little Big Horn; Alfredo Esquillo Jr.'s painting MaMcKinley, 2001, which depicts a claw-fingered William McKinley grasping a Filipino child; and Hisashi Tenmyouya's series "Legendary Warriors," 2000-2002, colorful Edo-style tattoos on paper juiced up with contemporary comic book-like figures that portray, among other things, the violent arrival in the nineteenth century of William Perry's Black Ships--as if modernity could be wished away and as if Japan had no imperialist history of its own.

A pervasive lack of reflexivity was the artworks' most depressingly notable characteristic. Andrea Robbins and Max Becher's photographic series "German Indians," "1997-98, in which beer-bellied Bavarians dress up for a local festival in Native American garb, and Bjorn Melhus's hilarious and seriously creepy video Far Far Away, 1995, in which the artist plays a wistful, manly Dorothy stuck in his dreary Hamburg bedroom before being released into a world of moonwalks, TV newscasters, and baseball caps, were among the few works that evoked even a minimal degree of US-helmed Empire's affective complexity. At certain moments, the lip sync in Melhus's video fails, and the resulting silent spaces communicate much about how cultural (mis)translation and transference undergird transnational politics.

As Adorno pointed out in his 1962 essay "Commitment," works of art that seek to engage in politics often take for granted the direct communicability of images and are thus fundamentally linked with the conservative politics their makers want to oppose. Adorno reminds us that during World War I, Paul Klee drew caricatures showing Kaiser Wilhelm as an inhuman iron-eater but that out of these came, a few years later, the Angelus Novus, a machine angel "which no longer bears any overt marks of caricature or commitment but far surpasses both." "The American Effect" made abundantly evident who some of the inhuman iron-eaters of our time are: the US military and mass media, the IMF and the World Bank, a mostly compliant United Nations. But art in the age of globalization needs to go beyond mere indignation if it is really going to fly.
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Title Annotation:New York
Author:Israel, Nico
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:549
Previous Article:"Strangers": International Center of Photography.
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