Exhibition Review of Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy by Hunter MA Candidate, Livia Margon.
The entertainment-political-industry continues to grind its massive wheels and sharpen its edges. More than a year in advance of the American primaries for president we have just held our first Democratic debates. The news networks and movie theaters, the museums, the galleries, the streaming services, podcasts and online outlets spew opinion and influence quotidianly, fastidiously.
Suspended between panic over what the industry in unsettling homogeneity announced was an unprecedented election and the disturbing excitement of the possibilities this election brought forth, was the show held at the Met Breuer called Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy. It was easy to fathom at that moment that paranoia or conspiracy might be related to those socio-political circumstances, and so it seemed like the show came at the right time. Comprised of mostly American and all contemporary artists, there was hope that it could serve as a much-needed elucidation.
As the panic and excitement continue to fluctuate and intertwine, we look back at this exhibition in search for an answer.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan supposedly said that a man who is paranoid about his wife cheating on him is no less paranoid just because she in fact does. The exhibition in question, held over the unusually warm winter of 2018-19 from September 18 through March 13, focused completely on the theme of paranoia but seems to have missed Lacan’s sense of irony around the subject. As Lacan suggested, paranoia goes both ways: it can be a starting point to uncover truth, but it also characterizes the logic of psychosisand a complete disconnect with reality. The show greeted its viewers with the less fruitful end of the bargain with two portraits by Wayne Gonzales from 2001 and 1999. The first was of Lee Harvey Oswald, the notorious alleged murderer of president Kennedy; the second was of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s murderer. The former man, depicted in a close up, looks at his viewer ominously – his head tilted forward and eyes looking up, a smirk begins to form on his lips. The latter is pictured squarely in the frame from the waist up . He stares not quite at the viewer but immediately past them, his blank and passive gaze seeing neither very far nor close, his eyes almost meeting each other while his visage rests, devoid of tension. Thus, the viewer was greeted, in two portraits, with threat and stupidity.
The show developed without deviating significantly from these emotions. The paranoia depicted in it, remaining stupid, never really accomplished much outside of itself. Different versions of broad conspiracies provided the theme for the individual works shown. The Kennedy assassination served a number of different works, while a generic use of American foreign (and occasionally national) policy fueled others. It was as if we were stuck on unresolved historical episodes and unable to learn anything from them.
Few works served as an exception to this, effectively exploring what this American brand of paranoia would look like if it was a visual specimen. One example of this exception was Sara Anne Johnson’s “House on Fire.” The maquette of a typically American house allowed the spectator a view of its different rooms. By looking through its small windows one saw little surreal nightmares taking place: one room flooded with dirty water has furniture climbing up the walls, another is filled with stacks of papers from top to bottom while a lonely desk and chair sit in the middle, yet another room has strange patterns drawn over every object, walls and floors. The roof has a tree growing on one side, while the other side is on fire.
The one other maquette in the show was only superficially more ambitious. “Educational Complex” by Mike Kelleyis 8×16 ft and reproduces in white foam-core a number of existent buildings t hat house American educational institutions. Backstory aside, Kelley’s piece is less of a cathartic experience like “House on Fire” than a blank canvas for paranoia to roam free. Though the strategic cutouts into the buildings are similar in their voyeuristic beckoning to Johnson’s house, it leaves its surface open literally and metaphorically to be filled with each viewer’s own paranoid fantasies, and condones them in the act.
Jim Shaw’s installation that ended (or began) the exhibition (depending on the direction one walked through it) was more particular. Its title “The Miracle of Compound Interest” seems to suggest conspiracy as aby-product of the American economic ethos on the end of those who are not earning the interest.Its large exterior wall is a painting on unstretched muslin of an American gas station around the first half of the 20thcentury by a mountainside landscape; covering the picture is a painted-pattern-web of red threads. Through an opening in the wall, the viewer enters a black triangular room, the floor decorated in a distorted black and white linoleum pattern. Near the back wall, three human-size gnomes kneel around a glowing kryptonite-like object,surrounded by crystals illuminated with black light sprouting from the ground. The exterior of the installation acts as the face of conspiratorial tropes – the predictable web of red threads that we have all seen in B-movies and documentaries – and the kitschy interior is somehow neither revealing nor unexpected,all the while act ing as the psychic sphere behind the facade.
If Sara Anne Johnson’s house showed paranoia as a nightmare, Shaw’s (and most of the show’s exploration of it) was indulging. In most works,we were invited to experience it, whether in earnest or in jest, as a quirk of American popular culture. There was no detached recognition of either the productive or destructive aspects of the paranoid experience. Thus, the concept of conspiracy, which is not always paranoid, was cast in the shade of permanent neglect. Everything is connected, sure, but as long as it’s the result of paranoia, what does it matter?
The show took an almost perverse pleasure in navigating different manifestations of paranoia in the American imaginary in a moment where stupidity – in the form of ignorance and disinterest in the truth – inform the American quotidian so poignantly. In this context, a show about paranoia is necessarily political. An exhibition like Everything is Connectedthat explores a powerful force of the nation’s imaginary with such frivolity, is at best uninteresting, and at worst, dangerous .