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Given a choice between two plush bathrobes hanging near the entrance to Walker Art Center's new show, which would you choose? They are identical except for the word monogrammed on their backs.
One says "Us."
The other says, "Them."
Do you see yourself as an insider or an outsider? Will you stand with those who belong? Or with those who don't? The existential dilemma so cleverly illustrated by Gary Simmons' 1991 bathrobes percolates through this ambitious installation from the museum's collection. It's a broad array of sculpture, photos, prints, drawings and installations spiced with videos, sound installations and an occasional painting on themes of sexual and racial identity, mortality and time, globalization and such daily-news headlines as abortion, war, terrorism and homeland security. On view for the next two years, the display will be refreshed periodically with alternative objects or new acquisitions.
Called "The Living Years," it showcases art made after 1989, a political watershed marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the putative end of the Cold War and China's stifling of political expression in Tiananmen Square. While a few of the artists deal directly with big-picture politics, most focus on personal moral quandaries and treat global issues obliquely if at all.
The title, taken from a 1989 hit song by Mike + the Mechanics, alludes to the heap of trouble, frustration and inadequacy that individuals often confront when monumental change happens. When songwriter B.A. Robertson's father died, he regretted their alienation and failure to communicate "in the living years."
Politics of the personal
The show opens on an ominous note with five small black paintings by the Japanese artist On Kawara, each marked in white with a date in January 1989. For more than 40 years the artist has measured his existence by making one such painting every day. Each takes as long as nine hours to craft and, when finished, is stored with a copy of that day's newspaper. Strung out on a wall, the little paintings seem like such a waste of life, but they do raise the insidious question of whether our own days amount to more than his black holes in time.
Nearby sits a tea crate topped with a soggy-looking pile of paper pulp marked with Chinese characters. A 1987/1993 sculpture by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, it is a literal deconstruction of the history of Chinese painting and Western art, represented by books on those subjects that Huang subjected to two minutes of sloshing about in a washing machine.
Next, Glenn Ligon deals hauntingly with how attitudes toward race and sexuality have -- or have not -- changed over time. Printed in stylized 19th-century typefaces, his five prints purport to be title pages, broadsides and testimonials about the life and experiences of a gay Negro man and his encounters with the white race. In their quiet way, these are among the show's most affecting pieces, their mournful eloquence greatly enhanced by their antique format.
Nearby, Lorna Simpson's highly original 1994 images of wigs, hairpieces and other body hair printed on felt amplify Ligon's musings on identity. Blond bob, cornrows, marcelled waves, mustache -- each signals a time, a place, a class, a race and thus a stereotyped identity.
Geopolitics in action
Big-picture politics intrudes into the work of Polish-born Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose backlit photos document light shows he's staged around the world. The projections include images of gas pumps and guns shown on a European triumphal arch and the word "glasnost."
West Indian artist Ashley Bickerton takes on the problem of food production and distribution -- an important subject rarely addressed in art -- in a big wall-hung sculpture from 1989. It pairs glass cases of dirt from Asia, South America and Africa with the leading foodstuffs from each continent: rice, coffee and peanuts. He even cleverly lobs a Marxist critique of art and politics into the title: "Minimalism's Evil Orthodoxy Monoculture's Totalitarian Esthetic #1."
Paul McCarthy's 1995-99 "Documents" is one of the show's most iconoclastic pieces, consisting of a jumbled wall of promotional photos of Disneyland, Hitler statuary and parades, rocketry, baby pictures and chocolate-box kitsch. The equation of Walt Disney's idyllic fantasy with Hitler's Aryan paradise is perverse, of course, but persuasive, too, in underscoring their shared obsessions with uniformity, control and master planning.
Walid Raad's 1998 photos of street-battle sites in Beirut, with bullet holes marked by colored dots, is grimly memorable. And there's a daft logic to Erik van Lieshout's 2007 "Homeland Security" video in which a van full of road trippers rant about depression, God and other troubles.
As an evolving snapshot of art in the past 25 years, "The Living Years" is neatly encapsulated in that song's refrain:
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye
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