Talk about timing. The White House, citing budget cuts, cancels tours for the season and, bingo! The Minneapolis Institute of Arts launches a show that opens with an almost virtual tour of the Oval Office accessed through a white portico reminiscent of the president’s home.
It’s pure coincidence, but what curious fun. So, too, is “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” a savvy and sophisticated exhibit of photos, drawings, videos, paintings, sculpture and installations by 28 international artists. With topics ranging from art to recent wars, it includes memorabilia from a Freudian theme park; interviews with “Shindler’s List” extras; poignant videos; “masterpieces” by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Grant Wood; a full-scale model of an Iraqi chemical-weapons lab, a stuffed cat and a canary.
Daft as that catalog may sound, this is a fascinating collection of fresh art exploding with provocative ideas about one of the big existential dilemmas of our time: What is really real today — meaning authentic, honest, truthful? Everyone knows that politicians spin, singers lip-sync, photographers manipulate and “reality” television shows aren’t. So how do we navigate a world of illusion in which falsehoods start real wars, history gets re-enacted, and anyone can acquire an avatar and live a “Second Life” in a virtual world?
Irony and humor help, of course. Which brings us to Stephen Colbert, the comedian who coined the term “truthiness” to describe a preference for “facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” A video segment from his faux news program introduces the show, setting the stage for the bemusing fabrications to come. Optimists will also appreciate the framed pages from a special edition of the New York Times published by the Yes Men, a pair of artists who filled the mock paper with upbeat stories they’d really like to read.
“The work is not about sensation or fakery, but about reminding us that you have to see critically and really think critically” to separate fact from fiction, said MIA curator Elizabeth Armstrong. She developed the exhibition in consultation with artists, writers and curators from around the world, including SITE Santa Fe, an experimental art venue in Santa Fe, N.M., where the show debuted last year. Its Minneapolis run goes from March 21 through June 9.
Illusion meets conceptual art
Categories are fluid in “Real?” but include some very clever updates on old-fashioned trompe l’oeil art; that is, objects so artfully real they fool the eye. The first gallery has a free-standing elevator apparently ripped from its housing and stuck between floors. Peer into the glowing aperture at the bottom, and you expect to see trapped people but find, fortunately, only a crumpled newspaper, all illusions by Argentine artist Leandro Erlich.
Surrounding the elevator are huge Oval Office photos by German artist Thomas Demand, who based them on a scale model of the presidential lair that he fabricated from cardboard, paper and confetti. His office’s rug derives from the TV series “The West Wing,” but the room is so familiar that it reads as “real” despite the obvious fakery.
Nearby, boxing gloves made by Texas artist Dario Robleto from “broken male hand bones,” among other things, carry an amazing tale about a black boxer who was denied passage on the Titanic because of his race. Really.
Trompe l’oeil meets conceptual next door where Vik Muniz, a Brazilian, has produced an installation of what appear to be masterpiece paintings, including Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” and the Art Institute’s own “Lucretia” by Rembrandt. One is hung, but the rest are propped on the floor with their “faces” turned to the wall. With only their backs visible, viewers are left to study hooks, hangers and loan labels while guessing if the objects are the real deals, or not.
One of the exhibit’s most mesmerizing pieces runs in an adjacent alcove: Eve Sussman’s video “89 Seconds at Alcázar,” in which elaborately costumed actors slowly re-create the Spanish court scene that Diego Velázquez painted as “Las Meninas.” In the next gallery are four huge photos by Los Angeles artist Sharon Lockhart, who documented art handlers installing hyper-realistic sculptures of workmen by Minnesota-born Duane Hanson. In her clever panorama, itself a 2-D illusion, it’s almost impossible to differentiate the “real” workmen from Hanson’s 3-D illusions.
And then there’s Zoe Beloff’s “Dreamland,” an installation of drawings and models for a Freudian amusement park that the Scottish artist claims was designed by followers of the Austrian psychoanalyst. Inspired by an actual 1909 visit by Freud to Coney Island, the faux park surrounds a building shaped like a prepubescent girl named Libido and includes a “Train of Thought” railway.
Fiction that’s true to life
Narratives — recorded, written, filmed or videoed — are important components of many of these multidimensional artworks, including Pierre Huyghe’s haunting existentialist video about a manga cartoon girl, and Iris Häussler’s abstract sculptures that purport to be the only surviving art of a woman who collapsed into mental illness after childbirth.
The most fantastic and persuasive of the narrative fictions is Mark Dion’s “Curator’s Office,” a faux period room that apparently encapsulates the dusty neuroses of the MIA’s first curator of contemporary art (also a fiction), who mysteriously disappeared in 1954 leaving a trove of undeveloped Kodak film, his martini shakers and an overflowing ashtray.
War, politics and the distrust and anxieties they provoke simmer here, too. Saigon-born photographer An-My Lê documents Vietnam War re-enactments in the American South in which she has participated. John Gerrard’s haunting, slow-motion digital projection “Infinite Freedom Exercise” presents a figure in army fatigues in a bleak desert, moving as if in response to mortar fire. In “Spielberg’s List,” Israeli artist Omer Fast interviews extras who performed in the World War II film “Schindler’s List” and also lived through the war; he discovers that fiction and fact tangle inextricably in their recollections.
Finally, in a darkened, garage-like gallery stands what curator Armstrong calls “the soul of the show,” a huge vehicle carrying bulky boxes of indeterminate purpose. Called “Phantom Truck,” it is a sculpture by Spanish-born Inigo Manglano-Ovalle based on the computer-generated images of “mobile chemical weapons laboratories” that Secretary of State Colin Powell used to justify the invasion of Iraq. While Powell’s trucks were a fiction, the war was all too real.
Overflowing with ideas and sensations, “More Real?” is a phantasmagorical mix of delight and despair, wit and wonder, fact and fantasy. It’s a show that rewards a sense of humor, demands critical thinking and calls for return visits.