Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Connie Bostic at the Flood Gallery

Connie Bostic’s exhibition comes at a particularly interesting time when the conversation about gun control has been rekindled by the violent events of the past couple years, especially the school shootings and mass murders in places like Connecticut and Colorado and the craziness of violent outbursts by right wing extremism in Norway, punctuated and/or capped off by the obscene pronouncements and gestures by the NRA. It is not surprising that the spokespeople for the NRA issued such crazy platitudes like “the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. This is the pinnacle to which their own ideological fortitude extends. Let us not for a second forget that the ideological underpinnings of such a pronouncement lies in the mythology laid down at the dawn of the American revolution. America is the only place that has actually codified its mythology in a legislative document, the constitution and its amendments. Mythology begat as law. Figures like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin love these pronouncements because they point to their efforts of turning the whole of American capitalism into an army of experts, versed only in their responsibilities to the state/corporation, unambiguously upholding their laws, set by the institutionalized machine for producing those experts, the university. In this environment, the good guy with the gun does not reflect on his position within the environment he finds himself in, as that is tantamount to heresy, he is simply to do his job of shooting the bad guys with guns. It is interesting that the often quoted clause “shoot first, ask questions later” is not even mentioned these days, as if asking questions is exactly what puts us in a position of the weaker subject. The good guy shoots, without asking questions.

This is however only the background for the exhibition. The whole of the show is much more ambiguous. The conversation extends far into the past as there are works from the early nineties represented alongside newer work. History however is not enough to make this show work, it is only a marker by which one can orient oneself. The fact remains that while the conversation of gun control is a heated debate it is also one which ideologically is unable to be resolved. In this sense a painting of a gun surrounded by a set of toys from 1990 is redoubled by a similar painting several years later. Thus the conversation is always in a state of becoming because the two sides are at a virtual deadlock over the details contained within it. This is what makes the show seem very tragic. Hidden under the slogan for change is the injunction to resist change, and if change is needed then only cosmetic, so as not to undermine each side’s position as that of the truth bearer.

The most successful works seem to be the small and rather softly painted watercolors of guns inside purses. This is what exemplifies the horror of the right wing gun lobby ideology. Far from aestheticising firearms, they point to the violence inherent in a weapon meant to kill or harm, regardless of whether in self defense of direct aggression, without representing it. In an almost Goyaeque way, the paintings assume the position of documentary, but where Goya documents violence and stupidity perpetrated in the everyday state of war, Bostic documents the potentiality of violence disguised as the everyday. Unseen, the weapon does posses a certain amount of subjective power and assumes the role it is supposed to assume, that of a defensive screen between its bearer and the outside, but this is exactly its greatest weakness, because it produces this effect at the expense of that safety net. Carried within itself is the injunction that owning a gun that should make its bearer safer is its complete opposite, that on the contrary, the gun by producing its own hypothetical safety net, actually makes the bearer more susceptible to violence. Hidden by the soft fabric of the purse, the gun however still remains ambiguous, far from being the monster waiting to be released, it is a cold inanimate object with that potential or in the case of a painting, representing it.

The Flood Gallery does a good job of bringing in artists that stir up the pot of controversy, if only temporarily. Bostic’s show is not overly controversial, perhaps that depends on an individual’s reading of her work, and Asheville for the most part will be a receptive audience, as the tone of the show is more or less in line with the general sentiment of the Asheville public. I do feel that perhaps a greater injunction toward a rethinking of the issue is needed here. The ambiguity of the work is its weaker facet. The work seems to want to steer clear of politics, yet there is nothing more political, or invested with social imperatives, than guns and what they represent. This is my personal opinion, yes, but in an increasingly radicalized political climate, in which the position of the left has been largely abandoned for a pseudo-liberal moralistic new-ageisim, what do we have left other than art to turn to for a sense that the world isn’t truly mad? There may be injustice, but the way to correct this is precisely to do the opposite of what we are compelled to do, that is to say we need to turn away from violence precisely at a point when increased violence seems like the only way out.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Modern Anxiety, Buzludzha and the American Superhero

I will try and piggyback a little bit on what I thought was the most asked question, or at least what I felt was the most perplexing image or idea, during the night of the opening of my latest solo show “apotheosis”. The image is that of the Buzludzha monument and I have described the piece this way

“On a lone mountaintop in a Bulgarian national park sits one of the most perplexing and perhaps ironic monuments to late 20th century socialism. Built in the waning years of Eastern European socialism, when the writing on the walls was already running out of walls, this monument celebrated the revolutionary spirit in such a way as if the sheer spectacle would be able to carry through the intended ideology, that everything is just great the way it is. The hyperinflated ego of such a project constitutes the dramatization of what occurs naturally in every culture faced with its own impending doom. Instead of reflection and reassessment, we get bombastic displays of confidence in the existing system and wild proclamations of better tomorrows. It is only through the display of power, and not its actual manifestation, that the state can in such times “buy” time and prolong its existence. Today, only thirty years later, the monument is in ruins, yet the ideological underpinnings remain largely intact.” A little bit more information is needed here to fully grasp the implications of not just this image, but also that of the image of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition of 1972. Buzludza was built and ceremonially opened to the public (and here the public has to be thought of in terms of the old communist regime, since the public generally constituted only members of the party proper in most cases) in 1981. From Wikipedia we get a little blip about the purpose of the structure as such.

“The Buzludzha Monument on the peak was built by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891 when the socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement. It was opened in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government, it has fallen into disuse.”

What is interesting to note here is the reversal of the dates, the former mirroring the latter that in actuality constitutes the reversal of the rise of socialism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe by providing us with a concrete timeframe when socialism came to a close. It is as if the reversal of a couple of numbers literally spelled out, or brought about the waning years of state socialism. My claim about the palpable feeling, the writing on the walls so to speak, that something is terribly wrong with the current system in 1980’s Eastern Europe was precisely what motivated the state to go ahead with the construction of the monument. The move must seem to us as madness today, but it is absolutely logical, and it finds its correlate in today’s hypercapitalist society (we are told to shop more, buy more entertainment, and so on, to produce demand for products and stave off the ultimate doom scenario when even the capitalist system comes to an end). The Bulgarian central committee, as was the case with all other Eastern European governments, understood that the time of deadlock is slowly approaching. The threshold of even more repression could not be crossed at this point as it would give rise to immediate revolution and the loosening of the stronghold on power would totally disintegrate the center and the whole system would collapse in a matter of weeks. The time of normalization, the 1970’s, and its pragmatic conservatism, ushered in a decade of unease. Goods and food were scarce, ecology devastated, depression, addiction and divorce rates on the rise. It is as if in order to buy time, the government decided to sidestep all political implications and dump a lot of energy into producing a monument that would function as a spectacular image that would show that everything is ok, that we do not need to run for the hills, and that above all, the state is firmly in control. The tragic irony is that the people in the central committee believed in the project no more than the workers that worked on it, or the “people” for whom this obscene monstrosity was built. By all accounts, the people at the top knew that their time was up before anybody on the ground suspected it. What we get in fact is a grandiose finale, the way that fireworks operate (they start slow and finish with a massive cacophony), of the tragicomedy that was Eastern European state socialism.

But what does all this have to do with us? The one thing we learn visually is that totalitarian regimes build and waste vast amounts of energy on public projects, monuments, etc , in order to satisfy some dictator’s ego, prop up the existing power structure and so on, and that democratic states on the contrary are organized so that the energy is all equally distributed based on the majority consensus, that the president and the government represent the will of the public and all kinds of other bullshit. We need to look no further than to the flamboyant neo-imperialist architecture of all the biggest government buildings across this country and most obviously in Washington DC, but also to the rather neo-stalinist statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought to us courtesy of the Chinese artists versed in such depictions in order to understand who is in charge here. The appropriation of the image of King by the state and by that virtue his ideology of non-violence, when we all know that America is one of the most violent countries internally (high murder rates, domestic violence, etc.) , but also one which wages war with impunity on the smallest of states, reveals itself as the true horror of the last stage of capitalism before it turns into an authoritarian nightmare. What is to follow is what we would call “capitalism with Asian values” a more dynamic, but more repressive form of capitalism that no longer relies on the democratic functioning of the state, but rather on the systematic permissiveness in areas of selling and buying products and entertainment, coupled with increasingly intrusive interventions into the functioning of individual lives and their relations with others.

The anxiety which precedes this systematic dismantling of the existing structure reveals itself precisely through the most permissive form, entertainment. The big Hollywood studios are busy producing super hero flicks as fast as the public can consume them. What these movies show however, no matter how good or bad the movies actually are, is what in Zizekian terms would be called a reality more real than itself. In them situations are dire, crime is rampant, corruption widespread, and who else can clean up but the superhero endowed with special powers? This is our Buzludzha monument. The reigning ideology is that no matter how bad things will get, things will get back to normal in the end, due to the self-organization of the system (the system produced figures like Batman, a millionaire bent on fighting evil precisely so that he can continue to make money so that he can fight more evil). Just let capitalism do what it does best and the rest will work itself out, everything is fine. We should obviously let corporations police themselves, because they have a vested interest in keeping the system that sustains them running.

The superhero, I argue, is the latest in mythological appropriation with a specific function to teach moral lessons. The hero is a presenter of the values of the state, he’s strong, just, omnipotent and omnipresent. He keeps the functioning of the state running at peak performance. But this is where the notion “more real than reality itself” comes in. What we are dealing with in actuality is a play of appearances. On the screen it appears that things are terribly wrong, and so they are in real life but compared with the violence on the screen they are meager, and that they can be set aright with a minor intervention by the hero (the state), which is an obvious mistake. The simplicity of the operation on screen is what makes it seem more real than this reality we find ourselves in. This I think is one of the great tragedies of the modern American revolutionary spirit. We are increasingly plunged into a conservative view of the world mediated through Hollywood cinema and “reality” television, while the real documentary images which should inform us of the horrors out there are kept away from the public eye in order to manufacture the consent needed to sustain the power structure. Of course we are given just the right amount of violence to keep us in the right amount of anxiety, mostly about murders committed by lone gunmen or some disenfranchised minorities, car crashes and the like, but too much violence, especially as perpetrated by the paternal state (increasingly however this type of violence is perpetrated by corporations) abroad and sometimes when the state is directly implicated with state terrorism, has the capability of sparking the correct negative reaction against the state itself.