Wednesday, January 03, 2007

'Dissent!,' Pedro Reyes, Sam Durant

Here’s my review of “Dissent!,” a fiery greatest hits of five centuries of protest art, at Harvard’s Fogg Museum through Feb. 25. Check it out – especially the fabulous posters by Boston’s own Sister Corita – but the exhibit doesn’t figure out how to show protest art without neutralizing it by institutional embrace. (At top is Ben Shahn's 1960 screenprint "Stop H Bomb Tests." Center is Sister Corita's 1969 screen print "If I.")

Art institutions often do better with philosophical political art – quiet, thoughtful stuff that’s more about mulling some issue than urgently promoting change. A great example is Mexico City artist Pedro Reyes’ exhibit “Ad Usum: To Be Used” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center through Jan. 5.

Reyes built a six-sided top (below) that you’re supposed to spin during negotiations to suggest what philosophy and corresponding Greek thinker you should adopt for your situation. The options encourage “players” to reconsider fixed negotiating positions, intellectual ruts. A giant red “See-Saw” allows one person to balance out nine others, a rumination on the power of the individual versus the power of the group, hierarchy versus teamwork. A curving wall of hollow blocks refers to traditional ways of keeping homes cool as well as the difficulty of adopting such sustainable architecture by pointing out that the Carpenter Center was designed to not need air conditioning and, well, now uses air conditioning. These are soft critiques and jokes, modest suggestions for improvement, but they get you thinking.

Los Angeles artist Sam Durant’s recent “Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments” show at MassArt tried for a hybrid of agitprop and something more philosophical. I’d been looking forward to Durant’s exhibit because of his great 2005 gallery show in New York in which he proposed creating a memorial to America's wars with Native Americans by relocating monuments to Indian war dead from across the country to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s one of those sharp, smart conceptual ideas that reframe our discussion of Native American culture and rights – and war, too – by taking what already exists and putting it in a new context. But his MassArt show was a bust. Durant, a Massachusetts native and member of the MassArt class of ’86, recreated a few outdated displays from a Plymouth wax museum and added lots of small-type signs to talk about the Pilgrims’ relationship with their Native American neighbors. His point: despite what museums might tell you, the relationship wasn’t too great and the Indians got screwed. Is this news to anyone who might go to an art school show? Is this news to anyone?

“Dissent!” at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, Nov. 11, 2006, to Feb. 25, 2007.
Pedro Reyes “Ad Usum: To Be Used” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Oct. 26, 2006, to Jan. 5, 2007.
Sam Durant “Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments” at MassArt, 621 Huntington Ave., Boston, Nov. 7 to Dec. 22, 2006.


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