I don’t know about you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but the past couple weeks (ok, year) have felt like civilization failed us. Between the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the shootings in Dallas, the shootings at Pulse in Orlando, the Brexit vote, the attack in Nice, the failed coup attempt in Turkey and not to mention, Donald Trump’s VP choice Mike Pence, who has never been a friend to the friends of Dorothy, things aren’t going so well. To quote the fox in Lars Von Trier’s feel-good movie Antichrist, “chaos reigns.”
A timely current group exhibition Repossession at Lehmann Maupin’s Lower East Side gallery space directly and masterfully addresses these failures of civilization. Not only engaging with contemporary issues, the artists in Repossession look back to the historical lineage that continues to have a significant influence on the present. Whether racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia or legacies of colonialism, the three artists in Repossession–Kader Attia, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. and Mickalene Thomas–mine, appropriate and subvert the historical imagery, artifacts and narratives that play a role in constructing these repressive systems.
This, of course, is nothing new. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less necessary or essential. Artist and Filthy Dreams fav David Wojnarowicz was never a stranger to investigating Western civilization in his multidisciplinary artwork, as well as his writing. In his presciently titled essay “In The Shadow Of The American Dream: Soon This Will All Be Picturesque Ruins,” Wojnarowicz writes, “We are born into a preinvented existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation there are real tribes” (37). For Wojnarowicz, this preinvented world was not built by us but controls and restricts us nonetheless. It is a world of rules, regulations, biases, phobias and imposed but unexplained social hierarchies.
Continuing to describe the varying tribes contained within this preinvented existence, Wojnarowicz points out those that have the privilege to be unaware of the interworkings of the history, culture or civilization that controls their lives. He explains, “they’ve either bought the con of language from the tribe that offers hope, or they’re too fucking exhausted or fearful to break the illusion and examine the structures of their world” (37-38). These are the people who have the luxury to ignore the dangers of routine traffic stops or existing in non-normative bodies.
However, as Wojnarowicz reveals, there is a final tribe who experiences “the X ray of civilization every time they leave the house or turn on the tv or radio or pick up a newspaper or when they suddenly realize their legs have automatically come to a halt before a changing traffic light” (38). The artists in Repossession undoubtedly fall into this category and their collective identities and experiences as proverbial outsiders mirror Wojnarowicz’s interpretations. Whether a black queer woman artist like Mickalene Thomas, an Algerian growing up in the Parisian suburbs like Kader Attia or Tim Rollins and K.O.S., an educator who began collaborating with a group of students–Kids of Survival (K.O.S.)–in the South Bronx when it was still burning, these artists are in the unique position to analyze and criticize dominant historical and cultural narratives.
But how do they reveal the constructed nature of our civilization and the continued historical pull on the present? According to Wojnarowicz, it is through a transgressive use (or misuse) of the language of the oppressor. As Wojnarowicz writes, “if the other tribes want to hand them the illusion of hope in the form of the leash–in the form of language–like all stray dogs with intelligence from experience, they know how to turn the leash into a rope to exit the jail windows or how to turn the leash into a noose to hang the jailers” (38).
Like Wojnarowicz so violently and cathartically explains, the artists in Repossession essentially, as its title suggests, “repo” or appropriate dominant historical language and imagery for their own transgressive means. By using varying forms of collage techniques–some more traditional than others, Attia, Rollins and K.O.S. and Thomas find moments of possibility and freedom within the confines of this “preinvented existence.”
For example, Kader Attie’s collage series Modern Architecture Genealogy combines black-and-white images of much-admired ruins and hard-edged modernist architecture with color photographs of trans women. As if coming from a vintage postcard, the architectural images convey an undeniable hypermasculinity–a maleness that solidifies both phallic Western aesthetics and strict gender binaries. By layering images of trans women over these architectural documentations, Attia highlights the fluidity–whether gender or architectural–that has been repressed under conventional modernist thinking.
Attia’s Modern Architecture Genealogy series also has an important resonance with colonialism and its enduring legacy. As Western powers imposed these stringent modernist architectural forms in non-Western cultures during the 20th century, they also clamped down on more fluid notions of gender, sexuality and kinship. However, in combination with the trans women’s self-fashioned beauty, the modernist architecture in Attia’s collages does take on a certain decadent queerness in its unwavering obsession with aesthetics.
Similarly, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. employ pages from texts by Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and Mark Twain as a medium for their monumental works. A tad reminiscent of Glenn Ligon’s literary appropriations of James Baldwin, Rollins and K.O.S.’s collages both obfuscate and reveal the power of language in the construction of race–both as a liberator and repressor.
In particular, Rollins and K.O.S.’s enormous portrait of Jim from Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn depicts the tenuous and strained relationship the written word has with race. Rollins and K.O.S. create a large rendering of the character–otherwise known as “Nigger Jim” (see Louis C.K.’s bit on the name)–that has made English classes uncomfortable for years on top of pages ripped from Twain’s novel. A stereotypical depiction of an escaped slave that many have compared to a minstrel act, Twain’s Jim appears, in Rollin and K.O.S.’s hands, without the Huck who is erased from the drawing. As a solitary figure, Jim becomes both a heroic and tragic example of the reification of racist tropes through classic literature.
My favorite work in the exhibition–not in the least because of my obsession with the feline power of Eartha Kitt–is Mickalene Thomas’ multiple channel video installation Angelitos Negros. In the video, Thomas portrays fractured images of Kitt and three women–shot individually–singing Cuban musician Antonio Machin’s song “Angelitos Negros.” Each performer, which includes Thomas herself, dons Kitt’s perfect 1960’s bob and cat-eye makeup. By splicing, switching and layering of the faces of multiple singers, Thomas creates an ever-rotating range of black female bodies that spans generations.
However, the video installation takes on another deeper meaning and clarity once the lyrics of Angelitos Negros are analyzed. Questioning why all angels in art are white, Kitt–in her English cover of Machin’s song–demands, “Paint me some black angels now” While originally sung by a Cuban man, the question in Thomas’ video is posed by black women who, like Kitt, are occasionally seen crying.
With this question, Angelitos Negros recalls the growing list of black mothers, fiancés, wives and other female family members who have been forced to address the wrongful deaths of their typically male loved ones at the hands of police. Whether intentional or not, Thomas’ video, in conjunction with recent events, becomes a reflection of these nationally and internationally televised and streamed moments of very private grief. Like these press conferences, Thomas’ video is a publicly expressed reminder, declaration and plea for remembrance of the physical and emotional toll of history on the present.