Art review: 'The New Normal' at Pomona College Museum of Art
A new exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art features six grainy, black-and-white ink-jet prints showing passports used by CIA agents involved in the widely reported 2003 abduction of an Egyptian cleric in Milan. The CIA station chief claimed Abu Omar had perhaps fled to the Balkans, but Italian authorities later charged that the cleric had been taken to two American military bases and then transferred to Egypt, where he underwent torture.
The printed passport data, said to have been retrieved from Italian hotels where the American agents stayed, made me wonder two things:
First, could foreign agents — say, from Spain — be checking into California hotels right now with falsified documents, preparing to kidnap UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo to stand trial for war crimes in international court? (Yoo wrote Bush administration memos authorizing waterboarding, an interrogation technique also employed by the Khmer Rouge.) And second, what relationship do grainy prints of passport photos have to the long tradition of portraiture in art?
Both questions, the paranoid and the prosaic, have resonance in “The New Normal,” a provocative if uneven traveling show from New York's Independent Curators International. The 13 works of art, all made since Sept. 11, 2001, are pegged to then-Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion a few weeks after the World Trade Center attacks — specifically, on the day before passage of the so-called Patriot Act — that a “new normalcy” was now operative in American life. In the wake of the catastrophic terrorist assault, "normal" would henceforth encompass minor annoyances, like removing your shoes at airport checkpoints, and major intrusions, like having routine telephone conversations bugged by Washington.
Trevor Paglen's “Six CIA Officers Wanted in Connection With the Abduction of Abu Omar from Milan, Italy” is a contemporary breed of “found image” art, pictures already in circulation and whose context the artist simply alters. Here, the tradition of official yet fictionalized portrayals of people — say, France's King Louis XIV done up as the Greek god Apollo or British actress Sarah Siddons decked out as “the tragic muse” — gets a darker, more sinister edge.
In forging new identities for clandestine government documents, how did America's spy-masters go about choosing fake names, false birth dates, phony addresses? Are they banal and random? Or did rhyme and reason guide imaginative choices?
Paglen's grainy ink-jet prints are effectively the sort of pictures you could produce on a home computer's printer. When framed behind glass and hanging on a museum wall, they make a subtle but disturbing point about how, in a digital age, the deceptions in personal versus public information can be perfectly routine and utterly indifferent.
They also make you keenly aware of an “old normal.” Museums themselves have always been monitored spaces, first by attendants patrolling the galleries and more recently by discreet video cameras pitilessly recording your every move. In an exhibition about surveillance and the permeable boundaries between private and public, you are being watched while perusing “The New Normal.”
The show's themes include the ubiquity of unwitting surveillance, that presumably private data is often publicly available, and the intentionally public self-display inherent in activities formerly thought of as private (think Facebook, Twitter or Paris Hilton's career-launching sex tape). Several works have video components with Internet links.
Among the most compelling is Hasan Elahi's “Tracking Transience.” The Bangladesh-born New Jersey resident, picked up by the FBI when an anonymous tipster claimed his activities were suspicious, began an online “digital alibi” to publicly record his every move.
One Internet site shows all his ongoing financial transactions, whether to a gas station or the gas company. (It's a digitized descendant of artist Chris Burden's post-Watergate “full financial disclosure,” which displayed all of his 1976 checking account transactions.) Another creates a hypnotizing split-screen image in which photographs of his daily whereabouts are matched to satellite-tracking maps. The stacked imagery is arranged in fat stripes, like perversions of TV test patterns used to calibrate and correct the pervasive flow of digital information.
Jill Magid has been chronicling her relationship with an anonymous, married police officer she met in a Manhattan subway station. Perhaps it's the juxtaposition of a mock-bullet he gave her, shown here in a bullet-proof case, and the cropped photographs of her wearing his uniform's shirt, but a surprisingly creepy aura of sex and violence pervades this otherwise benign record of life in a modern metropolis.
Corinna Schnitt set a mechanical video camera close to the floor of a suburban living room, where it visually sweeps the space. No people are encountered, but cats, goats, chickens, ducks, a cow and other barnyard creatures do turn up, wreaking havoc on a stereotypical scene of domestic bliss. Schnitt's “Once Upon a Time” — like George Orwell's “Animal Farm,” originally subtitled “A Fairy Story” — creates a quietly riveting, bleakly satirical picture of failed Utopia.
“Chic Point,” a troubling video by Sharif Waked, opens with a men's runway fashion show. The artist has reconfigured standard Western attire so that the body is atypically exposed — the abdomen by a severely cropped suit jacket, for instance, or the breast from a cut-out design in a tourist T-shirt. At the end, the clothing's grim inspiration is unveiled: Still photographs show Palestinian men at Israeli border-crossings being forced to expose their naked torsos to guards, proving they're not suicide bombers.
Remaining works, including those by well-known and usually reliable artists such as Sophie Calle (using ATM security tapes) and Kota Ezawa (cartooning a Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson honeymoon video), feel underdeveloped. And although pondering omissions is usually a hapless exercise, since no theme show can ever be complete, one wonders at the absence of Kaari Upson, an L.A. artist who for several years has been productively working with a stranger's personal effects she found in a burned-out house.
The degree to which Upson has entered the life of an anonymous man is as chilling as the contemporary surveillance aesthetic gets. “The New Normal” is certainly thoughtful, but it could have used a shot of her work's unrestrained craziness.
-- Christopher Knight
“The New Normal,” Pomona College Museum of Art, 550 N. College Ave., Claremont; 12 p.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Ends Oct. 18. Free. (909) 621-8146
Images: Trevor Paglen, “Six CIA Officers Wanted in Connection With the Abduction of Abu Omar From Milan, Italy” (detail); Kota Ezawa, "Home Video II"; and Sharif Waked, "Chic Point." Credit: Pomona College Museum of Art