Sunday, November 15, 2009

Getting ". . . OUT OF HERE"

The video imagery of " . . . OUT OF HERE: the Veteran's Project."

Will wonders never cease.

There is currently a great work of contemporary art at the ICA.

Krzysztof Wodiczko's ". . . OUT OF HERE: the Veteran's Project" is the first installation at this waterfront mall-of-coolness that transcends its usual curatorial mix of formal fetish and pop bullshit to actually achieve something like genuine power.

No, you can't take your kids. And no, it isn't particularly "awesome." But it has meaning. Remember that?

Probably not, but with time, you'll get used to it, and maybe even grow to like it. Although to be fair, after the intellectual wastelands of the Tara Donovan and Shepard Fairey shows, the ICA has perhaps begun to right itself: just across the hall from the Wodiczko installation is Damián Ortega's retrospective, "Do It Yourself," which actually has some content, too (which I'll consider in a later post).

Could curator Nicholas Baume's departure already be bearing fruit, I wonder? Probably not - and at any rate, the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall ("clockwork for oracles," by Ugo Rondinone) still sucks, as ever. But then we wouldn't want the marketing department's talons to totally detach from the galleries, would we; the shift toward quality shouldn't happen pell-mell! It's okay if we ease into it.

(And just btw, to those still wringing their hands over the various Shepard Fairey brouhahas - the way to turn Boston into a hub of contemporary art is not by importing some trendy L.A. posterboy, but by devoting serious resources to our own best artists. ". . . OUT OF HERE," which was curated by Carole Anne Meehan and the nifty Randi Hopkins (of the late, lamented Allston Skirt Gallery) counts as a small step in that direction.)

But back to the work itself. Wodiczko, who's based at MIT, has become known for his gigantic projections on public buildings and monuments, and part of "OUT" documents his recent videos of veteran's statements, such as Flame, which features harrowing memories from veterans whispered over a constantly flickering candle. Flame is both touching and ironic: it effectively deconstructs the familiar "eternal flame" memorial by reminding us that our memory of actual war flickers out once the granite tablets go up.

". . . OUT OF HERE" takes this insight a big step - no, a giant leap - further. This is a "war memorial" that attempts to immerse you in the experience of war, that tries to communicate something of what veterans of the Iraq War have actually been through. The piece consists of a large, darkened room (if only it could have been of marble!); some ten feet up its gray walls, a video projection of frosted windows (above) is visible. Through their "glass" we can see little more than distant clouds drifting past; from an unseen set of speakers come the chirps of playing children and the clatter of a busy street. Somewhere someone is singing in Arabic; we can hear Barack Obama's voice too, echoing from a passing radio. Suddenly a stray soccer ball whacks one of the "windows," breaking it.

Then the shadow of a descending helicopter falls over us, and the audio turns nightmarish. What sounds like an armored vehicle rumbles to a stop; we can hear soldiers, confused and uncertain, scrambling past us, as we, too, try to make sense of what, precisely is happening. "We were here before; remember us?" someone says in English. The children have long since gone silent; when the explosions erupt, and the sniper fire starts shattering the "windows," they begin to scream.

It's all over in a few moments, although the great power of ". . . OUT OF HERE" derives not merely from its attention to the chaos of war, but also its aftermath. A child has been wounded, but the American soldiers are forced to abandon it. The vehicles rumble away again, to another conflict. The voices in Arabic return, this time wailing, and desperately calling out the names of the missing. The wounded child does not answer.

The piece, to be honest, isn't perfect; the imagery of the descending helicopter lacks the verisimilitude of the rest of the effects, and on a second hearing, both the politics and the melodramatic mechanics of the "script" are a bit bald. But the work's initial impact is as potent as that of a gripping piece of theatre, while its formal isolation from the events it depicts (we can't actually "see" what's going on) elicits a panicky engagement from the viewer while conjuring a contradictory sense of dislocation in terms of both time and space. For a moment, it seems, we are not in a "memorial" so much as a memory. And all we really want to do, of course, is get OUT OF HERE - although ironically enough, this piece is probably one of Boston's current must-sees for serious fans of both art and theatre.

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