Allora & Calzadilla’s Apocalypse Now at the Wattis Institute, San Francisco
March 20, 2008
Exhibitions that address war are usually caught in a paradox. How can one represent the immense role war has played in visual culture without also implying that war is a perpetual condition of living? It is a situation that causes war-related exhibitions to speak with a forked tongue—to act as both peace activism and warmongering. Renowned for their politically charged videos and sound-driven installations, artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have worked with curator Jens Hoffmann to create such an exhibition. Called Apocalypse Now: The Theater Of War, and self-described as an “attack”, the exhibition questions the entangled relationship between politics and aesthetics.
Two small rooms are built in the exhibition hall’s nearly identical galleries. Each space is cell-like and lit from within; the gallery as a whole is dark. The walls are painted a dark army green and columns of red vinyl text present a time-line of war from the 15th century to today, from the Wars Of The Roses to our current Iraq War. Looking through small open slits in the cells, one can see a cacophonous display of art and media. The works butt up against each other, every video work is blaring, making each space an aesthetic mayhem. In one a CNN newsfeed covering the execution of Saddam Hussein hangs near the trumpeting toy soldier in Martha Rosler’s video Prototype (God Bless America) (2006), each piece vying to dictate the space’s audio. With such confrontation, it is no surprise that Hoffman’s curatorial statement explains using the exhibition’s works to “block, resist, and repel the audience.” However, the constant commotion often leaves certain works lost to the barrage. Overpowered by the muffled yelling in Bruce Nauman’s audio recording Get Out Of My Mind, Get Out Of This Room (1968), Mark Twain’s critique of American imperialism - To The Person Sitting In Darkness (1901) - is easy to overlook, but is without doubt one of the most intriguing selections. German painter Otto Dix’s Storm Troopers Advance Under Gas(1924) and Luigi Russolo’s Intonorumori (1920) also appear apt as each was an artist whose first-hand experience with war impacted how they came to redefine the relationship between politics and aesthetics. In fact, in the exhibition a particular emphasis is placed on Futurism and Russian Constructivism, groups whose approach to art was premised on the understanding that politics and aesthetics are inextricably intertwined. These are artists that recognized the immense political effect possible when a new aesthetic found distribution in mass culture.
The exhibition claims to take its inspiration from San Francisco’s anti-war past and is “intended as a revival of that pacifist tradition.” However, as one looks around the show, it is not apparent that pacifism is being peddled. With such a smattering from art history, it is difficult to determine the organizer’s aims other than to narrate with images a history of modern war. Any candid images of free speech rallies or Victorian stoop photos of posed psychedelic bands are absent. Nor are there any portraits of Black Panthers or displays of anti-war pamphlets and buttons from the Vietnam War. Instead, what is present is a bevy of work produced by predominantly European artists. Artists whose work depicts wars that the viewing audience are likely only connected to through cinema, television, and art. With a number of the works being exhibition copies, the show certainly meets its description as a “theatre of war”. Taken in total, Apocalypse Now appears as an image of itself. The effect is compelling as it makes tangible the parallel between representations of war and the production of war. Although the exhibition appears happily unaware, Apocalypse Now offers the perspective that war and images of war are inextricably intertwined in the forming of history.
In the exhibition Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979) continually appears. Showing on multiple monitors, the film is both the first and last work one comes across in the exhibition. Its repeated inclusion provides what ends up being the exhibition’s central message. However, the exhibition’s anti-war rhetoric oversimplifies the film; the curatorial premise fails to recognize the complexities suggested by the bulk of the work. With film crews hunting through the jungle and Dennis Hopper playing a crazed photojournalist, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has in sharp focus what the exhibition only alludes to in passing. The result is that the practice of the artists is exceedingly more engaging than how Allora, Calzadilla, and Hoffman chose to curate their work. As a survey of art in regard to war - especially one that includes political avant-gardists like Kurt Schwitters and Alexander Rodchenko—Apocalypse Now: The Theater Of War is a reminder that narrating past political avant-gardes is a far cry from creating a new one.