Long before newspapers, stories were told around the campfire or written in pictures on cave walls. Stories of victory and defeat in war were transmitted by runners carrying the news. Letters from soldiers — albeit censored — also told stories of war, and then peace. We have a more sophisticated way of telling stories now but really not much has changed. News communicates facts, opinion and gossip. Several works in Temple Gallery’s Philagrafika show deal with these issues and while this reporter can tell you about what’s in the gallery, the big news is that two bodies of work, by Swoon and Carl Pope, are outside on the streets. I have an opinion about these works — they’re great — but I haven’t seen them. So here’s how some news starts. You read that I said it’s great and you now maybe think of it as great because you read it, and pretty soon, voila, it’s great.
Francesc Ruiz thinks that packaged news (news in newspapers and magazines) is no news at all. In his faux newsstand in the middle gallery space Ruiz created the perfect news mimic with magazines, newspapers, lottery tickets all illuminated by the classic newsstand fluorescent light. This kiosk has all the news a Philadelphian would need. And some of it is free — you can take home a newspaper and a magazine for your reading pleasure. But therein lies the rub. Whereas Ruiz’s publications adopt the tropes of the print news media (the typeface of his “The Wall Journal” for example carefully copies that of the Wall Street Journal) the written content is a mishmash of nonsense phrases that seem like they were translated by Google from an Urdu poetry site.
One of my Flickr friends commented on the newsstand: “Wow, a lot of work went in to that, it’s quite amazing.” This is an opinion and a true fact. A prodigious amount of work went into the creation of the many publications on view. And what is amazing, even more than the quantity of matter, is the content — or lack thereof. Ruiz recycles his nonsense texts and his many graphic images throughout all of the publications so that a particular paragraph (or image) is repeated on numerous pages and under various headlines. These headlines — “New Uses of Time in the City,” “The Will Eliminate the Sports Fields,” and “Fidget Will Prohibit” — all contain the same “story.” Some pages are upside down and the cumulative weight of nonsense in this helter-skelter topsy turvy news world is overwhelming, a little funny and depressing, since in the end Ruiz got it right: The value in many news publications is less than meets the eye and mind.
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries made a video/audio piece that tells a story of a girl, two guys, a fistfight and the aftermath. Whether it’s fiction or fact, gossip or news, the story flies onto the screen as words with a rat-a-tat-tat speed to the syncopated rhythm of a great jazz soundtrack. Call it an op ed piece, the internal monolog by the boy who loses the girl is wry, self-questioning and self-effacing. Yet it communicates much about human relationships, and asks some questions about fighting (war) and winning or losing (peace?). The work is as ephemeral as a story told around the fire and it has the same kind of mythic quality being both a little slippery but gripping and memorable. Unlike Lawrence Weiner’s conceptual word art Heavy Industries’ piece is modest and ephemeral. It’s one of the best works I’ve seen of late and in its edgy treatment of human relationships I want to compare it to Jayson Musson’s polemical word-driven ramblings which hit you like irreverant jokes then hang around your mind with their greater content about the human psyche.
Thomas Kilpper‘s installation of photographs, video, wallpaper and flooring made of cardboard banana crates tries very hard to make a point about political disenfranchisement. And in fact it makes its point too fast. The oil barrel in the middle of the room with sticks bearing the names of troubled countries is overkill that I took in so quickly I didn’t break stride before moving on.
Superflex, likewise, with its worktable for students to make hanging lamps is a quick political piece. The website says this piece is about copyright infringement. All the images that appear on the hanging lamps are copyrighted lamps. So the students are either breaking or not breaking the copyright. OK, copyright is an important issue for an artist, and students should be thinking about it. But before I read the web writeup this is what I thought: The obvious reference in this piece that is using (free) student labor is to sweatshops ripping off their (often child-aged) workers. I am ok with either interpretation (and I think both work) but in either case, the piece broadcasts its message(s) too quickly.
Political art is tricky. By giving you too much information/attitude/material, political art can be too direct. It can do too much work for you leaving you the viewer without need to think for yourself. Kilpper’s and Superflex’s installations are both too direct. You read the piece very quickly and move on. Heavy Industries’ and Ruiz’s pieces are both indirectly political and thus leave the viewer with some room to interpret and digest. They are more satisfying conceptually, and actually, aesthetically as well.
As for Swoon and Pope, I have an opinion based on an intuition. My gut tells me these artists have made great works. Just the fact that they are sitting out there on the streets says they are doing the job of political art creating surprises that shake you out of your normal routine and ask you to contemplate something other than your next meal or when the next Septa train will finally arrive at the station. You can get a map to locate Swoon’s works but there’s no map for Pope’s and as soon as the snow melts it’s time to go hunt them down.
I’m going to Twitter this post now for everyone sitting around that campfire. Maybe it’ll go up on the Facebook campfire page also.