The Art Capades

Top: Adel Abdessemed's “God is Design” and “Notes for Training.” Middle: “Talking Mirror” by Mircea Cantor. Bottom: “Untitled, (Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty)” by Claire Fontaine. Courtesy Photos
I went to the polls on Saturday to vote in the City elections. I don’t recall armed vigilantes or government stormtroopers roaming the streets, and the only impediment was the children — in their swimsuits, pool toys ready to be deployed, and unmoved by my argument that voting is a family activity. They waited noisily, but without threat of violence.

Nonetheless, a mere 10 percent of San Antonio’s voters showed up on voting day and during the early-voting period. Ninety percent of our eligible population couldn’t be bothered.

I bring this up because Power Play, the new Hudson (Show)Room exhibiton at Artpace, is political to its core, challenging among other things fanaticism, police power, self-censorship, and capitalism as a means to empire. Like all the best titles, Power Play is a double entendre. The artists in the show, all based in France, use media and methods that can be playful and even whimsical to plumb the heart of darkness.

Some of the works hit their target, like Adel Abdessemed’s video “God is Design.” To a soundtrack of entrancing Middle-Eastern music, lines that mimic henna painting turn circles into mandalas into Celtic knots into Stars of David into ornate fence posts into medieval monastery scrims — the drawing chasing, tracing, and overwriting its own tail. Sitting on the gallery bench, I thought about how we create and reinforce ideology from the universe’s most basic and neutral geometry.

Power Play
Noon-6pm Wed-Sun; noon-8pm Thu
Through Jul 15
Artpace, Hudson (Show)Room
445 N. Main

Either side of the small room is lined with a set of charcoal drawings titled “Notes for Training,” in which simply dressed figures raise their arms, backs to the viewer. Post 9/11, it’s difficult not to take “training” with a grain of pessimism, but the video’s simple, enchanting repetition is a reminder that every culture indoctrinates its members into its belief system. On the other side of the wall, two perfect circles made of military-issue barbed wire are a jagged reminder that these ideas, which we can ponder in pristine air-conditioned comfort, mean life and death to people from Juarez to Haifa.

So much for play — although it certainly seems like folly to suggest to middle-class Americans that the tools and training offered by Claire Fontaine might be useful for more than B&E. The title of the video by the two-person art collective, “Instructions for Sharing of Private Property,” seems innocuous enough, but surrounded by more overtly political works, it could also be a challenge to the epitaph that Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, wrote for us: “Confronted with a choice, the American people would choose the policeman’s truncheon over the Anarchist’s bomb.”

Yet, if that sentiment makes you feel brave and radical, if like Wendell Phillips (and I’m quoting here again from the 1971 edition of The Anarchist Cookbook) you believe that nihilism “redeems human nature from the suspicion `that it is` made up only of heartless oppressors and contented slaves,” an ominous black backpack in the middle of the floor might test your resolve. Dare to inspect it closer, and you’ll notice that it seems to be stuffed with candy. Even if you don’t know that it’s a reference to a pre-War on Terror work by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, you’ll catch the before-and-after irony. It’s titled “If you see something, say something,” but we’ll never see previously harmless things the same again: head scarves, duffel bags, federal buildings. We cannot be vigilant enough, and we cannot seem to be vigilant about the right things. For six years our government used our grief, anger, and fear to pursue a latter-day colonial empire in the Middle East while curtailing our civil rights and undermining our electoral system, economic safety nets, and environmental laws at home.

Our way, though, is debate, the occasional protest, and bloodless revolutions — every two to six years, depending, and as long as you actually show up at the polls. Which is where the weakest work in this show has something to say about the weakness of the gallery. Mircea Cantor’s video “Deeparture” stars a wolf and a deer who circle each other in a plain white gallery, one with little interest, the other with deep trepidation. Nothing happens. “Both animals have been subdued by the enclosing walls of the art marketplace,” say the gallery notes.

Let’s set aside the lessons we all learned on those Mutual of Omaha and National Geographic specials (wolves eat when they’re hungry, which is why they’re never at fault in any “fattest city in America” tallies; they usually work in packs; they target frail animals, etc.), and consider another meaning: the gallery’s walls keep dangerous ideas tucked inside, where we can ponder them and leave them, safe from society, and society more dangerous for the loss.


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