Anytime an event is organized around an idea by French philosopher/historian Michel Foucault, there's bound to be some confusion. Suppose, for instance, that you were invited to a Foucault-themed dinner party. The host might greet you at the door, or not, depending on their view of the inherently problematic power dynamics in the host/guest relationship. Food may be served, but then again the lumps and colors on your plate might only be representations of food trapped in an existentially ambivalent taste/nutrition/consumption dialectic. And to say that the food was "cooked" by a "cook" would be entirely misguided because, as everyone knows, the "cook function" is part of a much broader discourse on killing, survival, and the gastronomic hermeneutics of digestion.
You get the idea; the man is French. So don't be surprised if the Walker Art Center's new exhibit, Abstract Resistance , gives you a few moments of post-modern pause. The show riffs off Foucault's assertion that "where there is power, there is resistance," and explores post-World-War-II art that has been shaped in various ways by traumatic historical events. This isn't protest art (references to specific wars, violence, or atrocities are few and far between), and it isn't art that easily reveals its purpose or intentions. Rather, it's art that "resists" manifestations of power in many different ways, few of which make any literal sense. Heck, even some of the explanations don't make sense.
That said, if there's one clue to Foucault's thinking that might help you wrap your mind around this show, it's that Foucault doesn’t regard power as some sort of monolithic political or cultural force exerting its will on people. Rather, Foucault's power is a complex web of relationships and tensions that may or may not be restrictive or oppressive, and "resistance" to power can take as many forms, or "pluralities," as power itself. In Foucault's view, resistance is a natural outgrowth of power, so in a way power creates resistance, the way Barack Obama created Glenn Beck.
The good thing about this exhibit is that it isn’t about Foucault—it's about a bunch of artists who, faced with the task of working in an increasingly absurd and violent world, had to find ways of responding to it that were a bit different from, say, the French Impressionists, whose gauzy worldview could probably have been corrected by a decent pair of prescription sunglasses. The atomic bomb changed all that, requiring artists everywhere to get a new set of eyeware.
Since Foucault's notion of power is all about relationships, what curator Yasmil Raymond says she wants viewers to walk away with is a feel for the artistic dialogue between, say, the disjointed steel in Anthony Caro's Sculpture Three, 1962 (above left), and the mangled metal in Charles Ray's Unpainted Sculpture (above, right—known so well to Walker patrons as "that gray car-wreck thing"). During the media walk-through, as I listened to Raymond discuss these and other works in the show, there was a TV mounted on the wall showing a man shaking his butt and privates in various artistically imaginative ways—ways that gave me new insights into how Ray's car may have crashed, and why, across the room, Willem de Kooning's Woman looks like she was run through a wood-chipper. I can't be the only one who suspects that the dialogue in Gallery 4 might have been fueled by vodka and Quaaludes. No matter how you look at it, it's disturbing.
The show takes its title from a 2006 sculpture-like installation by Thomas Hirschorn (above) that, among many other things (power tools, signs, photos, glyphs, hammers, thousands of nails and screws driven into posts and boards, etc.) features video of mangled bodies and severed heads—images meant, yes, to disturb. In fact, the human body—dead, dismembered, poked, prodded, abused, photocopied, and accessorized—plays an important role in this show, offering the most direct references to the shame and waste of political violence. There's no context for these discomfiting images other than the works in which they appear, though, so their collective impact suggests a rage so volatile that it can't fit into any conventional form. (Or if it did, some actual violence might break out.)
A good example is Kara Walker's Search for ideas supporting the Black Man as a work of Modern Art/Contemporary Painting. A death without end: an appreciation of the Creative Spirit of Lynch Mobs (yep, that's the title), created in 2007. It's a series of 52 framed canvases with writing—some of it direct, some abstract, some poetic—about various forms of racism, miscegenation, and abuse (of both sex and power). One reads: “An imaginary black man forced to invent the “white woman” to scream him into being. Every canvas is a blank space begging to be maimed. The paper calls the brush to break its neck.” Snap. Walker is one of the least subtle artists on the planet right now, and here it's as if she's abandoned the communicative limitations of mere painting in favor of just shouting from the canvas. If you read all 52, the cumulative weight of their withering wrath is breathtaking.
Plenty of other well-known artists are represented here, including Bruce Conner, Francis Bacon, Cathy Wilkes, Bruce Nauman, Gedi Sibony, and others. The show is not without a sense of humor, either. One of the funniest pieces is a sculpture by Rachel Harrison (left) called Al Gore : it's a tall rectangular block covered in what looks like green and pink algae, with a thermostat stuck to its side. Bruce Nauman's Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear is another fun, if familiar, piece: it consists of slow-motion video of the artist poking himself in the face in various places.
According to curator Yasmil Raymond's program notes, what unites these disparately confounding works is a desire to "destabalize the tyranny of comfort"—comfort being a well-known breeding ground for complacency and, when taken to the extreme, sleep. Afterwards, you may want to head home to your barco-lounger and down a cold one, but before you do, raise a glass to the concept of free speech: without it, we'd be even more confused than we are now—and considerably less comfortable.
Abstract Resistance continues at the Walker Art Center through May 23.