Some years ago, in a report that may or may not be credible, it was asserted that young people supposedly get more of their news now from fake news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report than they do from real news shows or newspapers—which the kiddies don’t watch or read, in any case, and certainly don’t trust.
This alarming bit of maybe-news, according to Minneapolis Institute of Arts contemporary arts curator Liz Armstrong, is what prompted her to start thinking about the museum’s ambitious new exhibit More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness—the MIA’s first major contemporary art exhibit ever.
“Truthiness,” of course, is the term comedian Stephen Colbert coined for the habit of certain people—most notably then-president George W. Bush—to insist on the validity of their own personal sense of “the truth,” even if facts, logic, evidence, science, and reason show it to be completely false. The term aptly describes what has become an increasingly noticeable facet of modern life: that authenticity of any kind is hard to come by.
Recently, for instance, when racecar driver Jeff Gordon supposedly donned a disguise and duped a used-car salesman into a death-defying thrill ride, there was a nanosecond when some people actually thought the stunt was real, even though it was a Pepsi commercial. Then there was a flurry of bloggers who unmasked “the truth” about the video, which was that the terrified salesman in the video was an actor. (Surprise! Not.) Then there was the wave of bloggers revealing that the video is even faker than it looks—in that Jeff Gordon didn’t even drive the car. (But what do we expect? It’s a Pepsi commercial, after all, and what is Pepsi really, if not fake Coke?)
This penchant for fakery is the starting point for many of the artists in More Real, and from there they go on to do what good artists do: confound, amuse, and deceive us in the service of a higher truth. Or so it seems. Or maybe not at all.
There is no unified approach or discernable pattern to the subterfuge on display. The conceit behind Mark Dion’s “Curator’s Office” is that he supposedly rediscovered the office of the museum’s first curator of modern art, who left in the 1950s. The office itself is meticulously realistic, but the “curator” is fiction. Then there’s a series of photographs by German artist Thomas Demand, whose “Oval Office” are photorealistic reproductions of the president’s office, but made of cardboard and confetti. Or the work of Vik Muniz, whose contribution consists of a few paintings turned around so you can only see their backs, including Rembrandt’s “Lucretia,” which is hangs next to its “back,” which is of course impossible.
Whatever you’re looking at in this exhibit, it’s safe to assume that it has two or three extra layers of meaning, that the meaning won’t necessarily be obvious, and that it will only reveal itself with some thought and reflection, usually after reading the text on the accompanying placard. All of the photographs in the exhibit are “real,” for instance—in that they haven’t been Photoshopped (that would be “too easy,” says Armstrong)—but the subjects themselves are largely staged: landscape photos taken in Second Life; black-and-white photos of Vietnam soldiers who are really combat re-enactors; actors pretending to be construction workers, etc. The artistry can’t be appreciated, though, until you know what the game is.
Then there are the exhibits that simply have to be experienced to understand or appreciate. One of the show’s highlights is Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s “Phantom Truck,” a re-creation of one of the mobile chemical weapons labs that Saddam Hussein supposedly had, photos of which then-Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, in his infamously disingenuous presentation to the United Nations, used as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq. These trucks didn’t exist, however, so Manglano-Ovalle’s version is even more real than the imaginary ones that gave rise to the war. Which is a nice irony, but there’s much more to it. Photos of the installation show it bathed in red light (above), which isn’t entirely accurate. The actual installation is housed in a huge room that is so dimly lit you can hardly see the thing when you walk in. It’s just a blob of corners and shapes. But as your eyes adjust to the light (most of it provided by the red exit signs) and the features of the truck become more visible, you slowly begin to see what you’re really looking at—which is a brilliant, experiential metaphor for the slow clarity of vision that has characterized our collective assessment of the war over the past ten years.
In this and many other ways, More Real invites and demands considerably more investment of thought than most MIA exhibits. It’s not an exhibit that can or should be rushed through; it’s an exhibit that requires attention to detail, and some careful study. The Freud in Dreamland installation alone could eat up an hour of your day.
But that effort is amply rewarded. Many exhibits are interesting and entertaining, but More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness is one of those rare exhibits that rises to the level of “important.” Everyone should see it, because it addresses one of the defining characteristics of our time, which is that all too much of our public discourse is B.S. of one sort or another. Sorting it out is the challenge. More Real doesn’t provide the answers, but it does give you a few clues about which questions to ask the next time anyone in power opens their mouth.
More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through June 9.