War and Culture: Up Close and Personal

Mike Newton Jan 5, 2012

"Images of War (at a Distance)"
Harun Farocki
11 W. 53rd St.
Museum of Modern Art

Maurizio Cattelan
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Ave.

through January 2

Harun Farocki (b. 1944, German-annexed Czechoslovakia) is not an entertainer. He's a lot of other things – a filmmaker, a theorist, a documentarian, certainly an artist – but his work doesn't provide quick fixes or bite-sized ease. Tucked into a fairly small room at MoMA, "Images of War (at a Distance)" is a full-career retrospective of this influential artist's work, with interactive monitors allowing access to more than 40 years' worth of film and video projects. It's a bit of a plunge, but there are treasures in the depths.

For instance: the film "War at a Distance" (2003) juxtaposes military simulations, industrial surveillance footage, data feeds from guided missiles, and other utilitarian imagery into a meditation on the conflicts between visual information and lived reality. The perils of representation are something that Farocki keeps coming back to: in "Industry and Photography" (1979), archived photographs of coal mines and steel factories highlight the difficulties of truly preserving workers' history; "An Image" (1983) documents the long, boring effort that goes into creating a single Playboy centerfold photo. Though Farocki emerged out of the student uprisings of the late 60s, his art often avoids taking a direct, political stance: he works with loaded subjects (war, consumerism, labor), but it would seem that he wants his films to go beyond blunt criticism or simple support. Farocki tends to agglomerate powerful, disquietingly beautiful footage, then gives it space to breathe – his films are trenchant but also contemplative, sometimes punishingly slow. Even "Inextinguishable Fire," his 1969 anti-Vietnam agitprop film, is mainly a quiet portrait of life at the offices of Dow Chemical, manufacturers of napalm.

While Farocki's retrospective is rather humble (from the outside, anyway), Maurizio Cattelan's (b. 1960, Italy) farewell exhibition is a loud, boisterous thing: titled "All", the show presents practically all of Cattelan's major art projects, hanging en masse from the ceiling of the Guggenheim. There's a suicidal squirrel, collapsed horses, JFK in a coffin, aw-shucks self portraits and, Cattelan's most famous work, a life-sized sculpture of Pope John Paul II, having just been struck by a meteorite. Cattelan is known as a hyper-realist sculptor and conceptual prankster; his work can be arch, funny and confrontational, sometimes with an uncomfortable streak of nihilism or condescension. For comparison's sake, watch Farocki's 2007 film "Transmission": an austere document of grief and memory, the mourning at military monuments overlapping with ritual prayer at religious sites. Now, take a look at Cattelan's granite, Vietnam-style memorial which lists, instead of war dead, all the games lost by England's national soccer team. Farocki, it seems, would never minimize tragedy like this, but there's a kicky thrill to be had from Cattelan's refusal to take history all that seriously. Farocki's 1989 film (made with Andrei Ujica) "Videograms of a Revolution" shows harrowing footage from the 1989 Romanian revolution, presented with little comment from the artists. It includes scenes of violent street battles, of protesters suffering in the hospital after police attacks; it does not make revolution look easy. Compare that to Cattelan's "Frankie and Jamie" (2002) – a wax sculpture of two dopey policemen, hung upside-down. Neither Cattelan nor Farocki would like to see institutional power go unbidden and unchecked, but while Farocki presents a harsh world of irreducible complexity, Cattelan takes on serious stuff with impishness and remove – it can be both invigorating and exhausting.

As it goes with tragedy and authority, so too with death. Farocki's video installation "Serious Games III: Immersion" (2009) shows footage of an American soldier nearly breaking down, as a computer game allows him to recall/relive the wartime death of his friend: dreams and simulations of military intervention crash into personal trauma, real-life terrors. Farocki generally avoids death itself – instead, he shows the technological and social constructs that can generate death (what theorist Paul Virilio called the "mass production of corpses"), and the darkness these systems leave behind. With Cattelan, meanwhile, death is absolutely everywhere. With real, taxidermied animals and all those sculptures of dead bodies, Cattelan creates a sort of banquet of death (or, of dead things, at least). The grim, emotional realities of loss (as in Farocki) are replaced by death as a goofy, inevitable, physical truth. We're all gonna die. And, you just have to laugh.

While Farocki is the old soul, creating austere, mournful work even in his youth, Cattelan is the brash kid, retiring from the art world on a note of prankish audacity. Yet, both use their art to question concepts of morality, faith and power, and both have found spaces for vital, human subjectivity in some of the darkest zones of contemporary life. One creates visual essays and lengthy excursions, one creates gut-punching pleasures and queasy laughs, but perhaps the important thing is what they both do: they create.

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