From the flash and swagger of Vegas, to the manicured, lamppost-lined Main Street of Disneyland, we are proffered up a regular cultural diet of distorted, exaggerated versions of reality. The hyperreal seeps into even the most mundane crannies of our existence: our newspapers, breakfast cereal, tennis shoes, and coupon-clippings. Everywhere you turn there is something to buy, sniff, gnaw on, or run your finger along the sides of that has that certain smack of the real, that kind of chewy, overripe authenticness. The current exhibition on view at SITE Santa Fe tackles this notion of reality’s slickness in their SEO-gold titled exhibition: More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness.
More Real, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, features sixty works by twenty-five artists and includes painting, sculpture, photography, video, sound, and online installations. Armstrong has brought this work together under the shared purpose of questioning and subverting our conception of reality as a means of confronting the present age, which she maintains has become increasingly difficult to navigate due to a swelling ocean of half-truths. Even the SITE building itself has risen to the occasion of the exhibition, sporting new architectural elements conceived by Greg Lynn/FORM which give the building an appearance of warping and buckling on the inside and out. The exhibition subject matter is divided neatly into three subcategories: Deception and Play, The Status of Fact, and Reshaping the Real.
Exterior of SITE Santa Fe showing architectural intervention by Greg Lynn/FORM, 2012; Image courtesy of SITE, Santa Fe.
True to More Real’s warning that things are not always as they seem, stepping into the second gallery, I mistake Jonathan Monk’s piece Deadman for a fallen soldier. Monk’s work depicts a prostrate mannequin with a bullet puncture wound at the heart, shrouded in a white sheet. The sculpture is an eerie mix of both convincingly and unconvincingly contrived human parts. The arms are waxy and tumescent. The head is crowned with real human hair. A gallery attendant informs me that Monk’s piece is not in fact a rumination on the harsh realities of war, but an homage to the performance art of Chris Burden. Deadman, she explains, depicts what would have happened if the shooter had missed his target during Burden’s famed performance in which he received a gunshot to the arm.
Seung Woo Back delivers another perceptual twist in the last gallery with a trio of deceptive photographs. Back’s images depict a series of unearthly environments, which at first glance appear to be the product of labored photoshopping. Wall text reveals, however, that they are in fact manipulation-free straight shots taken by Back at a theme park in South Korea. In one image a fleet of model ships sits lightly on a smooth harbor, as real city buildings loom imposingly in the background. In another a faux Eiffel tower, surrounded at the base with bright dollops of yellow-green shrubbery, pierces an overcast sky. Despite the cheerfulness implied by a theme park setting, Back’s photographs have a distinct feeling of glumness to them. The manufactured park environments appearing fragile and island-like in their relationship to the real city.
Jonathan Monk, Deadman, 2006, wax,rubber, human hair, oil, paint, fabrics; Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York.
Ai Weiwei’s contribution to the show, also in the last gallery, consists of a cluster of rotund vases splattered festively with house paint. At first glance they resemble a motley crew of unclaimed ceramics from the Pottery 101 reject pile. Exhibition text clarifies that the vases may or may not be priceless Neolithic urns, repurposed by Ai as contemporary art. Though some may be ignited by this cheeky dare-you-to-care challenge, personally I’m not sure if I mind if they’re real or not, or if they’re worth more or less coinage now that Ai has lent them the golden glow of his celebrity. Instead, I find myself wishing that More Real would commit to their ruse instead of backing away from it with a wall text disclaimer. By offering the audience the possibility that the urns aren’t real, they’ve more or less given you permission not to care. For an exhibition that is billed as an exploration of reality’s shiftiness, More Real observes a rather stubbornly steadfast loyalty to the facts.
Despite all the reality reshaping, More Real isn’t quite a journey into the rabbit hole so much as it is a sober shuffle through a hall of specimen, each one carefully splayed out for your dissection. There are no jaunty mad hatters or psychedelic caterpillars here to recite incendiary riddles. No far-out fun house mirrors to look upon. Though More Real takes a few stabs at wackiness, ultimately it is too self-conscious and measured an exhibition to be truly disorienting. Wall text throughout the show adopts the role of no nonsense chaperone, hanging over your shoulder every step of the way to make sure you haven’t strayed too far in the wrong direction. The meticulous way in which More Real approaches truthiness may not make for the grooviest trip, but it does aptly reflect the crux of Armstrong’s argument: staying attuned to reality these days is nary a task for the careless of mind or easily distracted, precisely because our understanding of the truth is routinely manufactured by careless and distracted sources. More Real is right to point out the gravity of what’s at stake in our sloppy way of transmitting and receiving facts. We are courting a future in which semi-truths will transcend the real to come to exist as their own valid reality.
(Image on top: Seung Woo Back, RW001-001, 2004, from Real World I series, digital print; Courtesy of the artist and Gana Art Gallery, Seoul.)