All the diligent historians of the world, or at least most of them, bend and curse over their papers, aspiring for the most precise and infallible histories that their faulty pens, typewriters, and computers can possibly muster. With loving use of footnotes and primary sources, these stalwart and striving historians try to pin down the surging forces of history. History (slippery fucker that it is) unfortunately refuses most moldings. The well-worn cliché “History is written by the victors,” tells us that, at bottom, we distrust historians, and given the difficult, amorphous nature of historical accuracy, maybe we should.
I don’t share my countrymen’s usual distrust of intellectuals and experts or the radical right’s cherrypicking of facts (that is, when facts are acknowledged at all), but to claim anything resembling the definitive in terms of history is a little disigenuous. An historian’s main job isn’t routing out the truth in hefty, just the facts ma’am, tomes, but rather a paring away of facts, choosing which nuggets to keep and which to discard as unuseful or irrelevant.
I love encyclopedias, compendiums, factbooks, and dictionaries, especially the ones that attempt total knowledge of human endeavors, if only because I’m fascinated by what gets left out or simply fabricated. I’m interested in how they, inevitably, fail. By way of example, every dictionary, for proprietary reasons, inserts at least one fake word into its pages, so that if anyone rips off their hard wrought intellectual property, they can nail them with this well-placed fakery. But outright shamming aside, historians have to make a lot of little jumps and assumptions, all carefully coded. We can likely write a thousand books why the US lost in Vietnam or how the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed or the effect on PDK foreign policy of Kim Jong Il's love of Westerns, few of any of them could hazard better than an educated guess, and even then, ten other historians would pop up to refute it before the ink was dry.
All that said, this hasn’t stopped television (or artists) from trying their hand at historicizing. In fact it is these gaps in historian’s representations of history that allow for scoundrels, television executives, and artists (from the visual to the literary) to jump in and make what they can of it. For Stephen G. Rhodes' museum debut at the Hammer, the Los Angeles-based artist chose to play around with a rather obscure-seeming television show which ludicrously brought together disparate figures from history who hailed from wildly different places and time periods to have a little colloquium on a chosen topic, something airy, like torture. Produced by Steve Allen for PBS, "Meeting of the Minds" ran for long enough to be considered (at least perhaps by PBS standards), a kind of hit.
I found this quote from Allen on a webpage devoted to the noted television personality (with plugs for various Allen related products including the VHS version of the show):
The idea is that every syllable will be part of an actual quotation. The degree of the exact quotation varies from character to character. In the case of some people who played important roles in the drama of history, of course, there is no record of anything they ever said or wrote.
Two examples that come to mind are Cleopatra and Attila the Hun. Nevertheless, they were both fascinating characters for our show. And there's nothing difficult in creating dialog for them. You bring factual information into conversational form -- and commit no offense in doing so.
I can almost hear some purist historian cringe at that last line, but I’m sure many others would call it educational good fun, maybe even going as far to use that handy neologism, infotainment, if one were so inclined. To try and hook up Frederick Douglass, the Marquis de Sade, and the Empress Tz’u-hsi, seems like one of those stoner premises better left in the ashtray with the roaches, but Allen motored forth.
Rhodes, picked up on Allen’s premise and decided to play his own games with historical veracity. The installation, staged in the Hammer’s oddly shaped room built for Da Vinci’s since sold Codex, is one clusterfuck of an installation. The bourgeois set piece of Meeting of the Minds (think a WASP grandmother’s over-stuffed rococo tea room with imitation Second Empire armchairs and copious amounts of brocade and you’ve some approximation) has been recreated, but as if the show went terribly wrong, the set is completely fucked up. Us museumgoers look into gaps in the wall that have been torn away from the room inside of a room. Setting atop the center table, a projector circles on a turntable spewing images of the show and Rhodes performing onto the walls of the recreated (but, well, fucked up) set and on the wall of the Da Vinci room, and on the museumgoers poking their faces through the chewed up plaster while trying to make sense of what the hell is going on.
In Los Angeles, we’ve had a few artists try their hands at history play with varying degrees of success. Matt Monahan’s debased faux primitive-modernist relics have an apocalyptic charm choking and debased on their plinths (shown a few years ago at MoCA). Sam Durant’s exhibition at Blum and Poe, a mimicry (or was it simply a recasting) of the waxworks of a closed museum for the Pilgrims, was so downright didactic it required a reading room along with a single-spaced, three-page 10-point font explanation of exactly what form our collective toothless outrage was supposed to take.
In terms of reforming recent pop history, historical abjectionists abound from Paul McCarthy's and Llyn Foulkes' live vivisections of Uncle Walt to Mike Kelley’s messy and metaphysical thrift-store finds and low-culture critique. Rhodes has found the perfect pop culture vehicle to puncture: Meeting of the Minds' preposterous premise allows for Rhodes to take all its rather silly meaning-making and false veracity and to spin his own representation out of it, insert his own explosive takes on what it means to re-represent history as infortainment. History here is a medium, but a medium that has been debased through the filter of pop in such a way that it reveals all the fissures of history-making. This makes for an environment as messy as the environs of his predecessors and colleagues, but for all its disorder seems somehow more ruminative.
One can only guess at what mayhem occurred on Rhodes' remakes of the set, but one guesses that the polite chat about torture from this handful of historical personages got kicked to the next level. I blame the Marquis, though who knows what rough beast slouched through Steve Allen’s soul. The sound, scenes, lights, narrative, and visual textures of the installation create a welcome bewilderment. History (and its infotainment remakes) seem well-meaning enough, but there’s a lot of gaps for slippage. Reflected in the title of the installation, downplayed a bit in the Hammer’s literature: Receding Mind: Circle of Shit, 2010, there are enough gaps in fact for the whole thing to devolve handily, strikingly, smartly into an historical and somewhat disturbing shit-storm.
- Andrew Berardini, Editor, West Coast & Worldwide
(Images: Sephen G. Rhodes, Receding Mind: Circle of Shit, 2010, production stills. Courtesy the artist, Hammer Museum, and Overduin and Kite)