…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such a Perfection that the map of a single province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their forebears had been, saw that the vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the deserts of the West, still today, there are tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science (1946)
The confusion of reality with its replica, the slippery slide into alternative worlds of alternative facts has become familiar territory more than seven decades after Borges penned this short story. Today, cartography is a relic, replaced with global positioning systems that describe geography through virtual, screen-based information that appears and disappears in a keystroke. If maps have outlived their original use, what truth might they still tell? In contemporary art, maps, along with books and other printed texts, remain potent sources of inspiration for exploring the intersections of knowledge and fantasy, of experience and imagination. Ann Hamilton’s photograph of sections of paperback pages, sliced and stacked, references the loss of various languages worldwide today, while Brian Dettmer repurposes encyclopedias as materials for sculpting intricate sculptures of excavated illustrations and images that may reveal new insights. Nelson Leirner’s physical and political maps of South America are covered in stickers of skulls and smiley faces, respectively, drawing stark contrasts between the real economic and social conditions of the region and the international reputation crafted by politicians. The Arabic letters embellishing Pietro Ruffo’s map of Europe narrate 21st-century socio-political upheaval and protest, while Manuel Antonio Domínguez utilizes maps as canvases on which to paint imagery that reveals hidden histories about the forces and figures that have shaped global conflict.
Trained as an architect, Jorge Méndez Blake is an interdisciplinary artist who translates his literary sources into visual art. For this sculpture Sin Titulo (Acto V, Escena II), his source is Act 5, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The texts that Blake extracts and transforms from words on paper into three-dimensional brass wall sculptures are stage directions—short asides secondary to the lines spoken by the characters. And yet, the information they contain, [The Queen Falls] and [The King Dies] describe the most critical actions of the play. Like interstitial spaces in architecture, these words are easily overlooked. Blake’s practice of excavating and illuminating nuances in classical literature is both an homage to his sources and a socio-political critique. While today’s news and gossip cycle holds our attention with tales of the latest scandals and intrigue, the truthful information we need to know may well be embedded within another drama, shared aside and offstage.
The suspension of disbelief is invoked in other works that simulate games, maps, and tricks of the eye and hand—not to deceive, but to engage and connect. A floating, cell phone-sized replica of the monolith from Stanley Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by Josh Azzarella, a ping-pong table altered with a mirror for a game of one-on-one by Trong Gia Nguyen, and Charles Matton’s hologram figure projected in a miniature library are both playful and prescient critiques of how and where we search for knowledge. Gonzalo Lebrija uses multiple colors and layers of paint to create Unfolded Painting (Albali), a portrait of an unfolded paper airplane. By painting a material as mundane as a piece of paper, Lebrija advocates for the usefulness of play and the potential for brilliance in the everyday. Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s A Glass of Fruit uses trompe l’oeil to create playful meditations on the history of art. Pereda re-envisions Caravaggio’s 1599 painting, Basket of Fruit building on the anxiety and wonder produced when recognizable objects negate the laws of gravity. The imagery and soundtrack together emphasize and celebrate the tension we experience when seeing ordinary objects act in unexpected ways, allowing viewers to enjoy both the impossibility of what they are witnessing and to participate as accomplices in the ruse of a still life in motion.
Images of natural phenomena do not depict environmental elements, but rather what the human eye and mind project onto the outside world: Leandro Erlich’s visions of skies once seen or imagined above Venice and Leo Villareal’s pulsating light sculpture render visible the ethereal mysteriousness of misting of clouds. Húbert Nói Jóhannesson’s Málverk af málverki [Painting of a Painting] offers a pristine view of a lakeside, mountainous horizon in saturated shades of blue, enclosed and reflected within the blue of the sky, and of the painted blue frame of a trompe l’oeil wall. Jóhannesson’s subject is the symbiotic transformation of vision and viewer: gazing at a pristine horizon of sea and sky evokes wonder, nostalgia, and calm; rendered in the cool, deep, and soft blues of painted pigment, the effect is even more pronounced. Using many colored ghungroos—small bells traditionally worn on ankle bracelets by classical Indian dancers, Vibha Galhotra weaves an image of the earth as it was during the year of her birth, 1978. These bells were traditionally worn by dancers to “make their presence felt in the natural world.” Now, ghungroos are no longer necessary; the effects of human behavior on the planet are evident nearly everywhere. Galhotra’s earth shows no political divisions, only the landmasses and weather systems that affect everyone, while the bells that were once intended to announce a human presence have gone silent.
As in the literature of Jorge Luis Borges, whose writings are evoked in many of the works on view, dreamlike imagery often illuminates harsh reality and the vulnerability of the human conditions: portraits by Sebastiaan Bremer and Youssef Nabil are meditations on memory and mortality, and landscapes painted on steel by Sair García expose ecological erosion and the ensuing displacement of human and other living beings. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer subverts technology designed for surveillance in his interactive Redundant Assembly, in which facial recognition software is programmed to offer viewers a reflection of themselves from six different perspectives, and to melt together the features of multiple participants, effectively denying fixed identity.
Combining elements of documentary journalism and staged aesthetics, Argentinian artist Miguel Angel Ríos’s Mulas confronts the human cost of drug trafficking through a dreamlike film of riderless mules moving precariously across the Andes towards a chaotic climax in which the animals spook and disperse, the white powder from their packs spreading across a landscape in which they, like the human “mules” paid to transport cocaine, are lost and potentially doomed.
Facing continuing global strife, political instability, and economic disparity, the artworks featured in Truth or Dare speak truth to power through unconventional, often playful juxtapositions of imagery and materials, asking viewers to look and think—and question—twice: Anthony Adcock’s steel Column is actually oil on wood, while Ben Jackel’s drone sculpture is rendered in mahogany and graphite. Combining subversion and social critique, Addie Wagenknecht adapts the design for a 3D-printed handgun into a vase, while Pedro Reyes’s Lady Liberty (as Trojan Horse) resembles an oversize wooden toy replica of the iconic public sculpture, presented on an army tank-base, carrying the torch of peace and freedom into battle. The sculpture was created in conjunction with Reyes’s multi-media Doomacracy, an interactive installation commissioned by New York-based Creative Time and inspired both by the spectacle of a haunted house and by that of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Gavin Nolan embeds his portrait of a late 20th-century American corporate executive with myriad symbolic references to both popular culture and art history that act as clues to the character of his subject. Nolan explains:
The title is an anagram of the subject’s name. The painting is based on an image of Rawleigh Warner Junior—former president and CEO of Mobil Oil—in a boardroom, standing in front of a map of the world. He was once described as an “oil aristocrat with old school Hollywood looks”. He was an early adopter of the idea of positive ‘spin’ in relation to oil companies’ strategies (exploration, government collusion and environmental damage etc.), paying for puff pieces in the press, influencing government strategy, funding sympathetic scientific research, and introducing Masterpiece Theatre to U.S. television audiences.
Nolan’s painting functions like a puzzle, requiring the viewer to trace the origins and meaning of his imagery; to engage in a game of knowledge in order to understand how those in power obscure truth and manipulate public opinion, effectively playing with the people and resources they control.
Humor and horror also share the stage in Federico Solmi’s cartoonish video animations, which feature a recognizable cast the artist describes as “heroes and anti-heroes, villains and swine”—political, religious, and cultural figures whose corruption and cruelty is showcased in Solmi’s searing parodies. Combining traditional hand-painted animation with digital tools utilizing both virtual reality and computer gaming technology, Solmi’s subjects are both historical and contemporary figures, the “insatiable tyrants, depraved, corrupt leaders who bear only the physical semblance of human beings.” The exaggerated, flattened features and saturated, nearly garish coloration of Solmi’s simulations reflect the artist’s honest response to the news of the day: the hyperreality into which Solmi deploys Popes, Presidents, and others is as true—or more so—as the surreality of current events. As the artist explains, the realm of fantasy, or art, creates a space in which to examine or expose the factual most directly: “I do believe that an artist must create his own alternative and imaginary universe, in which the viewer can reflect upon reality.”
At a time when alternate facts equate to misrepresentations of truth, the alternate fictions of art may speak more honest, deeper truths. As artist Shahzia Sikander asks, “Because what are we? What is real? When you think in terms of narrative, and how history is determined through narrative, how real is that narrative?” Sikander pursued these queries in her animation of an Indian 18th-century illuminated manuscript, the Gulshan-i ‘Ishq [Rose Garden of Love], transforming the illustrations for a 17th-century epic court poem into a mesmerizing vision of cultural complexity and hybridity. While Sikander’s skill as a painter in the style of Persian miniatures renders the imagery as recognizably traditional, the movement of figures, flora, and fauna onscreen in Disruption as Rapture updates the original source text into a living narration of the potential for culture to evolve, and to reflect living reality. Freeing the proscribed meanings and metaphors of the original illustrations, Sikander and her collaborator Patrick O’Rourke developed what she describes as “a particular language based on particle systems—elements that lend themselves to movement—leaves growing, flowers blooming, clouds floating—things that in nature, are going to move from one state to another.” Sikander links these transitional states to real-world events also addressed by other artists included in Truth or Dare: “Movement can be literal, as in the physical crossing of geographic borders by bodies, species, commodities, and resources. It can also be symbolic, as in the sense of belonging to, or being excluded, a geographically determined space.” Layering fiction with fact, reality within fantasy, these works narrate both the complexity and the necessity for seeking and speaking the truth, asking that we look more closely to see more clearly the world in, around, and beyond ourselves.
The alternative reality of the 21st-century artist’s imaginative universe may offer the ideal arena in which to confront the present and envision the future.
– Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director
Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science.” A Universal History of Infamy. London: Penguin Books, 1975.
Shazia Sikander with Sara Christoph, “In Conversation.” The Brooklyn Rail, November 1, 2016.