Truth or Dare: A Reality Show
…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
The confusion of reality with its replica, the slippery slide into alternative worlds of alternative facts has become familiar territory 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. Carlos Garaicoa’s El Mapa del Viajero II [The Traveler’s Map II] charts an idealized city derived from literature and populated by itinerant citizens; the Arabic letters embellishing Pietro Ruffo’s map of Europe narrate 21st-century socio-political upheaval and protest; 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.
A subtle yet uncanny and provocative confrontation between reality and illusion is at play in Serkan Özkaya’s immersive installation filling the lobby gallery. Incorporating the ubiquitous technology that today records our movements through most public spaces, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Nashville dissolves walls, creating a boundary-free zone, a seamless transition between exterior and interior, where to enter is to exit, to look is to be seen; what is solid becomes ephemeral, and the opaque is made transparent. Referencing the historical tradition of quadratura, the Renaissance-era practice of creating a painted sky on ceilings, Özkaya uses 21st-century tools to create an artwork that is an art-world, surrounding the viewer with living images of time as it passes, and offering a challenge to embrace the blurring of real and projected space. Highlighting uncertainty and contradiction, Truth or Dare emphasizes the importance of questioning both knowledge and belief by featuring artworks that utilize illusion to entice, entertain, and explore this slippery terrain between fact and fiction, presence and absence, reality and imagination.
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. Polyurethane casts of Reformation-era altarpieces by Oliver Laric, 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. Images of natural phenomena do not depict environmental elements, but rather what the human eye and mind project onto the outside world: Húbert Nói Jóhannesson offers an ode to desire in his Malverk af malverki [Painting of a painting], while 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. 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: portraits by Sebastiaan Bremer and Youssef Nabil are meditations on memory and mortality, and the alluring natural environments animated by Katja Loher’s video chandelier and painted on steel by Sair García expose ecological erosion and the ensuing displacement of human and other living beings. Combining elements of documentary journalism and staged aesthetics, photographer Nick Brandt exposes the parallel plights of endangered animals and human refugee populations in Africa, while 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.
The vulnerability of the contemporary human condition is also made visible in works such as Jane Hammond’s collage map of northern Europe, in which geographical boundaries are obscured by the layers of paper, paint, and delicate butterflies of All Souls (Bielawa); in Dinh Q. Lê’s photographic homage to immigrants, Go Cong Dong Beach, and in Richard Mosse’s heat-map photograph documenting the refugee crisis in Europe, which he creates using equipment originally developed as a military weapon. 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.
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; Ben Jackel’s drone sculpture is rendered in mahogany and graphite; The Flower Matrix designs embedded in Claudia Hart’s wallpaper come into full bloom with the use of an augmented reality application. 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.
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 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,” says Solmi.
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. As poet Margie Orford wrote after spending three full days immersed in Serkan Özkaya’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place…, experiencing a state of suspension between reality and imagination offers a reminder of the power of art to illuminate truths both known and felt:
A camera—with its unblinking eye—sees
all and makes all suspicious. The human eye—my eye—is different
One records through the prism of one’s own losses and loves and returns
I learned stillness….
And permeability of skin, of self, of walls. And that takes time, patience.
As does compassion, ethics, those forgotten human things.
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
Margie Orford, Untitled. Unpublished poem, July 9, 2016.