The phrase "political art" is enough to turn any dinner party toward the vodka bottles. Political art? It's awkward. Preachy. Certainly undeserving of public funding. In a 2004 New York Foundation for the Arts poll, 69 percent of respondents agreed that "political art is boring."
Maybe Julia Page was too busy to get the memo. In 2004, she was graduating with an MFA from Oakland's Mills College, and since then she has created a body of work that maps the intersection of statecraft and stagecraft — work that manages to defy the 69 percent. It's interesting and witty. She's created animated schematics of imaginary survivalist shelters (The Best Laid Plans, 2004), compiled footage of presidential daughters caught in unguarded moments (Heir Apparent, 2004), and fashioned larger-than-life topiary soldiers (Ground Soldiers, 2001-2004). Her work creates wedges in the wall of what the media calls "content" by breaking the story down — the story we tell ourselves as well as the story our national identity provides for us.
Page's latest project, a video installation showing at Catherine Clark, effectively dismantles the theater of politics. Page has taken footage from C-SPAN2 showing the Senate debating the war in Iraq and edited it to re-create the final scene of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. Single words from each senator create a back-and-forth call-and-response between two screens, one to represent each of the two main characters in the play, flanking a dead tree, which is the only stage decoration prescribed by Beckett. The effect is a caricature of Beckett's famously stilted dialogue, complete with awkward silences (which are long enough, Page says, to sometimes make viewers think the video is broken) and coughs. Thus the senatorial oratory, with its pretensions toward "speaking for the common man," is reduced to little blips and blurts, literal sound bytes.
That the piece, titled Waiting for (), is watchable, even hypnotic, is a testament to the seductive power of video — a seductive power often used to sway political viewpoints. In Waiting for ( ), the cryptic quality of the dialogue from Godot allows the piece to be interpreted in many ways, which is crucial to any successful work of political art. When Pablo Picasso was asked to explain the meaning of Guernica, he replied, "It isn't up to the painter to define the symbols! Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them."
You could say that Waiting for ( ) is about the emptiness of political debate — especially in relation to the war in Iraq — or about the impossibility of knowing the outcome of a war, or about the power of one single word in debate. You could say it's about meaninglessness, a common interpretation of Beckett's play itself.
Page was actually in Waiting for Godot when she was 9 or 10 years old. Her father, a theater professor, cast her as "the boy." Standing backstage, she heard the play in its entirety "50 or 60 times," she says. To her, Godot is "about hope, and [Waiting for ( )] is very much about approaching the Senate as an ensemble that has to work together — and I have a lot of hope for that cooperation. That's what we want out of an elected official. You have these moments where, watching the process, there's a beauty in it that's hopeful."
The 30-year-old artist, who teaches at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, has coppery hair and two bright-blue bird tattoos — one on each wrist — that flutter through the air as she speaks while seated at a tea shop above Yerba Buena Gardens. Sensitive to the fact that political art can have a short shelf life, she says, "When I hear interpretations of my work that are didactic or reductive, or that assume that my politics are this or that, I worry. When I was conceiving of the piece, the shadow of the war was coloring everything. It's been written about as being more about the war than I see it. My hope for this piece of mine is that, while it may be about the Iraq war now, it'll be about something else in 10 years."
In the meantime, Page will continue to create art that treads the waters of politics. She is currently working on a piece about the language of revolution. It may incorporate radio transmitters and footage of the Black Panthers. She shrugs unapologetically. "It's a very political world right now," she says. "It feels very present."