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Apocalypse Now 

A sharp, revelatory multimedia show casts a blinding light on the tragic events of today

Wednesday, Sep 27 2006
"These are the end times," says Tribulation 99, Craig Baldwin's hilarious and politically savvy film created from found footage. Running continuously in the first of the Logan Galleries, it sets the tone for "Prophets of Deceit," a thought-provoking and challenging new show at the Wattis Institute at the California College of the Arts. The 12 international artists whose works are featured in it (two are from San Francisco) reveal that the end times have always been with us.

Much of the exhibition is multimedia, including film and video, and fulfills the description of "[an art that has] left the frame and the written word [that] has left the page" (from Apocalypse by William S. Burroughs, reprinted in the exhibition catalog). These artists are historians, archaeologists, and social commentators, and they have ideas to sell. They mine artistic and historical antecedents — images and ideas drawn from other contexts — to recreate their own narratives, which cast a blinding light on events of today. Their sources include Rembrandt and Rabelais, Breton and Warhol, Melville and Greek myths, Timothy Leary and Robert Smithson, as well as contemporary news accounts of tragedies and catastrophes. They respond to what a Mexican artist who goes by the name HCRH terms "artistic imperatives of the new millennium."

Tacita Dean's "The Russian Ending" is an evocative series of 12 photogravures based on found postcards. The title refers to the Dutch film industry practice (since the 1900s) of concocting two endings for each movie exported: one with an optimistic "American" ending, and the other with a tragic or "Russian" ending. In The Ship of Death, the British artist takes an image of people in a rowboat and, by manipulating the surface of the plate with burnishes and scrapers, creates a moving and moody print of the Greek character Charon, who poles across the River Styx, his boat loaded with vaporous ghostly souls. Invented director's notes and dialogue, written in white in the artist's spidery hand, punctuate the surface of the print and imply that it's a working still from a nonexistent film. The entire series of appropriated and altered images — all tragic, fake film stills — explodes on the wall, one after the other, resembling scenes that are now common fare on American TV.

Rod Dickinson made his reputation mounting literal re-enactments of recent events in American history that raised sharp moral questions — the Jonestown suicides, Stanley Milgram's electric shock experiments at Yale in 1963. Nocturne: The Waco Re-Enactment, a sound and text installation, is a parlor version of Dickinson's performance piece that barraged viewers in a stadium with the "psychotronics" employed by the police and the FBI in their standoff with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. For the CCA show, Dickinson installed a lighted table with a log of conversations between the protagonists that documents the 51-day debacle in real time. A soundtrack plays re-enacted, taped conversations with sound effects (Day 8: babies crying). A close reading of the text, together with the relentless soundtrack, forces the spectator into the event, with all its panic and its disastrous potential.

The Komar and Melamid project We Buy and Sell Souls provides dark comic relief. Its confrontational premise — that the soul does not exist ("No one else in this world pays cash for nothing") — challenges and mocks the deepest tenets of organized religion. Framed, photocopied documents with signatures and seals assure us that Andy Warhol sold his soul for $0, while the souls of others went for $.98 each. American souls sold at auction in Moscow (also documented) in 1979; a legalistic letter from one "Pastor Leeson" notifies the artists that souls belong to God and are not theirs to sell. Komar and Melamid promise refunds if requested.

Cults and their followers appear in the video works of Joachim Koester (Morning of the Magicians) and PHAUSS (Alamut, Iran). Mungo Thompson contributes Levitating the Pentagon, which recalls Abbie Hoffman's political action involving 50,000 activist meditators, who surrounded the Pentagon and attempted to purge it of evil energy during the Vietnam War. Surrealist experiments with sleep writing and altered states are the subject of Melvin Moti's subtitled video The Black Room. Raymond Pettibon is represented by seven pen-and-ink drawings and a video, recapitulating highlights of the capture and trial of Charles Manson and his clan; the works span a period from 1985 to 1991, attesting to the artist's enduring interest in these events. The Secret Nature of Things by John Menick is a thoughtful soliloquy on the nature of film time and real time, loneliness and death, using poetic clips from early French and American movies. His protagonist says this investigation is about the history of the present: "I have no understanding of history, no words for it." Images will have to suffice.

In this exhibition, the wheel of fate is a film reel, and the video camera both witness and weapon. "We are artists, not fighters," goes the text in a Pettibon drawing. But in the film 16mm Mystery, Christian Jankowski positions his stealth filmmaker as both. Dressed in black leather and armed with projector and screen, he climbs to an urban roof and assembles his gear. When the projector rolls, a major building in the Los Angeles skyline implodes.

The artists in this show ask trenchant questions about the nature of politics, power, belief, and the commodification of art. Take your popcorn and be prepared to stay a while. "Prophets of Deceit" is sharp and revelatory.

About The Author

Lea Feinstein


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