“It is Difficult:” Public Art and Private Minds

Earlier this year at the Americas Summit in Cartagena, Colombia, the United States formally acknowledged the existence of the drug decriminalisation debate throughout Latin America spearheaded by conservative Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina.

While‬ Hillary Clinton also garnered just as much, if not more news coverage for dancing the night away at Café Havana, historians and international relations scholars interpreted the U.S. policy move as a subtle diminution of the Monroe Doctrine and “American exceptionalism,” both key planks of 20th century world history purportedly at threat in the “Asian century.”

Beyond international relations, what are the ways in which power is conferred and resisted in a globalised world? How does culture challenge patterns of control and submission in social relations? While street art is attracting a reputation as the “new punk,” installation art has long been used by individuals such as Alfredo Jaar as a means of encouraging us to revisit accepted notions of power and legitimacy.

Installation art is art that is created, constructed, or installed on the site where it is exhibited. Given the privatisation of public space it is therefore an inherently political type of art, contesting norms in architectural design and use of social space.

Chilean Alfredo Jaar is a key contemporary component of installation art. In 1987, the Public Art Fund gave him the opportunity to present his art in Times Square. “A Logo for America” involved the presentation of a map of the United States and the flag of the United States along with the words “This is not America” and “This is not the American flag.” After these images, a map of North America, Central America and South America spins on the screen, enlarges and has stamped across it the word “America.”

Jaar’s work was showcased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a presidency which championed neo-liberal economic liberalisation and the consolidation of his country’s economic, social and geopolitical dominance throughout the Western Hemisphere. In this way, Jaar directly contested the way language reflects geopolitical realities and subtly recharacterised the agency of the peoples of the Americas.

While his work was contested in the print media, television and on the radio, with some callers on NPR suggesting the illegality of his art, it has since been used in a dozen textbooks to teach students about globalisation. Jaar’s work therefore evoked and strengthened the ideas first espoused in 1936 by the Uruguayan constructivist Joaquin Torres Garcia. Garcia inverted a map of South America, emphasising its autonomy from European aesthetics and reasserting the importance of pre-Colombian art.

From 1994 to 2000, Jaar again used installation art to contest geopolitical discrepancies in power. Immediately following the 1994 genocide that killed one million people and saw another million become refugees, Jaar visited Rwanda and compiled “The Rwanda Project.” As a way of highlighting the complicity of Western European powers in both the exacerbation of ethnic division and its failure to provide adequate humanitarian based intervention in Rwanda, Jaar filled forty advertising light boxes in Sweden in November 1994. These simply contained the word “Rwanda” over and over again, drawing attention to what was being ignored all to easily amongst most pedestrians.

Alternatively, Jaar’s post-colonial thought was also seen in how he characterised Rwanda in the few photos he released of his time there. In “Let There be Light” two young boys, backs to the camera, have their arm around each other in front of a crowd of people. This is done to emphasise that in spite of global indifference to Rwanda’s fate, love and community still survived, though threatened, on the local level.

Finally as part of his current work “The way it is: An aesthetics of resistance” Jaar perhaps most controversially contests the way “9/11” is perceived and embedded in global consciousness. This is done through a series of jarring images and newspaper headlines which explore the “9/11” most familiar to Jaar, that of 1973 where the Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup by army general Augusto Pinochet.

Backed by the United States, this saw members of the country’s left imprisoned and tortured as Pinochet controlled Chile through a dictatorship lasting until 1990. Through this work, Jaar argues that all dates and historical constructions need to be contested and examined for their geopolitical influences, and challenges us to do the same for “9/11.” In the Australian context this would include an interrogation of how as Australians we construct 1788.

Installation art is a thought provoking form of contemporary political discourse. It embodies many of the themes of 21st century urban existence: collaboration and skills sharing due to heightened social and legal regulation; subversion of traditional means and spaces of communication through an often strong sense of irony; and finally a callout for us to be vigilant, active producers of our own environments. It impels constant engagement, creation and self-betterment, and in this sense is one of the most human of art forms. Of such a commitment, the words of Jaar ring true: “it is difficult,” but it is right.

Cameron McPhedran

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