Monday, May 1, 2006
An extreme makeover is taking place in one of those ubiquitous stultifying meeting spaces where Washington policy intellectuals scheme and dream beneath low-slung acoustical tiles. Artist Andy Shallal is using the dull walls of a think-tank conference room four blocks north of the White House as his canvas.
Here, art is contending with history. A political mural is in progress. Listen:
The lip-smack of rolled-on paint, the hiss of sprayed-on glue: adding faces, inserting words about deeds and ideas.
This is the sound of refining. Omitting.
A notorious mug from history -- Chile's Augusto Pinochet -- looms too large for the tastes of the artist who pasted it there. So he peels up an edge of the portrait, and with a jerk of his right arm -- Rrrriiiip! -- the dictator is diminished. Just enough is left for you to tell that Pinochet, clad in junta hat and uniform, is weeping into a big handkerchief, as though he were sorry for his crimes.
Next, Shallal tears a hunk out of the enlarged cover of a collection by poet E. Ethelbert Miller, called "Where are the love poems for dictators?"
He paints and sandpapers over part of the funeral march for two of Pinochet's victims -- human rights activists Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, blown up in a car on Embassy Row in 1976.
There is method to the seeming casual defacement of images Shallal mounted in the first place. What history gives, the artist takes away -- alters, pares, even ignores. Those who have seen the vast civil rights collage-style mural Shallal did at his buzzy restaurant/performance space/activist watering hole -- Busboys and Poets at 14th and V streets NW -- will recognize the look.
"History is not what you put in," Shallal says. "What we're omitting tells a lot more about who we are and what we are doing than what we put in."
The "we" in this case is the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank that has analyzed and agitated against war and corporate power, and for the environment and human rights, since it was founded 43 years ago by former members of the Kennedy administration.
The mural -- several hundred square feet wrapped around a 50-seat square room -- tells the story of the institute and the movements it has been part of. Inevitably, the collage proposes a history of the past four decades in the United States and certain global hot spots. It is an alternative history, although one getting more attention of late, as the missteps in places such as Iraq and New Orleans cause more people to question authority.