Wide Angle

Reality Show: In a Telling Moment of Truth, Contemporary Art Finds Strong Voice

Aernout Mik's art, like "Schoolyard," looks real but documents a fabricated world where something is not right. Note: this video contains no sound. Video by Howard Deitch
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

We're at a surprisingly good moment for contemporary art. Looking back over a decade's worth of art criticism, I've begun to recognize that, despite the torrent of failures I've panned, there has also been a steady trickle of art I've loved.

That look back was triggered by what's coming up: the 53rd Venice Biennale, the most venerable, prestigious and sprawling of shows, which launches today with exhibitions from 77 countries (which we'll be reviewing daily this week) and an immense group show (which we'll sum up with). As always, the Biennale is certain to set out plenty of junk. And a handful of gems.

If the good work follows the past decade's trend, a lot of it will have close ties to reality. The real has always been important territory for artists. The difference now is that while most of the more arty, "imaginative" options are looking tired, the "new realism," if we dare call it that, seems to be gaining ground. It's as likely to tweak and distort the world as to record it faithfully. It digs more deeply than ever before into what reality, and its documentation, can mean to us.

Fabricated Realities

Some of the very best of today's art looks real but documents a fabricated world where something is not right.

Aernout Mik, a brilliant Dutch artist who was one of the standouts at the last Venice Biennale in 2007, sort of stages moments of crisis, then sort of documents the result. In his first American solo, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, his silent videos show us bedlam in a council room, conflict in a trade school and chaos on a trading floor.

In each case, Mik has created the setting, then hired actors to improvise absurdities around the barest framework of plot.

Mik relies on the techniques of high-end documentaries to avoid the dismissible, fantastic feel of art. His uncanny trick is to make us pay the same attention to his fictions as we would to real life.

A few other artists work a bit like Mik. Last year in Washington, the Hirshhorn Museum showed "Godville," a stunning video installation it owns by the Israeli artist Omer Fast, who was a star at the last Whitney Biennial in 2008. He manipulated the audio from a series of interviews with the reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg so that they sound straightforward, but the disjointed video makes clear that the result is manipulated.

Christian Jankowski, a former Biennalist who works in New York and Berlin, has staged and taped an "industry conference" attended entirely by television's most famous puppets, whom he got to deadpan for a panel on "the state of puppetry in the mass media." (Lambchop's contributions were not entirely cogent.)

All these works view the world through the same lens that delivers it to us on TV news, in magazines, in documentaries -- even in the newspaper. Except that in these artists' version of this media transaction, the manipulation is made explicit; nothing is as it seems. What are we supposed to make, for instance, of puppets engaged in sober discussion on the state of puppetry, when we know that every word they say is literally being put into their mouths?

These artworks don't preach about the failure of communication in our mediated world. They just arrange to have their own communications fail in subtle ways, and let us wallow in their failure.

Uncomfortably Real

Another promising direction for contemporary realism: Avoid fiction entirely, but present a real-life situation that's almost too strange to believe.

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