Documentary evidence

By GREG COOK  |  February 27, 2008

The artists have said that the piece asks, “How does war construct specific positions for individuals to fill, enact, speak from, or resist?” The stories are flatly performed, mostly in empty classrooms and auditoriums. A four-hour re-enactment of a tribunal questioning detainees pauses now and again for everyone to shift one chair to the right and take a new role. This artifice makes all the tales feel suspect — it suggests we should be wary about what we take to be true. But it also short-circuits emotion. It’s just so meta. The cool, detached style that’s used in 9 Scripts — and that dominates contemporary art — is ill suited to addressing this stuff. The art talks mostly around the subject, without getting to the hot, messy, emotional core of the matter.

Jenny Holzer does better by reproducing grainy US government “War on Terror” documents straight-up. Her five screenprints here were among those she exhibited at Barbara Krakow Gallery on Newbury Street last May. (I reviewed them in detail then, in the June 1 issue of the Phoenix.) One screenprint reproduces White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s January 2001 warning to Condoleezza Rice about the threat from al-Qaeda. Nearby, then CIA director George Tenet’s September 16, 2001, memo “We’re at War” is printed in emergency red. A handwritten February 2002 report of an Army translator in Afghanistan says that Special Forces soldiers apparently hit, threatened, and shocked with electricity a prisoner he had helped interrogate. Holzer has the authors speak to us directly — even in their own handwriting; the result transmits their worry, their urgency, their shock, their disgust. And in black patches of redacted text, we feel the lurking presence of those in government who would keep these stories untold.

Dutch-born, New York–based photographer Hans Neleman traveled to New Zealand in 1998 to document a revival of facial tattooing, or “moko,” among the nation’s Maori after decades of government repression of indigenous traditions. Many of his 30 large-format photos on view in “Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today” at the Peabody Essex Museum show people who’ve had their entire faces tattoo’d with traditional spiral patterns inspired by ferns and known as “koru.” Others adapt moko to different ends, like Sinn Dogg, a hard-looking dude who had the lower part of his face tattoo’d with the slogan “Mongrel for life/mongrelism,” proclaiming his membership in the Mongrel Mob Notorious gang.

The tattoos are impressive, both in their æsthetics and as statements of personal and cultural pride. But the slick commercial-style photos (all before seamless white backdrops) are as interesting and revealing as the Gap’s “Red” ads. They’re accompanied by brief interviews with the persons in the photos that read like boiler plate: I got tattoo’d because of God, grandma, and/or gangs. It’s too bad that such a rich subject produces such a slight show.

When Leslie Hall graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2006, she exhibited a shrine/shop/museum of froofy sequined “gem sweaters” that was a funny, trenchant examination of middle-class taste, and one of the best shows in town that year. The Iowan is back in Boston as one of six travel-grant-winning Museum School alums featured in “SMFA Traveling Scholars” at the MFA.

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