Critics’ Picks

Komar and Melamid, We Buy and Sell Souls Inc., 1978–83.

Komar and Melamid, We Buy and Sell Souls Inc., 1978–83.

San Francisco

“Prophets of Deceit”

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art
1111 8th Street
September 12–November 11, 2006

Apocalyptic fantasies and maniacal cult despots commingle in curator Magali Arriola’s timely meditation on belief—as enacted in the interplay of perversely charismatic leaders and their willing followers. This deceptively earnest group show invokes the memory of Charles Manson, as envisioned by Raymond Pettibon’s funky 1990 video of Charlie whipping up his flock; “magick” meister Aleister Crowley and a long-abandoned Sicilian “temple” of dark worship, both tracked down by Joachim Koester in a series of photographs and atmospheric negative video images; and David Koresh, Branch Davidian kingpin, whose final days are cataloged, in real time, in Ron Dickenson’s clinical installation of prolonged sounds and textual reports. The subjects of these works all saw their dark utopias collapse, and their biographies have undeniable—if unsavory—narrative appeal. Though the galleries are infused with the light of moody video projections, there’s a bracing liveliness and even humor in Komar and Melamid’s We Buy and Sell Souls Inc., 1978–83, Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomolies Under America, 1992, a paranoid fabulist collection of found footage whipped into an intoxicating conspiracy theory cocktail, and especially Christian Jankowski’s 16mm Mystery, 2004, a persuasively entertaining 35-mm widescreen illustration of the gloriously destructive power of special effects. The subtext throughout is faith in theatrical fiction: These are reenactments, visualized myths, and dystopian dreams. In John Menick’s short mockumentary, The Secret Life of Things, 2006, a cinephile obsesses over the genre of last-person-on-earth movies. Watching his reel of clips, you’ll be hard-pressed to deny their allure.