“Age of Terror: Art since 9/11”

Imperial War Museum
Lambeth Road
October 26–May 28

Mona Hatoum, Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet), 2012, Murano mirrored glass, wood, glass cabinet, 51 x 24 x 12".

The “Age of Terror”—could there be a more dismal art show for the grimmest museum in London? And yet there are seemingly jaunty works to be found here, with Mona Hatoum’s Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet), 2012, showing gaudy glass hand grenades resembling Christmas-tree decorations, and Jitish Kallat’s miniaturized security-line figurines—Circadian Rhyme 1, 2011—looking like an adult Playmobil set. Whether inadvertent or not, it is telling that this large fifty-piece show problematizes the representation of war. There is Cory Arcangel’s thrift-store find Bomb Iraq, 2005, an innocent-looking homemade video game from the 1991 Gulf War, and Gerhard Richter’s September, 2009, a print of a painting of the Twin Towers aflame that feels uncomfortably like hotel kitsch.

A protagonist in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (2007), reflects about a friend: “Maybe he was a terrorist but he was one of ours, she thought . . . which meant godless, Western, white.” Such disconcerting ambiguities mark the best work here, including Kerry Tribe’s casting-call film Untitled (Potential Terrorist), 2002, and John Smith’s perfectly guileless video Throwing Stones, (Hotel Diaries #3), 2004, where his camera surveils a room as he idly soliloquizes about inconsequential and world-changing events.

But the main grouping of relatively detached and conceptually assured art-world familiars is mirrored by a selection of artists from countries the West has, in the wake of 9/11, bombed to oblivion. Three brutally direct videos stand out in particular. Khaled Abdulwahed’s Tuj, 2012, shows a child’s soccer ball repeatedly bouncing off an interior wall in Damascus as sounds of outside explosions increase. In Lida Abdul’s White House, 2005, she whitewashes the ruins of a presidential palace on the outskirts of Kabul, while in Homesick, 2014, Hrair Sarkissian demolishes a model of the Damascus apartment building his parents refuse to leave. Such art goes straight to the heart of the matter.

Mark Harris

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Tate Liverpool
Albert Dock
November 17–March 18

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, This is Offal, 2016, HD video, black and white, sound, 12 minutes 51seconds.

In “We Are Ghosts,” Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley perform an antic kind of haunting: dark jokers leering from the unquiet slumbers of history. In their new video, In The Body of The Sturgeon, 2017, we’re plunged into the claustrophobia of the fictional USS Sturgeon at the end of World War II. The twelve-minute narrative is saturated with various fluids: You can almost smell the thwarted testosterone, the sweat, the ethanol swigged straight from the can by a desperate sailor. There’s even an ode to golden showers, in which Mary, with drawn-on chest hair and metal funnel bra, performs a gender-warping burlesque.

Mary (who plays nearly all the characters) pops up again in presidential drag as Harry Truman, announcing the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The frame moves in seasick waves. All this screwball capering is overlaid with the mock grandeur of the script: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” enunciated to emphasize its portentous tetrameter. The crew eventually meet a watery end when the submarine hits a mine and sinks. Brainy and allusive (nods to Carson McCullers and gender theory abound), the overall effect is cartoonishly serious, thrilling, and demented.

The show’s second film, This Is Offal, 2016, similarly taps comedy from tears. Inspired by Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs,” Mary plays a drowned suicide victim, whose internal organs are resurrected as surreally bickering talking heads at her autopsy. “You lily liver! How can you treat a faithful foot so callous?” Punning and garrulous, it answers back for history’s doomed heroines (“I feel ya, Ophelia”). Patrick as the lugubrious, Lou Reed–look-alike coroner is hilarious, while the highbrow references to Greek mythology are worn with rapid-fire irreverence. Rarely has laughter in the dark been this fun.

Daniel Culpan