“Ciphers of Identity”

Fine Arts Gallery University of Maryland

It’s a bold move to follow an internationally recognized exhibition that occurs every other year in New York with one that travels primarily to regional cities. “Ciphers of Identity,” curated by Maurice Berger, is an afterimage of the Whitney Biennial’s boisterous multiculti fest, and therein lies its strength. Instead of creating display density, Berger resists the impulse to build Babylon and steers toward a more harmonious environment in which works of art speak about the conflicts and ambiguities of the self as a social construction. Within this setting, the anxiety of political correctness is subdued and the opportunity emerges to consider the effectiveness of symbolic representation, not simply to articulate difference, but to “make” a difference.

Twenty artists, each working within the margins of cultural disenfranchisement, point fingers at the viewer as perpetrator, or elegize the voiceless, nameless, faceless Other. As we’ve come to expect from the theatricality of multiculturalism, viewers must deliver their subjectivity as host to this eucharist event.

With hurricane force, Barbara Kruger’s billboard-sized graphic confronts us with an accusatory “WHO do you think you are?” (Untitled, 1993). This rhetorical question couldn’t be more appropriate as we enter Adrian Piper’s installation, Vote/Emote, 1991, which consists of a series of booths, each housing a different black and white photograph depicting African-Americans, and a note-book whose blank pages are printed with provocative headings such as “List Your Fears of How We Might Treat You.” Viewers are encouraged to record their responses, although the speaking subject of these headings is never clearly identified as belonging to either the people in the photographs, or to those who enter the “polling” booth. In recognition of this ambiguity, the viewer potentially occupies both subject positions; yet, whatever compassion the fiction of knowing what it feels like on the “other” side might generate, the exhibition’s visitor profile posited by this piece is deeply ingrained with racist attitudes. Walking out of Piper’s installation, once again within firing range of Kruger’s indictment, “WHO do you think you are?” takes on new meaning: on the one hand, humiliating us for presuming identity in the first place; on the other, suggesting that who we identify with has everything to do with “who” we think we are.

In other sites within the exhibition, voices discuss aspects of masculinity as an oppressive cultural formation. Mary Kelly’s texts (graphite rubbings from engraved heraldic shields in the “Gloria Patri” series, 1993) are narrative fragments in which the neuroses of male characters center on their inability to conform to stereotypes of masculinity. Lyle Ashton Harris’ video installation, Face, 1993, pictures the artist in and out of drag, while the voice-track is filled with the banter of a self in conflict. Nearby, Deborah Kass’ Double Double Yentl, 1992, reverses the gender warp with Warhol-style images of Barbra Streisand, in character as Yentl, a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to attain otherwise inaccessible privileges—an operation that pertains, as well, to the decision by a female artist to emulate the work of a well-known male artist.

Berger’s catalogue essay is eloquent in its defense of an art dedicated to expressions of the self, and the ability of that art not only to have an impact, but to make a difference in a culture overburdened with indifference and discrimination, and armed with defenses to absolve itself of any complicity in the politics of exclusion. And yet, the concerns made manifest under the umbrella of multiculturalism, no matter how sincere or moving, have no more power than that accorded symbolic representation. In the final analysis, the exhibition does not dispel the specter that truth value in art functions merely as a pawn in the hands of the institution.

Jan Avgikos