“Brave New Worlds”

The Walker Art Center’s “Brave New Worlds,” curated by Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond, features twenty-four artists from around the globe and presents artistic practice as a means of exploring place and time in a world flattened by digital technologies, spectacle, and “free trade.” Like Jorge Macchi’s Liliput, 2007, included in the show, in which national boundaries are cut apart and reconstructed into unfamiliar continents through chance correspondence, “Brave New Worlds” features artists from countries that are geographically distant from one another, but whose cultures, economies, populations, and political systems interpenetrate.

Cao Fei’s video and sculptural installation Whose Utopia, 2006–2007, melds critical clarity, documentary video footage, sculptural installation, and the transformational potential of performance. Having spent six months interviewing workers in a Chinese lightbulb factory about the paths that have led them to the assembly line and about their hopes for the future, Cao organized and recorded actions in which employees play out fantasies in the space usually devoted to mind-numbing labor—a group of young men pose as rock ’n’ rollers; a slender woman wears a flowing gown and executes an interpretive dance; a woman dressed as an angelic ballerina dances on point. Cao’s videos blend footage of the interviews with the poetic shots of these performances, and the installation in which they are screened mimics the modest dorm-like sleeping quarters of factory workers. By giving a human face to the global economy, Whose Utopia confronts viewers (who are also shoppers) with their complicity therein.

An artist born in Lebanon, Walid Raad has developed a practice that draws on memories and fears, as well as on “facts” (purported to have been gathered from newspapers and public records), which he shapes into reports or “dossiers,” which are in turn presented as records inscribed by named (though fictitious) individuals. “Untitled,” 1982–2007, features photographs of the pages of a notebook in which handwritten comments and photographs with color-coded dots communicate information about the sizes and types of bullets supposedly used to bombard civilian neighborhoods around the world. Using fiction based on real events, the project presents portraits of places that reflect both the material truths of war and the anxieties of beleaguered civilians.

Born in Romania, Mircea Cantor is one of several artists featured in “Brave New Worlds” who experienced the end of the Cold War and the birth of a new Europe from the perspective of the Eastern Bloc. Cantor’s short 16-mm film Shadow for a While, 2007, pictures the dark shadow of a flag—quintessential symbol of nationalism and patriotism—waving in the wind as it is gradually consumed by fire. A public film screening is likened here to the dissemination of ideology by institutional state apparatuses; Cantor makes both appear hopelessly antiquated. The artist’s Talking Mirror, 2007, is a modified readymade comprised of a Larry Mahan “El Patron” cowboy hat filled to the brim with black motor oil. With this simple gesture, Texas, masculinity, big money, oil, and the New Imperialism are linked. Over the course of the exhibition, a number of viewers have surreptitiously dipped into this pot of black gold, and drips from their fingers have soiled the pristine platinum tone of the felt, a happenstance that might, perhaps, be read metaphorically.

The exhibition’s catalogue is designed like a magazine and contains reports by “correspondents” from around the world (Barcelona, Bogotá, Bucharest, Oslo, Gwangju, and Santiago). A sequence of concise essays by curators, philosophers, journalists, and artists concerning politics, place, and artistic practice in the new age of empire shores up “Brave New Worlds,” and should contribute substantially to its legacy.

Patricia Briggs