San Francisco

“Apocalypse Now: The Theater of War”

The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

“Apocalypse Now: The Theater of War” was an erudite and inventive, yet ultimately misguided, group exhibition. Cocurators Jens Hoffmann and artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla gathered a selection of artworks, literary works, films, documents, and other cultural materials from a deep reservoir of sources—including Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, John Heartfield, Pablo Picasso, Joseph Goebbels, Alain Resnais, Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Serra, Francisco de Goya, and Martha Rosler—in an “art attack” on war. In an exhibition designed around a series of bunkerlike structures and dimly lit passageways, the drama of warfare was simulated as mere theatrical effect within a hyperbolic, multisensory environment.

The first element that assaulted the viewer was an extract from the opening scene of Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now. (Clips from the middle and the end were shown on two other monitors positioned at appropriate points in the show—also cropping up here and there throughout the show was a sequence of textual inscriptions relating a global history of warfare from the fifteenth century to the present.) Through windowlike apertures, it was possible to voyeuristically observe slices of the show before traversing it, the most conspicuous such “preview” being of Jon Kessler’s Habeas Corpus, 2007, a figurine of a kneeling, shackled Guantánamo Bay detainee, four multiples of which were displayed in Plexiglas boxes.

A gratuitous camouflage pattern adorned the show’s interior walls, providing a setting for the likes of Rosler’s innocuous video Prototype (God Bless America), 2006, which features a trumpet-wielding toy soldier blasting out the titular song. Nearby was the rather harder to watch CNN broadcast of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, itself installed—in a moment of curatorial folly—near a video tour of Serra’s 2007 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Afghan war rugs, one featuring a depiction of the attacks on the World Trade Center, adorned the walls. At the far end of the gallery hung the perversely bellicose photograph Pino Pascali with Cannone Bella Ciao, ca. 1965, while Bruce Nauman’s Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room, 1968, accosted visitors from its own room.

Deeper into the exhibition, viewers were required to bend down to enter another bunkerlike space through an awkward half-doorway. Inside were some props from Apocalypse Now (including Kilgore’s surfboard and Stetson), a vitrine full of war toys, an audio recording of Antonin Artaud’s 1947 To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Bruce Connor’s apocalyptic Crossroads from 1976, and an array of reproductions of classic war-themed works by Leonardo, Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, Margaret Bourke White, and other historical figures, centered around a print of Picasso’s Guernica. An accompanying inscription, WAR AGAINST WAR!, invoked Ernst Friedrich, the early-twentieth-century German pacifist and antiwar activist, to whom the curators dedicated the show.

According to Hoffmann’s catalogue essay, “Apocalypse Now” was inspired partly by San Francisco’s history of antiwar protest and partly by Coppola’s film, itself symptomatic of a peculiarly American cinematic tradition of fetishizing war as spectacle while simultaneously condemning it. Did the show’s curators inadvertently reproduce the logic of war as cultural commodity by fabricating an aesthetic theater of violent spectacle? Hoffmann claims that in experiencing artistic responses to war, we will find ourselves so repulsed that our only moral choice will be to repudiate it, and, in his words, “cure it once and for all.” But it is surely dubious to imagine that art may be deployed as so definitive an instrument of moral reformation, and history testifies to the regrettable disparity between antiwar activism and the abolition of war, especially in a society paradoxically attracted to its representation.

Joshua Decter