New York

“Quiet Politics”

Zwirner & Wirth

The terms quiet and politics usually have very little to do with one another, yet this group exhibition attempted to reconcile them, to demonstrate in a sense that still waters can run deep. While the show proposed that even the simplest gesture can be an act of political resistance, the works by twelve artists here were mostly either restrained or offered only loose ties to activism, with standouts by Rosemarie Trockel (one of just four women in this show, a bothersome disparity) and David Hammons. More regrettably, however, it failed to address, either directly or obliquely, the significance of this election year, and, even granting that subtlety was the very point, seemed curiously lacking in gusto for a show about political art mounted in the thick of one of the highest-stakes presidential races in American history.

Up first was a work by the young artist Michael Brown that features a large stainless-steel mirror with a spiderweb of cracks radiating from the center, as if it had been punched. Titled In the Meantime . . . II, 2007, it creates unsettling distortions of everything it faces, but the effect is more punk than political (bringing to mind the iconic artwork of the Black Flag album Damaged [1981]). Nearby was Hammons’s U.N.I.A. Flag, 1990, a representation of the United States flag in black, red, and green: colors usually associated with Africa or the Black Power movement. Both Hammons and his art have frequently been called elusive, yet here, by using symbols fraught with meaning, he offered a precise subject: American racism. But the majority of works here appeared more remote.

For example, there was Adel Abdessemed’s Cocktail, 2007, which comprises twenty-two open notebooks—each on its own music stand—showing charcoal outlines of figures hurling Molotov cocktails, or sparkling gems. Abdessemed has remarked that his work is not performative; instead he prefers to say it “acts,” and indeed the movements across these pages signify action and activism, however indirectly. Hung adjacent to this installation were three photographs from Christopher Williams’s 1989 series, “Angola to Vietnam*.” For these works Williams chose flowers indigenous to countries in which, according to a 1986 Commission on International Humanitarian Issues report, human rights violations and politically motivated disappearances have occurred. He then photographed glass models of these flowers from the Harvard University Botanical Museum collection; the results are coolly reserved.

The upstairs gallery featured a single work: I Only Wish That I Could Weep, 2001–2002, by Walid Raad’s fictitious collective, the Atlas Group. The video features frenetically paced surveillance footage purportedly shot by a government cameraman in Beirut who turned away from his assignment each night to film the sunset. Two years ago it was installed near Tacita Dean’s short film of a sunset in “Grey Flags” at Sculpture Center in New York. “Grey Flags” shares a few similarities with this exhibition—more art by men than women, most of it conceptual—but its activist sentiment and electric, anarchic undercurrent were at least intriguing. This show was meeker, with a looser theoretical underpinning that favored aesthetics and, in some cases, elegance over political meaning, at times choosing to ignore politics altogether. Ambiguity was most evident in a creepy pair of photographs by Roni Horn, Untitled no. 14, 1998/2007, which portray the turned heads of two taxidermied fowl. While the majority of the works in “Quiet Politics” are memorable on their own, their presentation in this uneven group show rendered a disservice both to their quietness and to politics at present.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler