Mark Boulos, Comrade Teteng II, 2010, C-print, 26 3/8 x 39 3/8".

Mark Boulos, Comrade Teteng II, 2010, C-print, 26 3/8 x 39 3/8".

Mark Boulos

Mark Boulos, Comrade Teteng II, 2010, C-print, 26 3/8 x 39 3/8".

In his large three-channel video installation, No Permanent Address, 2010, Mark Boulos presented the rugged life and personal stories of members of the New People’s Army (NPA), a Communist guerilla movement in the Philippines designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the US. The artist spent eight weeks living among two of the group’s peripatetic squads to make the twenty-seven-minute-long video. The footage shows the company’s members trekking through dense jungle, conducting military routines, and resting on hammocks strung between trees. Short interviews with individuals shed light on their reasons for joining the NPA and the sacrifices they’ve made along the way.

One young man describes how he was forced to witness the execution of his family members by government forces. Others explain their painful decisions to leave behind their true loves and families as rooted in a desire to follow their Marxist-Leninist-Maoist convictions and join the struggle against a society founded upon economic inequality and military repression. Shot close-up with a handheld camera, these scenes stress the authenticity, spontaneity, and intimacy of the exchanges, and portray the soldiers as thoughtful, likable, and humanized individuals. They utterly contradict, in other words, the common mass-media depictions of “terrorists” that reduce them to abstract statistics, dehumanized monsters, or faceless targets. This sympathetic approach is reaffirmed in the large-scale portrait photographs shown in the adjoining gallery—including Comrade Suleiman, 2010, whose titular subject is shown sitting with his rifle beside a tree, and Comrade Bing, 2010, depicting the eponymous woman working with determined concentration on a laptop amid jungle foliage. The video ends with the group preparing to defend themselves against an imminent attack by the Philippine Army.

Red Green Blue, 2013, comprises a large reproduction of a recent message Boulos received from the Philippine Communist Party informing him that most of the soldiers featured in No Permanent Address have since been killed. The piece also includes two projections: One is a pixelated and distorted video of the soldiers, the last Boulos took, that shows them disappearing gradually into dark abstraction; the second is a single slide, projected on the wall, that depicts an uninhabited rain forest dramatically suffused with sunlight, indirectly evoking the idealization of nature that is often intertwined with NPA beliefs.

As poignant as these works are and as productive as they may be in broadening the scope of contemporary art’s relation to non-Western politics, Boulos’s sympathy for the NPA’s anticapitalist struggle and his contestation of “war on terror” stereotypes appear utterly disjunctive in this commercial-gallery context: His art’s political meaning comes up against the very economy with which the artist’s subjects are at war. Indeed, critics such as Andrea Fraser and Hito Steyerl have recently condemned the contradictions of political art situated within antithetical for-profit systems, but Boulos’s work failed to address the ramifications or even the presence of this paradox. For this reason, the triple projection of No Permanent Address seemed gratuitous, as if deployed to “artify” the otherwise straightforward documentary presentation, making radical content palatable to adventurous collectors. Because the work occluded the conflict between the politics of its subject and the site of its display, its artistic engagement appeared incomplete, lacking in self-criticality—finally an inexplicable disservice to Boulos’s subjects and the beliefs for which they died.

T. J. Demos