Faking it

Courtesy of SITE Santa Fe

Seung Woo Back’s digital print “RW01-001, 2004” from her Real World I series is a highlight of “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness” at SITE Santa Fe contemporary art space.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

When you walk into a darkened room at SITE Santa Fe’s “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” you would swear nothing is there. I thought I had wandered into an interior loading dock with no windows. Pitch black.

Then as eyes will do, they adjust to darkness and begin to make out shapes. In this case, the shape turned out to be an enormous truck. Gradually, I made out oil drums and metal canisters, huge tires and wire mesh wrapped around all the cargo.

“Phantom Truck,” by the Madrid-born, Chicago-based artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, is one scary vehicle. Parked in an outlying room of the new exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, it is barely visible. But you can walk around it, touch the wire screening and poke a finger through to the oil drums and suspicious looking canisters.

It seems the artist took Colin Powell seriously about weapons of mass destruction. When the former secretary of state addressed the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, he described secret truckloads of Iraqi weapons hidden by a nation preparing for war. The speech propelled the United States into a peremptory strike, the infamous “Shock and Awe.” The speech also ended Powell’s political career because there were no hidden weapons of mass destruction. It was all a fake.

And so is the aptly named Phantom Truck. Gigantic and menacing, it is a symbol of the Dark Ages we are living through where it is increasingly harder tell the difference between truth and fantasy.

That’s the idea behind this extraordinary exhibition. Brought into being through a partnership between SITE and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the exhibit will be in Santa Fe until the beginning of January. It will then travel and reopen in Minneapolis.

Ambitious is one way to describe a showcase of 60 works by 25 international artists who address the question: What’s real and what isn’t?

In today’s world, the lines between fact and fiction have become increasingly blurry, not only in politics, but in art, religion, commerce and communication.

Stephen Colbert’s made-up word, “truthiness,” seems to sum it up. Or so it appeared to Minneapolis curator and exhibition mastermind, Elizabeth Armstrong, director of the Center for Alternative Museum Practice. Armstrong, apparently, liked Colbert’s word-play invention because it covered all fabricated truths – whether they have any basis in fact or not.

Colbert’s satirical rant is in the exhibit. A YouTube clip runs continuously, and it is near one of the most challenging works in the show: Ai Weiwei’s “Colored Vases.” His collection of urns might or might not be ancient artifacts. Here he presents what might be Neolithic or Han Dynasty urns dipped in – oh, sacrilege – bright acrylic paint. Only a few bare spots suggest the urns might be priceless originals. As he does in all his works, the Chinese dissident is a dissembler. Is Ai Weiwei conning us or has he created an act of cultural depravity? Are the vases fake or are they real?

That question floats through the exhibition like a fresh wind. Or, depending on your point of view and what you think of conceptual art, like poison gas or bad perfume. Still, it is rare for a show to press the question of authenticity so provocatively.

To be sure, “More Real?” is disturbing, but it is also a lot of fun. The Trickster role has been a favorite for artists from cave paintings to the present. Fool the eye; fool the mind. Fake it. At SITE Santa Fe, the artist-as-trickster is in charge and running full tilt.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

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