CHICAGO — All over the United States, groups of people (usually men) get together a few times a year or more to reenact great battles from history. The US Civil War is popular, of course, but according to Charlie Schroeder’s memoir Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Re-Enactment, there is a full-scale Roman fort in Arkansas, complete with replicas of Roman catapults for launching assaults on the ramparts. And out west in Colorado, a group of men like to wear Nazi uniforms and play at being in the Battle of Stalingrad.
The real hardcore cases go so far in their search for authenticity that they spend weeks sleeping in the frosty night air, eating only the food that was available in their chosen era, wearing replicas of the itchy woolen garments, and of course learning how to dismantle, clean, and reassemble nineteenth century muskets, and so on. This world of reenactors has its own vocabulary, and perhaps the worst insult you can hurl at someone is to call them a “farb,” which is a contraction of “far be it from reality”.
So that’s a long preamble to a show at the Chicago Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery called Embracing the FARB: Modes of Reenactment. The poster for the show leads you to think that you’re going to see work derived directly from the world of historical reenactors, but in fact what you get is work by artists who play around with ideas about representing historical events and what it means to think about what we’re looking at as “authentic.” Frankly, this is becoming a well-worn path in recent contemporary art, but for the most part the artists present some surprising and satisfying variations on this theme.
Jefferson Pinder’s “Escape Artist” is a video of the artist (who is African American) being wrapped in a straitjacket, climbing a ladder to attach himself to a rope thrown over the lower branch of a tree, and then struggling to escape from his restraints while he spins in the air. It brings you up short, like a hard slap in the face, when you discover that Pinder performs this ritual at the historical site of lynchings. The combination of reenacting a grotesque murder with a staple trick of escapologist Harry Houdini creates a spellbinding, sickening, and ultimately moving spectacle.
Kirsten Leenaars’s video piece and Steve Nyktas’s photographs are the weakest part of the exhibition, but they are more than balanced by the work of the remaining two artists in the show, both of whom deal in an accidentally timely way with natural disasters. Heather Mekkelson’s “Rikuzentakata” is a wall of textiles, fabrics, toys, and other objects, derived from photos of the detritus that was washed up by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. An interesting thing happens to your idea of authenticity when you look at this large work: you know that it’s a replica, possibly an amalgam of different images and therefore not strictly speaking “accurate,” yet you are still affected by a sense of the sheer scale of the disaster.
Similarly, Lori Felker’s four-channel video piece starts out as an exact replica of the look and design of a news channel when reporting a natural disaster. It has the “breaking news” chyron, the scrolling news feed at the bottom of the screen, and a photo inset with the caption “Hurricane Preparations.” Facing the camera is the artist, addressing an invisible interviewer as if recounting her firsthand experience of a storm, an account that gradually spins out of control into a free-association description of her dreams, which the artist describes as an “interpretive performance.” At another time this might seem merely clever in a conceptual way. But after the carnage from Hurricane Sandy a few weeks ago, the piece takes on a compelling quality that speaks to the anxiety we all feel when faced with the results of natural forces that we cannot possibly control.
Embracing the FARB: Modes of Reenactment runs at Glass Curtain Gallery (1104 S. Wabash Avenue, Chicago) through February 9.