CHICAGO — There are some situations in life where bigger really is better (readers can fill in the blank on their own), but art isn’t necessarily one of them. Much as I love German uber-expressionist Anselm Kiefer’s “Nigredo,” or the playful idiocy of Jeff Koons’ giant puppy, I wonder whether the effect in either case would be the same if the pieces were twelve by twelve inches rather than fifteen or twenty feet long or high. Particularly in the context of the modern industrial-gallery-museum complex, ”going big” often seems a response to having all those white walls to fill and auction prices to keep up, rather than having something to say on a large scale.
Goshka Macuga, a Polish-born artist who lives in London, doesn’t always work big, but a show of her work from the last ten years at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago focuses on XXL material. Her work deals with ideas, images, and objects gleaned from ideology, politics, and what curators call “institutional histories.” In practical terms, if you attend an exhibition by Macuga you might see a collection of books and pamphlets, or a series of etched mirrors, or a set of collages. At the MCA, one gallery is filled to bursting with a giant plaster sculpture of a crudely-constructed family, their featureless heads pushing against the ceiling, the plinth so large that it leaves just a narrow corridor to walk around. Obscure in its intention, you’re left with not much more than an awareness of its size — again, leading to irreverent thoughts about the point of it all. But the centerpiece of the show is an enormous tapestry that impresses you by more than just its overwhelming scale.
Clocking in at fifteen feet by fifty-one feet, it’s called “Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not.” It’s one of two large tapestries that were part of last year’s Documenta 13, one exhibited in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the other exhibited in Kassel, Germany (the home of Documenta). In the background is a ruined palace, that turns out to be the Darul Aman palace outside Kabal, which was destroyed during the Soviet-mujahideen conflicts of the late 1970s to early 1980s. Macuga chose to photograph it because it resembles a building in Kassel. This conflation of East and West continues in the foreground of the design, where a line of people in Western clothing (actually the Documenta curators) appears to be watching groups of Afghan people who are sitting on the ground, huddling against the cold, sleeping (or dying), and looking pensively at a snake that rears up in the center.
The questions of the West’s relation to Islam, of Western armies’ relation to the cultures that it has invaded, of cultural imperialism, all come into sharper focus in this piece. This time, its size and the fact that it is a tapestry are part of its effect. Macuga probably uses tapestry because of its traditional association with commemoration of sacred texts, or great events in history (for example, the Bayeux Tapestry). But the incredible photographic clarity she and her weavers achieve with something that is obviously a Photoshopped collage has to be seen up close, where the eye truly registers the textures of the finely-woven threads, and the beautiful range of monochromatic tones. (For a detailed description of how Macuga achieves this, see this blog post by the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis.)
Goshka Macuga’s Exhibit, A continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago) through April 7.