Art

Brooklyn Museum’s Activist Art Show Is a Messy Collision of Curation and Politics

Installation view of “Agitprop!” (2015) (photo by Jonathan Dorado, all photos courtesy Brooklyn Museum unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

Agitprop! ought to be an outstanding exhibition of politically engaged art. A feverish amalgam of historic and contemporary artwork, the exhibition is undermined by an ambitious but poorly executed curatorial strategy. The result is a display of fantastic and engaging work that fails to gel.

The show is comprised of five historical displays. These include “Soviet Women and Agitprop,” “Tina Modotti in Mexico,” “Women’s Suffrage in the United States,” “The Federal Theatre Project,” and the “NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Campaign.” Each section is complimented by an array of contemporary work selected by the show’s curators. The layout is designed to emphasize the continuing influence of these historic campaigns and movements on contemporary artistic practice. In theory, this is a sound and compelling approach to a thematic exhibition.

Installation view of “Failure is Impossible” (1913–20), a banner designed by the National Woman’s Party, US (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

However, the show’s curators have taken this approach one step further. They have envisioned Agitprop! as a continually evolving exhibition by inviting their chosen artists to nominate other participants for inclusion. The show will therefore unfold in three successive “waves,” with further works to be installed in the museum’s galleries as of February 17 and April 6. According to the show’s press release, this strategy “open[s] up the process to reflect multiple perspectives and positions.” The result is an exhibition riddled with chunks of blank wall space. Agitprop! will effectively remain incomplete until the third and final selection of work is incorporated into the show. Visitors will have to wait until April before they get the chance to see works by groups such as Pussy Riot and Visual AIDS.

The Brooklyn Museum’s approach is an attempt to relinquish some curatorial control whilst also breaking the mold of the static exhibition space. However, the setbacks of this strategy far outweigh the benefits. Why didn’t the curators simply install all of the nominated artwork from the outset? Does the museum realistically expect its patrons to make multiple visits to the show? Will each iteration (or “wave”) of Agitprop! really be that unique? The blank sections of wall could have been avoided by regularly rotating the works on display.

Posters by Dyke Action Machine (Carrie Moyer and Sue Schaffner), “Lesbian Americans: Dont Sell Out” (1998) and “Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?” (1993) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The other major issue with Agitprop! is that the connections between the historic and contemporary works aren’t always clear — an inevitable pitfall for an exhibition of such broad scope. The press release makes the case for the defense (emphasis my own):

With past and present examples installed together, links between historical and contemporary work emerge, highlighting the intergenerational strategies, ongoing development, and long-term impact of politically engaged art over the past century.

Gran Fury, “Women Donít Get AIDS, They Just Die from It” (1991), bus shelter sign, ink on acetate, 70 x 47 inches, Public Art Fund, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (click to enlarge)

The statement implies a laissez-faire attitude whereby the onus to draw connections rests almost entirely on the viewer — a demanding task for a show examining political stances and campaigns from around the world. In some instances, these connections are fairly easy to make. For example, culture jamming posters by Dyke Action Machine (a project by artist’s Carrie Moyer and Sue Schaffner) are displayed alongside a selection of women’s suffrage material. The juxtaposition is effective, since Dyke Action’s mission of spotlighting the absence of lesbians from advertisements and popular culture clearly operates along the same continuum as the fight for political enfranchisement. However, other comparisons feel almost entirely superficial. A poster by Gran Fury, “Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it” (1991) is placed opposite the display dedicated to Soviet women artists. Are we meant to conclude that the poster is indebted to the legacy of Constructivism? The same could be said for numerous other works and collages included in the show. Martha Rosler’s photomontage, “Vacation Getaway, Goodbye to All That” (1971) — in which a luxury interior is contrasted against a scene from the Vietnam War — immediately springs to mind. Aesthetically, the work has far more in common with Constructivist collage than Gran Fury’s poster.

There are a few sections in the show where the curatorial scheme works more effectively. Two photographs of Dread Scott’s performance “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide” (2014) are presented in close proximity to the exhibition’s display of anti-lynching material. The wall text states that around 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950 (others, including art historian Dora Apel, believe the figure might be closer to 5,000). Here the connection between the historic and the contemporary is far more pointed, since Scott incorporated the gestures of both the Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights’ movements in his performance.

Flag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave, New York City (1936), photograph, 13 7/16 x 10 7/16 inches, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (courtesy The Crisis Publishing Co., Inc., the publisher of the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)

The anti-lynching display includes a photograph of the NAACP’s “A Man was Lynched Yesterday” banner. The organization regularly displayed the flag outside its New York headquarters until its lease was threatened by the practice in 1938. Last year, Scott produced his own riff on the flag, adapting the text to read “A Man was Lynched By Police Yesterday.” It’s a pity that this particular piece wasn’t included in the show, since it would have explicitly connected Scott’s practice to the legacy of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Viewers would also have a better sense of Scott’s stated aim of “bringing history forward” had more of his work been incorporated into the show.

Despite some engaging juxtapositions, Agitprop!’s large scope constantly threatens to engulf the political and contextual nuances of the works on display, an issue that could have been tempered by giving greater attention to the work of fewer artists. It’s clear that a concerted effort went into making the show more dynamic. After all, the museum space, which was conceived as a receptacle for historic objects, is often thought of as anathema to living, political movements. Agitprop!’s emphasis on evolving displays, as well as its extensive programming, testifies to the level of concern that went into the exhibition’s construction. Unfortunately, the show falls short of its ambitions. With many excellent works on display, Agitprop! is well worth a visit. However, you might want to wait until after April 6.

Agitprop! continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through August 7.

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