Sunday, March 22, 2009

Went to see Shepard Fairey's new exhibit at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art (through August 16th, about 10 minutes' walk from the Amtrak terminal at South Station).

Fairey's all about taking and processing images --- extracting out key elements, combining them, recombining them, putting them up as graffiti. Sometimes they're social commentary, sometimes they're advertising for his own line of posters and T-shirts, and sometimes they're both, and sometimes you just can't tell.

His best known work (before that "Obama" poster) was a graffiti campaign that started out as crude stickers of Andre the Giant, and then metastasized --- sprouting slogans ("Andre the Giant has a Posse"; "Obey Giant"; and finally just "Obey"), getting mixed up with other stuff (one wall has Andre's facial features plunked on top of everything from a Warhol-esque portrait of Marilyn Monroe to that once-iconic Che Guevara poster), and recombined with other more overtly political stuff. A wall of posters includes one with the Giant face formed out of type, which starts by describing itself as a commercial gimmick and then gets more strident, denouncing anyone foolish enough to keep reading as an obvious dupe. On the wall to the left, a colossal mural in the form of a giant mock banknote proclaims the obvious, hidden, truth about paper money: "This ransom note is worth exactly what you are willing to give in order to get it." Also, "In lesser gods we trust". "Obedience is the most valuable currency." And always, always, "Obey".

A word about those murals: there are several in the show, meant to mock up the wall-covering street art that Fairey's splashed all over the country, most often without authorization from the building's owner or anyone else. Look closer. The pasted-up newspaper that he's painted over isn't always completely covered. Some of it's startlingly old (I spotted news stories about World War I). And a lot of it speaks one way or another to the image that's painted on top, whether it's his rifle-toting revolutionaries (sometimes with flowers in the gun barrels, sometimes not), portraits, or those whacked-out dollar bills.

The exhibit's a bit controversial in town, as is the artist. Local bigwigs have let it be known how pleased they were that some cop arrested Fairey on the way to his own show's opening, on prior, long-standing arrest warrants for defacement. (Almost certainly to embarrass the Mayor, who's having union problems for all the usual reasons, and who gave Fairey permission, for once in his life, to redecorate a wall of City Hall.) And in one of our tonier galleries the other day --- one which periodically offers etchings by Rembrandt --- I heard one of the staffers say she had trouble taking anyone seriously who engaged in so much blatant self-promotion. (My response: "And Picasso didn't?") Well, I've just tried to describe what's on the walls. If you like that sort of thing, as a great man once said, then this is the sort of thing you will like.

Also at the ICA, through October: an video exhibit. I sometimes find these hit or miss, but there were a couple of hits. One of them literally acts out an encounter of six blind men with a remarkably patient elephant.

The other hit from the video show is a half hour record of what happens when you ask representatives of several Polish groups (right-wing students, left-wing students, church-going old ladies...) to paint up murals, and then have them each take turns doing whatever they like to their own mural, or anyone else's. It starts out gently enough: one of the student groups opens the doors to the church. But it fairly quickly gets nasty (with the left-wing students chopping up the right-wing group's emblem, and chucking it into a circle labeled "dustbin of history") and ends with clothes getting defaced and things set on fire. Any resemblance to recent events on Livejournal is strictly coincidental.

While I'm reviewing things, a capsule book review: The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling.

A brief excerpt:

He pulled the belt from his uniform. Then, without another word, he began to beat her with his belt: not angrily, but rhythmically and thoroughly.

Having been beaten by lovers before, Sonja knew how to react. With a howl of dismay, she fell to the earth, hugging his ankles and begging forgiveness in a gabble of sobs and shrieks.

When she clutched at his knees, his balance was poor, so he couldn't use the belt effectively. He stopped his attempts to beat her. She continued to shriek, beg and grovel. This was the core of the performance.

It was never about how hard men beat you, or how many strokes, or what they hit you with. It was always about their need to break your will and impose their own.

As to the dramatis personae in this scene: One is "Red Sonja" Mihajlovic, a war hero, organizer of dramatic, city-scale rescue projects, and one of the seven cloned sisters that are, collectively, the title characters. The other is an unkempt, uneducated 19-year-old desert tribesman, perhaps best described as an angry lump of meat, who Sonja has chosen to marry for reasons that were never explained to this reader's full satisfaction.

I am unable to determine which gender was insulted worse by this passage. If you think you know, please feel free to make your case in the comments.