The concept of Question the Wall Itself sounds like a skit from Portlandia. “As artists, we just really think that it’s time to question the wall. Why are you there, wall? What are you saying to us? What if you…went away for a while?”
The Walker Art Center’s new exhibition, though years in the making, happens to be opening at a moment in history when patrons may have bigger, more restrictive walls to be worried about than the walls of contemporary art galleries. Make no mistake, though: Question the Wall Itself lands with a political punch.
That’s particularly clear in pieces like Walid Raad’s haunting Letters to the Reader. Though it’s not immediately apparent from the 11-panel installation, each 8×4′ segment represents a wall from an Arab art gallery that will or might be constructed in the future.
Each segment has a cutaway shadow from a picture frame. The piece questions the place of Arab art within a museum culture defined by Western norms: is the art truly visible within a conventional museum context? Is Arab art in danger of being effaced, aesthetically or even literally?
In curator Fionn Meade’s sprawling installation, Letters stands outside a booth emitting the jarring soundtrack of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore. A vertical video, it’s a distinctly unsettling take on representations of bodies in our fragmented Snapchat world. Not to put too fine a point on it, the video is flanked by Nashat’s Chômage Technique, a set of blocky black sculptures that evoke pedestals — or stereo speakers, or tombstones.
The overall effect of Question the Wall is that of art subject to vibration: pictures shaken out of context, frames bent into new shapes, objects assembled into new arrays. Mirrors are commonly encountered, turning viewers’ gazes back upon themselves. When you look, what do you see?
At a media preview, Meade and co-curator Jordan Carter pointed to Marcel Broodthaers’s Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say Everywhere I Said So) as a touchstone of the show. A drawing of a parrot from a field guide hangs alongside a taxidermied parrot under a bell jar, raising questions of representation and mimesis. In the land of the uncanny, may the best parrot win.
Nearby, Rosemarie Trockel’s As far as possible suggests what David Bowman might have encountered if he opened the bathroom door in his surreal hotel room at the end of 2001. In a white-tiled room, a palm tree hangs upside down and stuffed birds move mechanically, to the prerecorded sound of their own tweeting. There’s a bell, but it’s under…a bell jar. Waka waka.
The exhibit suggests that an art museum functions like a sort of camera: by selecting facets of reality and presenting their replicas in an artificial context, artists (and curators) open new avenues for interpretation. That’s made crystal-clear in Theaster Gates’s A Maimed King, which positions an office chair facing a mangled MLK portrait taken from a condemned school in Chicago.
To return to the question of the exhibit’s political relevance, consider A Maimed King in light of the flood of images that now cycle their way through our social-media timelines daily. Most people who encounter A Maimed King won’t know the backstory of the portrait; their thoughts will wander according to paths already burned in their brains. Artworks, by their very nature, play on that ambiguity — but intentionally or not, so do images (and text) in other contexts.
Consider the image of the wounded Syrian boy that, for many, opened a window into that deadly conflict — then also consider the image of the massive Cubs victory rally that was circulated under the false claim that it was a Trump rally.
By putting an image in a new context — whether the context of a museum wall or a Twitter feed — you’re loosening the bind between signifier and signified. Do that often enough, in rapid enough succession, and viewers might start to wonder whether meaning still exists at all. She calls him a liar, he calls her a liar, here’s an image, there’s a soundbite. The substance is still there, but after a while, all we see are its shadows.
Photo: Rosemarie Trockel, As far as possible, 2012 (Courtesy the artist and Sprueth Magers. Photo: ©2016 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Courtesy Sprueth Magers)