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ICA exhibition highlights insurgent ‘80s

‘This Will Have Been’ examines politics through artistic lens

Published: Monday, February 11, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 11, 2013 03:02

What will have been? “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” is an exhibit currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. The exhibit’s duplicitous aim — to give a historical purview of the 1980’s and then to contextualize this within contemporary politics — may be ambitious, but it is made particularly salient by a couple of works.

The ‘80s were marked by an era of Reagan and Reaganomics, a time in which the value of art pieces as luxury objects grew dramatically and art and cultural institutions were drained of their finances. It was a formative decade in which lack of government response to the AIDS crisis and longstanding structural violence against people of color, women and the LGBTQ community drew the public to create a series of mass demonstrations. This exhibition, curated by Helen Molesworth, looks at this period between 1979 and 1992.

After they exit a fourth−floor elevator, visitors to the exhibit immediately confront the bizarre beauty of a neon−lit Jeff Wall photograph that recalls Edouard Manet’s eponymous “A Bar at the Folies−Bergere.” The work explores the oft−punctuated feminist concept of the gaze, using the iconography of 19th−century modernity to illuminate a particular ocular interchange that reflects power structures. It is unclear whether the man and woman in the foreground of the photograph are occupying a photography studio or some interstitial space between that studio and the viewer’s space, but the work is arresting within this ambiguity. Art history snobbery aside, photography students primed by the “rule of thirds” will happily identify Wall’s straightforward compositional strategy in this work, as well as his self−reflective attitude towards the medium.

After being sensitized to neon light, traditional art−historical references and some explanatory — albeit dry — wall plaques, viewers enter a series of rooms addressing different key components of the decade: The End is Near, Democracy, Gender Trouble and Desire and Longing.

From “The End is Near” to “Democracy,” visitors take a dramatic leap from a wall plastered with the letters “A−I−D−S” in red, blue and green to a massive black−and−white photograph of a protest against U.S. nuclear arms use. At the start of the “Democracy” section, Hans Haacke’s installation “Oil Painting: Homage to Marcel Broodthaers” diametrically opposes a humorously grandiose painting of Ronald Reagan with a photograph of 500,000 people in protest. The physical confrontation between the components of these works expresses a deeper confrontation between the political conservatism of the Reagan era and the upsurge of political activism in response. What remains unclear is how the viewer fits into the equation of political representation. Do we draw inspiration and support from the history of political activism in the U.S. — and the successes that have been achieved — or do we find ourselves wallowing in a pool of anguish and frustration, realizing that the problems of yesterday have only intensified and deepened today?

David Hammons’ piece “How Ya Like Me Now?” confronts the viewer with a blond−haired, blue−eyed Rev. Jesse Jackson who appears to be looking both at and through the viewer. His red tie, blue suit jacket and accompanying American flag embody a simplistic sense of American patriotism that is made complicated by a row of sledgehammers tactically placed in an arc in front of the work. “How Ya Like Me Now?” originally appeared on a billboard in Washington, D.C., but after local youths attacked the piece it was brought into a conventional gallery space, where Hammons incorporated the hammers.

If you have yet to visit the ICA, do so. If its strikingly angular exterior doesn’t manage to lure you in, keep in mind its locus in the crosshatch of downtown Boston and its proximity to the historic waterfront. March 3 is closing day for this exhibition, so visit while you can.

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