Mississippi Bucket, 2008
for Prospect.1 New Orleans Bienial
Mississippi Bucket was inspired by my affinity to the city of New Orleans through a personal event that happened while I was reading about the 1927 storm that broke the Mississippi River levee. A few years later, in 2005, Katrina devastated New Orleans and the similarities between the two historical events became even clearer. This piece is a large-scale bucket carved in the shape of the Mississippi River made out local driftwood from the river itself. It is a metaphorical reminder that what happened in New Orleans (the levee breaking and Katrina) effected the world and relates to all of us.
In the summer of 2003 in Havana, Cuba my friend the writer and art restorer Rosa Lowinger gave me a book titled “Rising Tide” by John M. Barry. The book examines the 1927 Mississippi River flood and how it changed America and, more specifically, New Orleans which was at the epicenter of this dramatic event. While reading the book, my mother got sick and was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew difficult days were ahead and decide to be with my mother full time at the hospital. During the quiet hours, while most patients were asleep, I read Rising Tide on and off for days. The book became my shelter from the reality surrounding me. As I read of the menacing river encroaching on New Orleans and the real damage it could cause, my mother’s situation worsened. One night, June 10, 2003, the descriptive sounds provoked by the force of the water breaking the levee until it collapsed mixed with the moaning sounds of my mother. Coincidentally, this was the time that my mother died. There was a moment of silence that I will never forget. Since this experience I have always felt a strong bond to New Orleans and the idea of creating a work for the city was always in the back of my mind. The opportunity became a reality and I never felt luckier than when Dan Cameron called to invite me to participate in Prospect 1.
Mississippi Bucket is Height x 32 x 28 feet. The sculpture was made by local New Orleans carpenters with driftwood salvaged from the Mississippi River after Hurricane Katrina
-A text on Alexandre Arrechea’s ‘Garden of Mistrust’
Today most of us live and work in cultural environments where the distinction between public and private space is increasingly a matter of degrees. As we log onto new websites and catch up on blogs, go about our tasks with iPods plugged into our ears, or chatter on hands-free cell phones while driving, we may (correctly) believe that we are interconnecting with other worlds, while radically discounting the degree to which doing so entails separating ourselves from this one. Each miniscule advance in the effort to protect one’s personal privacy from incessant electronic intrusion seems to result in a semi-voluntary trade-off with Big Brother. As a result, every non-cash transaction not only signals your whereabouts, but subjects your choices to routine analysis, for the benefit of those whose business it has become to anticipate your wishes, and then provide for them.
Alexandre Arrechea’s Garden of Mistrust may be the ultimate functional metaphor for the peculiar fusion of electronic surveillance and social isolation which has become a hallmark of our troubled times. A writhing, intrusive, mock-entity, Garden of Mistrust has all the presence and aggression of a misbehaving toddler, yet its motivations are considerably less simple. On the one hand, the work enables a viewer to participate in the dissemination of one’s own image and/or activity as part of an ongoing ‘performance,’ while simultaneously witnessing the experiences of others who may not currently share your time-space coordinates, along with more who do. Ultimately, the Garden’s purpose is not to lull us into ever-deeper moral complacency, but alert us to the extent to which the image of own surveillance has been transformed into an essential currency of our daily lives.
Arrechea, one of three founding members of the Cuban collaborative artist group Los Carpinteros, devoted his creative energies from the early 1990s through 2003 toward unpacking the visual principles of architectural design and construction from the perspective of a post-revolutionary economy. In Los Carpinteros’ work, the future was consistently presented as a promise that could only be realized collaboratively, and whose subsequent flawed manifestation in real time and space invariably suggested that a failure of ideology was as much to blame as the more unavoidable scarcity of resources. This promise of a truly socialist society, dovetailing with its failure to be adequately realized, became inseparably bound up with one another, and have tended to remain so within the daily life of a great majority of Cubans. From its inception, what lent Los Carpinteros’ work such freshness was the possibility that making art communally might provide a built-in self-critical social function, while maintaining an acute sense of the ways in which globalization was transforming the relationship between center and periphery, and the position of the artist inside the new world order.
Since setting out to make art on his own, Arrechea’s focus has been as much on producing short video narratives as on the object-dervied drawings and sculptures that Los Carpinteros continue to be known for. Formally, Arrechea’s videos have a casual, relaxed feeling to them, despite their engagement of potentially unsettling topics. In Arte Publico, for instance, a fixed camera position takes in the view of Havana traffic from the dividing meridian of a main thoroughfare, with a speed limit sign occupying the middle of the frame. Although at first nothing else appears to be happening, over the course of the video’s six-minute length the posted speed limit abruptly changes several times, jumping at one point from 90 down to 30 kph, and with most intervals in between covered. Once the viewer becomes aware of these instant, unannounced shifts, it soon becomes equally apparent that the actual pace of the traffic does not change at all during the course of the video. The state sets out its (arbitrary) rules, and life goes on pretty much as it did beforehand. This sly metaphor for the contrast between ‘official’ reality and the reality of people’s behavior makes it clear that examining social conditions, even at the arm’s length implied by Arte Publico;s tongue-in-cheek satire, is still a fundamental part of Arrechea’s approach to being a contemporary artist.
The most effective of Arrechea’s short videos, Atardecer, employs a similar unwavering camera position, only here the metaphors are more geopolitically loaded. Filling the center of the frame is a single tropical palm tree, viewed from mid-trunk up, its branches silhouetted against a pea-green, end-of-day haze. Surrounding the palm is a small fleet of insect-like helicopters, hovering in place, with their attention never swerving from the tree. At intervals, the whir of the chopper blades cuts through the air as if in response to a change in wind direction, then fades once more. To the degree that Arte Publico serves as a diagnostic read of Cuba from within, Atardecer seems to be concerned with Cuba’s tightening control over its own citizens, as well as with the opportunistic forces waiting just beyond society’s threshold, ready to take possession the moment a change in the power hierarchy becomes evident. The social pact in such a situation, based as it is on leveraging mutual mistrust into some other, hopefully more positive, force, also has afar broader application, far beyond Cuba’s borders.
Arrechea brings to his art a deep fascination with symbols that reverberate on multiple levels, and Garden of Mistrust is above all else a form of socio-cultural icon for an age in which there are few if any limits on the ways that both voyeurism and narcissism can be exercised. Our culture is now a borderless nest of non-stop spying — from web-cams installed in individuals’ bedrooms, which transmit the most private acts to an audience scattered around the world, to city streets lined with hidden cameras that can record for posterity a crime unfolding in a dark alley. Whereas throughout history a daring few labored mightily in order that their achievements be noticed by others, today people’s entire lives are lived out under the assumption that many of their activities are being registered and even recorded without their being aware of it. Being watched is just another way of being noticed.
In such a culture, there is no point in drawing distinctions between the natural and the artificial, because one of the things which is most taken for granted in a high-tech society is that humans eventually identify with the latest technology to come along – provided it satisfies a previously unarticulated need. The necessity for citizens to gather together, for instance, is essential to the workings of a democracy, because without this forum our views cannot be properly exchanged. Today, however, the TV talk show has morphed into the reality show, which has mutated into shows that transform anonymous people into temporary celebrities. All of this has created a media stew of constant slippage and transgression, one which seems to lend credence to the argument that the current U.S. administration’s unauthorized spying on American citizens is nothing less than the inevitable outcome of a society that believes that no event or truth is truly meaningful until it has achieved validation by way of somebody else’s television set.
It is no accident that Arrechea has labeled his installation a garden, since its social function appears to be similar to the framing of nature as a temporary respite from the stress and pollution of an industrialized society. With this Garden of Mistrust, however, one does not flee the burdens of an all-surveillance society so much as plunge oneself into its midst, succumbing to the hypnotic reassurances of the electronic eye as a form of talisman, which in turn represents the surrender of one’s ego in the light of a larger and more pervasive truth. In that sense, Garden of Mistrust suggests that today relief comes in the form of pulling away the veil of concealment from the immense surveillance apparatus which is already in place — an unmasking of the not-so-benevolent motives that compel us to watch each other relentlessly, and to hide ourselves in the act of doing so.
Paranoia is the most universal by-product of this society, and the brilliance of Arrechea’s installation is that it enables us to treat the irrational fear of persecution as a fully justifiable feeling with strong roots in the day-to-day reality surrounding us. Since this electronic infrastructure does not show any signs of going away – on the contrary, our capacity to watch and be watched appears all but inexhaustible – the evolutionary advantage of visiting the Garden of Mistrust seems to be that it enables us to comfortably occupy both sides of the watcher/watched binary. We see ourselves being watched by others, but we can also watch those others ourselves, and they in turn may or may not be aware of our presence, or of our ability to see what they’re doing, and so on. Eventually, the position of voyeur and exhibitionist become interchangeable, and perhaps the complete embrace of this double status is the only way to completely relax in our brave new world.
Although there might be some lingering uncertainty as to how close Arrechea is interested in pushing the metaphor of the garden toward its purely organic prototype, it seems that this deployment of overabundant plant life as a motif can be read as an indicator that Cuba is still very much at the heart of his work. After all, in a country where the immense fertility of the landscape provides little leverage in the state’s ongoing struggle to feed the populace, it is equally true that citizens have been regularly called upon to spy and inform on their neighbors. Even with its famous shortage of new technology, the Cuban state has shown no lack of resourcefulness in maintaining roughly the same degree of paranoia and surveillance among its people that Arrechea’s high-tech work illustrates, and Cuba may in fact have led the world toward constructing a society in which no person, word, deed or image can circulate without at least tacit awareness on the part of the state. For better or worse, with his ingrained suspicion of utopian systems, whether voluntary or coerced, Arrechea may in fact be asking us to look long and hard at our apparent eagerness to embrace a vision of a future society in which all of us will have voluntarily and permanently conceded the right to possess any more secrets.
Dec 05 – Jan 06
I’ve got a feeling somebody’s watching me (and you)
The NSA would feel at home in SDMA’s ‘Alexandre Arrechea’ as the artist ponders surveillance, security
By Neil Kendricks
August 9, 2007
Drawing and watercolors rarely get their due in the art world. So, it comes as a pleasant surprise to see the latest addition to the San Diego Museum of Art’s annual “Contemporary Links” series leaving a section of its exhibition space empty to give some breathing room to Alexandre Arrechea’s starkly elegant works on paper.
As with previous installments of SDMA’s ongoing series, now in its fifth year, the current show, “Contemporary Links 5 – Alexandre Arrechea: Scapel and Cotton,” revolves around a working artist creating a body of work that is inspired in varying degrees by the museum’s permanent collection.
The end result is an opportunity for Arrechea to build a conceptual and aesthetic bridge between his images and art from different time periods represented in the collection. As Arrechea’s new pieces and SDMA’s select artworks from past eras overlap, the viewer is allowed to eavesdrop on a silent, extended conversation between the featured artist and other Latin American creators like Diego Rivera, among others.
Fortunately, Arrechea isn’t heavy-handed in his approach as his work rises to the challenge with subtlety and intelligence, opening up a larger discussion about the use of surveillance and security systems in arts institutions.
At first glance, one might not think about this timely theme gazing at Leopoldo Mendez’s 1930 work “The Graineries” mounted on a wall across from Arrechea’s recent piece, “Side A – Side B.” Mendez’s engraving on paper depicts a stoic worker leaning against a basket filled to the brim with ears of corn while Arrechea’s watercolor shows a pair of boxes that are almost mirror images of each other, except for subtle differences on their surfaces.
One of the recurrent motifs in Arrechea’s new pieces is a deliberate repetition of forms. For instance, his recent diptych “Plantation” shows two architectural structures stranded in a labyrinth of identical, boxlike cubicles. The claustrophobic enclosures in Arrechea’s art lends a definite Kafkaesque quality to his imagery that is not unlike a postmodern cross between Ed Ruscha’s stark paintings of isolated structures and the popular dreamscapes of M.C. Escher.
For much of the exhibition, Arrechea allows the links to remain mostly unspoken, allowing the viewer to interpret the linkages by simply taking in the work as you move through the show’s cross-section of artworks.
However, a clearer connection between Arrechea and the artworks from SDMA’s permanent collection can be gleaned from the juxtaposition of the Cuban artist’s works and two of Rivera’s oil paintings, 1939′s “Mandragora” and 1940′s “Hands of Dr. Moore.” The viewer can see Arrechea’s shared affinity for workers and class struggle that is so much a part of Rivera’s repertoire.
The surveillance motif is also more sufficiently articulated in Arrechea’s “Cornfield,” depicting an enlarged view of a cornlike object honeycombed with peepholes. The artist renders the object stretching upward like a miniature Tower of Babel tailor-made for a society addicted to reality TV.
The show’s most intriguing piece is Arrechea’s large-scale, mixed-media sculpture “Arena.” Rather than populate this pseudo arena with tiny figures, the artist has installed a series of video monitors, which show different views of the exhibition space as well as other areas of the museum. Here, Arrechea makes the viewer literally become a voyeur, observing other museum-goers making their way through SDMA’s galleries.
At the center of this model made primarily of painted wood and metal is a projection of a digital, stylized spiderweb that is a direct reference to the cobweb glimpsed behind the woman dressed in white lace and veils in “Mandragora.” In Arrechea’s homage, the projected web is more about being ensnared in a vaguely Orwellian system that implies that “Big Brother Is Watching.”
Of course, the larger cultural resonance evoked by the metaphor of looking and simultaneously being watched isn’t lost on anyone who has ever pondered our society’s current fixation with electronic eavesdropping in the age of terror. As an intriguing and clever concept executed with no-nonsense simplicity, “Arena” proves to be very effective in conveying Arrechea’s message that no one is above the scrutiny of omnipresent surveillance cameras watching over our anxious post-9/11 world.
Neil Kendricks is a San Diego artist and writer and the film curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Am I Hearing This Right?
The new work of Alexandre Arrechea is so timely that it is close to unbearable. The title of this exhibition asks the question that underlies so much social behavior now. Not that lying is new, nor is its institutionalization. But just as everything else in the globalized, technologized world is accelerating, the incidents in which lying is central are coming at us faster and harder. The velocity makes it almost inevitable that we let things go, too busy coping with the next atrocity. Alex does not allow us to let things go.
The artist is currently investigating three overarching themes— lying, surveillance, and secrecy. They tightly interlace. Surveillance suggests that facts are being amassed. We must intimidate you and violate your privacy in order to get the truth on tape. But then these facts are shaped, deleted if inconvenient, contextualized to mean their diametric opposite. They are classified, to be converted into secrets that can justify lies. It is all so tidy.
The stadium works are the boldest statements, wonderful and terrible. These pieces draw together historic precedent— Rome and the Coliseum, the place in which animals and gladiators fought to the death, bloodshed to amuse the populace and distract the people from misrule. The stadium at Nuremberg typifies the fascist display of superiority demonstrated by physical prowess. It evokes the stadiums used to corral victims of repression during various guerras sucias. We see stadiums now and think not of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron but of Barry Bonds, our baseball anti-hero. Doping scandals are now so common that the winner of the Tour de France in 2006, disqualified for doping, is still fighting to keep his yellow jersey at the same time that the leaders of this year’s race are being eliminated for committing the same crime. But the illicit side of professional sports has so many manifestations, from referees that call plays to fix the point spread to players that intentionally play poorly as they bet against their own team.
Arrechea presents the essence of conflict in White Corner (2006). Pared down to two adversaries, both played by the artist himself, one holds a machete, reflecting Alex’s own history, with ancestors who fought in the Cuban War of Independence, and the other a baseball bat. They approach the edge of the corner, each waiting for the other to cast the first blow. As he says, the opponents are more like one another than different. They are motivated and paralyzed by pure fear.
Perpetual Free Entrance(2007) shows the stands, the entrances animated— and blocked— by plasma screens. The piece is made with a precision that conveys a sense of rigid control, its cold sleekness contrived to intimidate. The spectacle in the stadium is a pretext for surveillance. In Study for Arena I (2006) the arena field is a convex basket ball marked out in red and blue. The more than half the seating faces inward, toward the field; the remainder faces away from the center. You only get to watch if you are a winner. The seating bespeaks manipulation, part politics in which the minority is alienated. And alienation and loneliness are explicitly addressed in Journey into Loneliness (2007), another stadium in which there are no spectators unless there are unseen watchers. The stairs ascend to the seat of a colossal domestic chair.
Scalpel and Cotton (2007) goes one step further. If you look at it from a short distance, it suggests a sleek version of a bathtub with feet. Briefly, and obliquely, the image arouses nostalgia and the intimacy of the bath. But as you come close and look into it, it is another stadium, one which has no entrances from the exterior. Rather it is a self-contained system.
Surveillance cameras are pointed to the entrances and rooms of the museum. The collected images are then projected onto the 14 LCD screens that occupy the opening of the entrances in the stadium. The spectators in the museum are incorporated into the piece, both watchers and watched.
It is a prison of sorts, like the circular stereopticon Modelo Prison in Isla de Juventud, Cuba, in which surveillance is from the central core and none of the inmates can see one another. I associate the work with operating theaters; but operating theaters in which I imagine pseudo-science being practiced rather than the Hippocratic Oath.
The institutionalization of lying is expressed succinctly in Juventud Rebelde (2006). The image is an improvised ball made of newspaper and tape. The title of the work is the title of one of the state-controlled newspapers in Cuba, a publication that one simply assumes tells the truth as it suits the state, a condition no longer exclusive to places in which there is no freedom of the press. In what we used to hear referred to as the Free World, the media as we now call it is controlled by censorship in the name of security and to avoid offending commercial interests— advertisers, investors, owners. Here newspaper is recycled or repurposed as a ball, the message of no value. The energies of Revolutionary youth are now safely channeled into sports.
Lies. Lies lies lies lies lies. Lying is now a spectacle in itself. Current news features Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez denying that he remembers anything that would inconveniently reveal his involvement in wrongdoing. The President evokes executive privilege to prevent those who might remember what Gonzalez forgets to show up at the hearings. We expect the lying. It is bad reality television. It is so much part of the contemporary ethos that it is difficult to be outraged day after day.
In Secret Meeting (2006), Arrechea explores the new condition in which secrecy is transformed into spectacle. Who said what to whom becomes the focus of a kind of curiosity that titillates. In this work, a gorgeous swooping modernist chaise longue holds center stage. It bespeaks luxury and power. It is made of several layers of Plexiglas, so it is transparent— unlike the content of the meeting. The chair is placed against a backdrop that resembles a skyline with surveillance towers, until you see that it is in fact a battleship. It is cruising stealthily into port to do some global mischief or may, in fact, be the target.
Another drawing titled Secret Meeting (2006) looks up at a balcony and closed doors. The speech balloons that leak out through the doors are blank. We know they are talking, but do not know the content. The blank balloons offer us the opportunity to project our own imaginings.
Secret (2006) is a watercolor that shows a simple game: balls, each with a letter of the word SECRET must be fit into the right depressions in the game board. The gamesmanship of politics and diplomacy reduced to its simplest terms.
Surveillance is now so commonplace in our lives that, without thinking about it very much any more, I select shoes for travel for ease of removal at airport security. But sometimes the insertion of surveillance hits me afresh. As I drive home, listening to NPR, I wonder, am I hearing this right? Two insurance companies now offer in-car surveillance so that the misdeeds of teenage drivers can be recorded. The interviewees— representatives from each of the companies— explain in deadpan voices that the systems are motivated to educate young drivers. One company even offers the option of live-broadcast access for concerned parents. They talk about how the larger the number of teenagers in a car, the higher the likelihood of an accident. They mention that this would also deter drug use, sex while driving, other safety hazards. It all sounds so reasonable. Is this a violation of privacy, the public radio interviewer asks ingenuously. Nooooo. Like so many other explanations of surveillance inserted into the public space and our private our lives, the justifications are right out of the box: safety; a trade-off; economic advantage of not allowing the unqualified to drive/breed/ vote; the righteous majority must be protected from the few who are lawless; and, my favorite, less freedom will, in the end, make us all happier.
None of these explanations are in the least surprising to Alex Arrechea, who has made work about control, secrecy, surveillance for quite some time. And like the justifications, his work cloaks the devices in the sleekest of manifestations. The Garden of Mistrust (2003-05) is one of these elegant works. A white metal tree form blossoms with surveillance cameras. They have the animate characteristics that robots often do, parodies at once of both vegetal and animal forms. The cameras collect images that go onto the internet. All this watching, for what? The intelligence is dissipated into a maelstrom of images.
I recall the Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico. On a huge field, enormous satellite dishes gaze into the atmosphere. They are waiting for to record some minute event in space. These seem quaint, like wall flowers at a dance. Arrechea’s Garden of Mistrust shares some of the anticipation of the VLR, both wishing something interesting might happen.
Sometimes the presence of surveillance equipment seems like a dare, an opportunity to act out. In the Palestinian film Rana’s Wedding (Hany Abu-Assad, 2002), Rana and Khalid, two Palestinians who want to marry, are repeatedly thwarted by bureaucracy, roadblocks, and Israeli soldiers who stop them with machine guns. In front of a surveillance camera on the street, Khalid dances and mimes for the camera, as far as he can go in defiance of the occupiers without being killed.
Toying with the mechanisms of repression seems to be the content underlying the title work of the exhibition. If fate is a foregone conclusion over which we have no control, is that not a form of repression? What if a palm reader lied to you about your fate? What if your palm could dissemble the truth? What would be the consequences? In this work, LEDs create different images as the patterns change. The implications are that we can become convinced that we are trapped in a fate that is simply the manipulation of the truth. We cannot fight the inevitable. But if the inevitable changes, we must find out who is controlling the pattern and seek control of it ourselves. Or pay the consequences of our ignorance, fear, or laziness.
The work seduces us into taking the present seriously. The artist seduces us with his intelligence, wit, and the beauty of the objects. He makes work that does not point a finger at anyone. It is intensely political, but it not propaganda, is political theory.
Marilyn A. Zeitlin July 2007