Memory is a fragile thing. When handled by those seeking the political expedience, it fractures and can be scavenged for the most convenient shards. The nature of memory becomes more apparent as the Republican candidates fight for the presidential nomination. They invoke the spirit of the Reagan ‘80s. The candidates conjure a moral Reagan of orange juice and homophobic beauty queens while trying to exorcise the Reagan of Blueberry Jelly Belly beans and impolitic threats of nuclear first strikes. Those who lionize the Reagan and Bush years of the 1980s would feel ill at ease the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago’s retrospective, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s.
The exhibition begins with Hans Haacke’s installation Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers (1982). The installation consists of an oil painting depicting a pursed lip and piqued Ronald Reagan facing a large photographic reproduction of an anti-nuclear proliferation protest. A red carpet connects these two images. This work casts doubts on the memory of the Cold Warrior’s actual political prowess. It reminds the viewer that this bastion of conservatism was also a callous and cynical political creature. He was a politician who waited for the mortality rate of AIDS to exceed that of the Vietnam War before he even addressed the health crisis. For many, the refusal to say this word represented the overall destructive influence Reagan
The protests over nuclear proliferation and the HIV/AIDS crisis flank the period from which guest curator Helen Molesworth (Chief Curator of the institute of Contemporary Art, Boston) draws the work. Her aesthetic nostalgia revolves around issues of identity and power. The two protest movements were examples of the identity movements of the ’60s and ‘70s that were in the process of exhausting themselves in the ‘80s.
In this vein, David Hammons tackled the racial divide in his installation How Ya Like Me Now? The lingering conflicts of race are re-fought in this work. Hammon imagines Jesse Jackson as a Caucasian with blond hair and blue eyes. His eyes match the color of a suit. The unnatural visage of the politician is distressing, so much so that workers attacked this piece of street work when it was placed in public. The workers justified their actions by declaring the piece racist. However, Hammons embraced this public intervention by including the tools of the attack (sledgehammers) in the institutional presentation.
The black hooded man in tight black jeans and high top Nikes and his large dog with spiked collar depicted in John Ahearn’s Raymond and Toby also provoked a strong reaction from the members of the community it was placed in with similar accusations of racism hurled at it. Ultimately, the initial disparagement from the communities has been exorcised through the institutionalization of both Hammon and Ahearn’s works. The MCA sanitizes any visceral potential with a grand gesture of art historical importance thus refining the memory of these things for its own purposes.
Throughout the exhibition, questions of racial and gendered embodiment of power remain a principal concern. Rejecting a simple capitulation to a figurative presentation of the body, some artists like Jimmy De Sana and Tony Cragg find a new dialogue in figuring the body as a mutant, engrained in wide power dynamics. In De Sana’s Marker Cones, the body is placed in a simulated natural setting; the plains of Astroturf flow from a sculpted Astroturf hill. However, the corner of the room underscores the artificiality of the place. The figure has been made acephalic. The bare shoulders echo the naked ass. Four orange marker cones cap the extremities. The artificiality of the space and the contortions of the body have rendered each part the equivalent to the others.
Similarly, Cragg’s sculpture “St. George and the Dragon” also suggests a re-imagining of the body. The bowel-like sculpture winds its way through a chest, scaffolding and milk jug. The human artifacts are no match for the debased organ. This realignment of the body away from the intellectual seat (the head) has profound implications for the memory of the ‘80s. The work captures the fear of HIV/AIDS in which the body betrays itself since the lesser functions were not subject to the intervention of scientific thought and medicine.
Molesworth’s project of illuminating the 1980s as the exhaustion of the energy from the 1960s is not a condemnation of this era. Her curatorial vision indicates that this era was the last valiant relevancy of the bare mechanisms of simple identity. Her endeavor ends with a radically playful riff on Robert Indiana’s rendering of the word LOVE. Bright and cheerful graphic wallpaper that spells out the word AIDS (the word that Reagan was loathe to say.) Unfortunately, the poignant graphic deteriorates into meaninglessness through repetition. The drive to engage and destroy the strategies of the past is underscored by the inclusion of Candy Jernigan’s Ten Kinds of Beans on this wall. This riff on Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans depicts various types of Goya bean cans. Each container defies unity—some cans are open or twisted, some cans have been turned or knocked over. The comfort of the broad categories has been upset. As we are forced to remember the 1980s, we seek inspiration from this era on how to find strategies to overcome the legacy of memory.
This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics In The 1980s
February 11 – June 3, 2012
The Museum of Contemporary Art
Artists include: Judith Barry, Ashley Bickerton, Deborah Bright, Sophie Calle, Marlene Dumas, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Peter Hujar, G. B. Jones, Isaac Julian, Rotimi Fani Kayode, Mary Kelly, Silvia Kolbowski, Jeff Koons, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Jac Leirner, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Prince, Marlon Riggs, David Robbins, Laurie Simmons, Haim Steinbach, and David Wojnarowicz.