NEW YORK — In a widely noted gesture of sympathy just after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the leading French newspaper Le Monde ran a front page headline declaring “We Are All Americans.” That extraordinary sense of solidarity rapidly vanished, and in recent months Franco-American relations have headed into their worst downturn in decades over divergent views on Iraq.
Now that the Bush administration has endured official French condemnation at the United Nations, U.S. museum goers are being confronted with a comic Gallic cultural critique at a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The installation by French artist Gilles Barbier, standing at the exhibition’s entry, features life size representations of American comic book heroes renowned as the embodiments of invincibility and vigor. Here they are shown in a nursing home.
A feeble Catwoman reclines in front of a television broadcasting game shows, Captain America lies on a gurney attached to an IV, and an octogenarian Superman leans on a walker, feet shod in slippers and muscles drooping beneath his crimson cape. Adding to the piquancy of this wishful vision of American decline is that it actually owes its presence at the Whitney to the French government. French Cultural Services, a division of Foreign Ministry in Paris, paid for Barbier’s year-old creation to be transported to New York from Miami where it is now in a private collection.
Other works in the show, entitled “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003,” are more incendiary. Japanese artist Makoto Aida has created an image of midtown Manhattan being fire bombed by hundreds of fighter planes emblazoned with his nation’s red sun symbol. The Empire State Building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other landmark towers are engulfed in flames in Aida’s infernal tableau painted on a folding Japanese screen.
“I am not in favor of attacking America,” the 38-year-old artist states in an accompanying wall text, “but this is an image that came into my mind.” Aida completed the painted screen in 1996, five years before the airplane attack on the World Trade Center. The wall text adds he was inspired by lingering resentment about U.S. devastation of Japan in World War Two and the horrors of war in general.
“It may seem imprudent to exhibit such works,” curator Lawrence Rinder writes in the catalogue. “The point of this exhibition, however, is neither to enflame passions nor to denigrate America. On the contrary, this exhibition should prove by example the vitality of American society and culture and the unique strength that derives from an openness to difference.”
The exhibit is a timely attempt to hold up a mirror to Americans and help them see themselves as others do. Rinder got the idea in spring 2001, several months before the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, when he came across numerous foreign artworks dealing with the psychic and cultural impact of America abroad. He then traveled to some two dozen countries around the globe ferreting out more work for the show, which runs through October 12 and covers artistic creativity from 1990, when the Cold War ended and the United States found itself as the lone global superpower, to the present.
Intimations of desire for vengeance against the United States take different form in a documentary video by Norwegian artist Jannicke Laker, perhaps the strongest of numerous video pieces at the show. Laker encounters a young American tourist on a darkened Scandinavian street and lures him to her apartment, where she persuades him to strip and flex his muscles as she films the scene. “I’d never do this in Kentucky,” the farm-raised youth murmurs as he grins shyly and dances at her command. But his ostensibly seductive hostess has nothing more in mind than an on camera humiliation. No sooner has the hapless American undressed and revealed his vulnerability, does Laker order him out of her apartment. In the video’s concluding segment, he hastily gathers up his clothes and the lens-toting Laker throws his shoes out her front door, in what has the feel not just of a gendered power play but also of a symbolic act of retribution against na’ve American omnipotence.
Following the Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol for Global Warming Prevention, it’s not surprising that several works portray the United States as environmentally obtuse. This comes through vividly in a series of five large color photographs by Chinese artist Danwen Xing. These images depict mountains of electronic waste — comprising millions of discarded computers, keyboards, printers, monitors and related devices — regularly shipped from the United States and dumped in Guangdong Province, on China’s southern coast. “I hope by showing these photographs in New York, I can somehow bring the trash back to the United States, and bring home the fact of its existence to American audiences,” Xing says. In another potent series of photos, South Korean photographer Yongsuk Kang exposes the wreckage and debris left by the U.S. military on coastal territory 50 miles from Seoul that has been set aside for target practice.
But by no means are all of the 47 works from 30 countries entirely hostile responses to U.S. influence. They represent a far more nuanced and contradictory set of attitudes than anti-Americanism pure and simple. After all, a public opinion survey conducted in 44 countries late last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also brought incoherent responses. The survey found a plummeting decline in positive attitudes towards the United States among citizens not only of underdeveloped nations but also of prosperous countries which have been Washington’s traditional allies. Yet the poll also found that people around the world embrace things American and at the same time decry the influence of the United States in their lives.
Several works manifest an enduring belief in America as a font of freedom, prosperity and spontaneity. In Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s sculptural model projecting how lower Manhattan might look in the year 3021, a soaring new set of World Trade Center towers has arisen. In fact, the entire New York skyline has been transformed with an array of glittering new skyscrapers surpassing the height of any now in existence, suggesting a deep confidence in the American capacity for renewal and reinvention.
A video by Mark Lewis of Canada captures the idea of America as paradise. Filmed in a lush Malibu garden designed by landscape architect Jay Griffith, Lewis shows scantily clothed porn stars flitting through the idyllic setting, heightening a sense that in America — in Lewis’s words — “pleasure can and will erupt at any moment and with anybody.”
That American imagery insinuates itself into the imagination of the world is nothing new. Along with undisputed U.S. military power, massive commercial exports of American culture have given the United States hegemonic influence over the viewing and listening habits of young people the world over. The impact is readily discernible in the works on view at the Whitney. In an image painted by 28-year-old Pakistani artist Saira Wasim in the manner of a 15th century Mughal miniature, Ronald McDonald, the Statue of Liberty and Rudolph Giuliani appear alongside sad-faced Islamic mullahs watching George W. Bush embracing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in celebration of their alliance against terrorism.