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Sunday 09.04.05

« Young Fresh Friday | Main | I don't know what you're doing, but please don't stop. »

Zombies vs. Robots


Generally I consider most political art to be a stunted and a bit stillborn. One great artist who happened to be political was the late Leon Golub. His stuff worked because his images of brutality were never too resolved or specific and thus never seem dated. Also, I agree with Mick Jagger that Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock was the best political performance art piece…ever.

In Portland's recent First Thursday we were treated to the unveiling of Robots vs. Zombies at Couch Gallery in the Everett Station Lofts. It was amusing in a clumsy lo-fi way, and definitely a spoof on the polarized nature of American politics.

I'll assume the brainless, trudging zombies are supposed to be the Republicans and the plodding, mechanically awkward robots are the Democrats acting out some political logic algorithm that spouts out cheap words like, "humans are our friends." There is some truth in these one-dimensional stereotypes, although one could argue that they are interchangeable. Adversaries often are.

Although the costumes were too cheap and cheesy to take seriously it was a serious subject matter. A high point for me was when a zombie bashed a robot over the head with a "Robots are too heavy" sign…. Whatever happened to, "he's not heavy he's my robot!"

Still, it was only partly amusing and half formed… a diversion at best and that seems dangerous. Then again these are dangerous times for nuanced free thinkers who think both the Republicans and Democrats are pretty weak.

Don't get me wrong I think calling the Democrat robots too dogmatic and formulaic is just as valid as pointing out that Republican zombies are brainless and relentless to a fault but it didn't tell me anything I don't already know.

So will this performance art survive into the ages? Probably not. It is just a respite from the typical polemics we swim in daily.

As far as successful political art Jasper Johns' Flags definitely still work and Portland's own Damali Ayo and Bruce Conkle definitely don't shy away from issues based political art either. One should also pay attention to Seattle's bad boy Jack Daws. There is also the current Walid Raad show at Reed's Cooley Gallery.

I also found this interview with Robert Storr, which sheds a lot of light on the political art question.

There are lots of political artists at work today; including Kara Walker, Shirin Neshat and lately Richard Serra has taken to dabbling in the genre. Neshat is probably the best because she co-opts the viewer as a voyeuristic participant. Her seminal video Possessed plays that card perfectly. Tellingly it was completed in 2001… before 9/11 and it seems like we haven't grown any since that time.

Zombies vs. Robots purposefully stunted and affected juvenile approach doesn't give me a lot of faith and maybe that is simply the zeitgeist. Of course that is probably the point but the ennui it represents is another reason political art often fails. Only work committed to change has any hope of making any.

Still from Shirin Neshrat's Possessed (2001)

Posted by Jeff Jahn on September 04, 2005 at 23:22 | Comments (1)


The tricky thing about political art is that art generally isn't the best medium for expressing complicated, analytical thought. It's easy for political art to either fall into the syntax of one-liner e,ditorial cartoon or to end up trying to communicate information/thoughts that would be better expressed in an essay.

What works better, I think, is when political art expresses an emotion rather than offers analysis. Golub does this... "Guernica" also comes to mind. Emotion is powerful and can be extremely moving in a way that cold facts & figures aren't... but it's limited in that it is much better at pointing out problems rather than solutions.

Posted by: SimEnzo [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2005 11:11 AM

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