Nevan Lahart and Terry Blake’s show A Title in a Haystack is a meditation on and around two photographs, one of which was widely circulated in the media and the other which can only be imagined. The first shows President Obama, Hillary Clinton and their retinue all looking in one direction towards something outside the frame of the image. It was reported that a TV screen, which played the live feed shot from a camera positioned on the helmet of a Navy SEAL involved in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May, was holding their attention. The other photograph is the one that never was released, the one of bin Laden’s corpse. Barack Obama, when interviewed on CBS, said that the decision to withhold this image was made because ‘That’s not who we are. You know we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.’ We can infer from this statement that the Situation Room photograph is ‘who we are.’
The centrepiece of Lahart and Blake’s exhibition is a large painting on cardboard. Some of the cardboard is unpainted and reveals that before being co-opted as art, it had formed boxes which contained ‘Pommes Frites’. The painting is based on the Situation Room photograph. The most arresting point in the painting, as in the original photograph, is Hillary Clinton’s face. Her hand covers her mouth as she displays what seems to be an appropriate reaction to watching what is essentially a live snuff movie. Clinton felt it necessary to later say that she was stifling a cough as she was suffering from hay fever and had no idea what she was watching.
The painting spills from the wall down to the floor, which is strewn with postcards, take away coffee cups, a tin of paint with brushes and various paint containers. The laptops depicted in the painting have morphed into paint daubed Goodfella’s pizza boxes. Physical objects and the representation of these objects have become flattened out. Everything becomes both a sign of itself and of something else: ‘Pommes Frites’ alludes to ‘Freedom Fries’, the pizza boxes are laptop substitutes, the laptops signal the now, the new, and the wired; coffee cups say work and deadlines and working past deadlines and working to deadlines. And it’s all too much, just a film set really: the anesthetisation of politics has been televised and re-run and is old news.
The postcards again represent the Situation Room photograph, this time the faces of the political players have been replaced by the Photoshopped faces of actors: Will Smith plays the Commander-in-Chief, Glenn Close the Secretary of State and somehow Monica Lewinski has snuck in, a reminder of other events in White House rooms. The back of the postcards contain a list of titles of future features including America’s Quiet Professionals, WW3D, and I Know What You Did for the Last Ten Years.
Among the leftovers stands a DVD player, a projector and speakers. On the opposite wall a looped clip of ‘Live CNN from Saudi Arabia’ plays: two talking heads shoot the breeze spouting banal sound bites. Sirens wail. If the eyes of the actors in the painting of the Situation Room were all looking a little to the left they would be watching the CNN footage and it would close the loop, but instead they just stare at the gallery wall a little off to the right.
In a corner of the gallery a space roughly the dimensions of the Situation Room painting has been painted blue. The paint strokes are very visible, immediately signalling the artist at work but also recalling the smeared dirty protests of hunger strikers. The expanse of blue might suggest the beyond to which the body of bin Laden has been dispatched: the deep blue sea, down where no one will be able to visit the grave of the great martyr; or perhaps it is the beyond of the heaven where bin Laden will frolic; or perhaps most of all it will constitute the blue screen upon which collective fantasies can be projected.
A TV monitor facing this wall plays a loop of what appears to be a CNN out-take involving one of the presenters from the other video. His dialogue is a parody of a particular idea of America. ‘I’m going to get my hamburger and coffee,’ he quacks like a duck and holds what looks like papier-mâché replica of a Scud missile. The video reflexively acknowledges the apparatus of production, the presenter messing around, dragging the cameraman into shot. The crew become actors playing in a movie called War in the Gulf or No Problem, or Operation Enduring Pizza brought to you by YouTube.
The artists employ a kind of slapstick that oscillates between despair and fury, and describe in an accompanying statement their attempt to confront their own ‘relevance, redundancy and reluctance to shape anything of any real significance.’ The show communicates an impotent rage against the numero uno artist in the world, the all-powerful image-producing machine of the mass media. All other artists are but little fleas, trying to draw some blood from the gargantuan mega-artist. The overall affect produced by the exhibition is one of cluster phobia. As a show it holds up its hands and surrenders to the impossibility of getting to grips with this story or indeed any story in our over-stimulated image-saturated world. And gets shot through the eye.
A Title in a Haystack was on view 12 June – 30 July.