More Real exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Truthiness, if you don’t know, is a term coined by satirical television pundit Stephen Colbert, and it refers to the ambiguous realm between fact and belief and the places that belief wins. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is using truthiness as a focal point for the exhibit MO/RE/AL: Art in the Age of Truthiness and it’s open until June 9.

The idea of art as a lie that gets to the truth is an old one. Almost all visual art, in a way, is just a representation hoping to shed light on how we interact with the world. So what is it about this “Truthiness” theme that ties this show together? I’ll admit that I’m still trying to figure that one out. The pieces here did not explore the theme in a consistent and compelling way. Some pieces were strongly tied to the fact/fiction theme in a way that illuminated the way we move through life, but others just weren’t quite right.

The most moving work tied to truthiness was the “Phantom Truck” exhibit by Inigo Manglano-Oralle. This piece takes up the largest room in the wing. The whole space is photo-room dark, with little more than the red exit sign illuminating anything. You stand still for fear of running into something as your eyes adjust. Out of the darkness you can make out the vague massive shape of an open top semi trailer loaded with big, boxy equipment. It’s rather menacing, and for good reason, since it is based on the chemical weapons trucks that were supposedly the United States’ reason to invade Iraq. The experience of this piece, being in a dark room and slowly seeing the trailer loom over you, is a fantastic way of recreating the blindness, unease and fear much of the country felt as Colin Powell described dangerous trucks that didn’t exist.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Phantom Truck

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Phantom Truck, 2007. Installation View Documenta 12. Photo courtesy Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images

Politics is an especially potent touch point with the truthiness idea as an exhibit focus. I found that the pieces that had political elements were particularly effective in capturing the uncertainty and real-world consequences involved when you throw your heart into the belief that something is true.

On the other hand, some non-political pieces could also illuminate the limitations of truthiness as a theme. For a piece called “No Fun” Eva and Franco Mattes use Chatroulette and broadcast an entirely realistic scene of someone who has committed suicide by hanging. Over the course of the video, we see people laugh about it and scream with joy, one doesn’t even slow down his self-pleasuring session, despite the fact that nothing about the scene looks fake. Out of the many people who saw the scene, one called the cops.

I think their reaction is a good key into what isn’t quite workable about truthiness as a theme. We’re in an era where people can look at an entirely realistic suicide and laugh. They don’t believe as a default. So creating an exhibit with works that are meant to question our understanding of what’s true is already fighting uphill. We’ve been living in that space for years. Stephen Colbert maintains his façade to a fault, but we all know it’s a character often saying the opposite of what he means. Many pieces in More Real seem to be wanting to mislead the audience, which isn’t “truthiness.” It’s just a lie, and often a bad one at that.

This theme becomes particularly problematic when the pieces don’t have such real-life stakes. Consider Vik Muniz’ “Verso” pieces. A Rembrandt hangs on the wall, but around the room are other paintings, leaning up against the wall so you can only see the backs. On the backs, there are mailing labels to say what they are “Starry Night” or “American Gothic” and where they have been. The idea here is said to give the museum goer a look at the story of the life of the painting. We learn where it has been by seeing a side of the art typically only seen by the museum staff.

Vik Muniz. Verso (Starry Night)

Vik Muniz. Verso (Starry Night), 2008; mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. © Vik Muniz, licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The act of recreation here is impressive. Obsession like that usually is. However, pointing out to me that great works go to different museums is about the least insightful thing you could say about artwork. It’s the intellectual equivalent of telling me that the book I’m reading was shipped to a Barnes and Noble once.

Much more interesting, and in the same meta-fictional realm of the backward paintings, was the nearby room showing a short film by Eve Sussman called “89 Seconds at Alcazar.” The film is a recreation and behind the scenes look at the minutes before and after the scene depicted in “Las Meninas” by Diego Velazquez.

Dog Rolls by Eve Sussman

Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation. Dog Rolls, 2004; video still from 89 Seconds at Alcázar

What’s so interesting in this scene is the constant fluid motion of the camera and people involved, the intricate costumes recreated from the painting and the way everyone eventually lines up for the briefest of moments that the artist will capture for posterity. And it’s way more interesting and says more about the piece it’s commenting upon then the back of a painting. It reminds us that revered works like “Las Meninas” are only a small moment of a longer story, and our guts have to tell us what to believe — whether or not that story or the depiction of it is actually true.

There’s also a dog. It’s hard to go wrong with a dog.

Seung Woo Back  RW001-001

Seung Woo Back RW001-001, 2004; from Real World I series digital print. Courtesy of the artist and Gana Art Gallery, Seoul

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by Joel Hagen
in Focus on the American West

Wed Development by Digital Art Factory