Sunday, August 10, 2003
New York Wonder Woman has wrinkles, and Superman hunches over a walker.
The huge wax figures of the two superheros, by French artist Gilles Barbier, are part of a new show, "The American Effect: A Look at How America Is Seen by Artists Around the World." Showcasing the works of 47 artists from 47 different countries, "American Effect" is on view through Oct. 12 at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.
"The timing of 'American Effect' is very much related to a renewed urgency about this subject, with America now increasingly coming to terms with how it is perceived abroad," said Maxwell Andersen, director of the Whitney Museum.
The works, all created after 1990, were chosen for their subject matter, not their political message, said curator Lawrence Rinder.
"I did not want to confirm or contradict expectations," he said. "The way it fell together incorporated a wide range of nuanced opinions."
But to museum visitors, the message is both political and personal.
Acknowledging that art is open to interpretation, some recent visitors to the show said they were disturbed by the lack of positive representations of the United States.
"There is nothing here about all the good America does in the world," said Jeffrey Scanlan, a sculptor from San Francisco. "It is angering and educating."
The exhibition's dark views echo recent polls by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which showed a deteriorating view of the United States around the world -- especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The works span a variety of media, from paintings to political cartoons.
Barbier, whose work ranges from life-sized models of rooms occupied by Martians to hand-drawn dictionaries, created the figures of ailing comic book characters for his creation, "Nursing Home."
"The Last Road Trip," by Dutch artist Arno Coenen, is a psychedelic video presentation that dizzies viewers with its glimpses of fast food and the fast life. Coenen specializes in digital animations, often with hallucinogenic and sometimes pornographic themes.
In the work, a small television is used to screen a digital video of a trip through a suburban wasteland. The words "Kill Anybody" flash; there are images of Budweiser beer logos and a marijuana cigarette.
In one piece, artist Siemon Allen highlights every mention of his native South Africa in two different newspapers -- The Washington Post and The Washington Times -- forcing the viewers to compare and judge the different perspectives. The papers are tacked on two walls with only the relevant text exposed. Allen is known for using archived material, such as newspapers and stamps, to make political statements through his art.
The show also includes a video presentation of media coverage of the Elian Gonzalez custody battle and showdown in Miami, and a video mocking American teenagers singing and dancing while selling T-shirts in East Berlin.
Some visitors said they agreed with the various harsh portrayals of America as everything from an imperialist superpower to a drug-infested nation. Others, though, said the art simply "poked fun" at the United States and did not go far enough.
"I am very concerned about our perception around the world, and the exhibit was not as searing as I expected it to be," said New Yorker Emily Phillips.
A German tourist, Annie Karolinski, said the show failed to depict foreigners' perception that many Americans came off as self-important people.
"I expected it to be much more dramatic," she said. "It missed its mark."
The show continues to draw crowds, though.
"The attendance has been excellent," said Stephen Soba, acting director of communications for the museum.
And curator Rinder said he was pleased the exhibit avoided controversy.
"I am glad that there was little that struck people as gratuitously offensive," he said. "I was looking for art -- the political portion was secondary."