Witness to the Persecution

Violence and hatred spark beauty in MOCA's new show.

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Material Witness Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Avenue Through April 25, 216-421-8671
Douglas Gordon's "Croque Mort" makes foot fetishes - look downright appealing. - Courtesy of Lisson Gallery, London
Courtesy of Lisson Gallery, London
Douglas Gordon's "Croque Mort" makes foot fetishes look downright appealing.
The artists of Material Witness certainly have issues. From racism to politically motivated violence, from self-awareness to mortality, no difficult theme escapes the capable hands of the six international artists featured in the new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Color, sound, and texture are employed to ascribe meaning to life, death, and the injustices that take place in between. Sometimes cryptic but mostly successful, the widely varied, uniformly enticing works evoke deep thoughts about the human experience.

MOCA's central gallery room is home to one of the exhibit's two films, Spanish artist Santiago Sierra's "Hiring and Arrangement of 30 Workers in Relation to Their Skin Color." The projected images depict exactly that: a group of twentysomething guys stripped down to their skivvies and lined up against a wall in order of graduating pigmentation. It looks like an audition for a Calvin Klein ad, but it's actually a silent, performance-based critique of capitalism, following workers through a selection process as they fill out job applications and face discrimination based on their skin color. The narrative illustrates disparities between classes and races, as well as the exploitation of labor. It's a powerful reminder of the social injustices behind that new pair of jeans, and of racial issues in the Western world.

Hanging across the main exhibit space from Sierra's film is "Croque Mort," a series of seven large-format photographs by Scottish-born Douglas Gordon. The title refers to the French term for the medieval practice of biting toes on the battlefield to ascertain that a fallen soldier was dead. Despite its grim name, Gordon's piece couldn't be more alive: The low-hung pictures consist of close-ups of a baby sucking its toes. They are lush, almost erotic images, the rich colors of the baby's skin and lips brought forth by the bright red wall on which the photos are hung. The baby is shown becoming aware of his body -- hence, Gordon seems to say, of his mortality.

Also not to be missed is Ohio artist Johnny Coleman's "Station to Station," a large-scale, site-specific installation that's essentially a small barn. Coleman's use of historic found materials, including wood from old barns, straw, and soil, is his attempt at reshaping the past. The work speaks of history's enduring impact, addressing themes of slavery and emancipation while serving as a metaphor for political and spiritual transformation. And it smells like a barn. (Perhaps Coleman also used some objectionable "found material.") Whatever the odor, the work's effect is quite convincing: Inside, speakers emit sounds of water splashing, birds chirping, and dogs barking, which envelop the viewer's senses; one can almost imagine what it must have been like to hide in such a barn.

In contrast to the large-scale displays are the miniature gouache-on-paper paintings of American artist Laylah Ali. One of her small, untitled images initially appears to consist of a cutesy baby-blue pattern that might make great wallpaper in a baby's room. But wait . . . those aren't teddy bears! They're pieces of dismembered legs. In another, the dark-skinned figures wear white pointy hats, a clear reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Violence, conflict, and relationships between the powerful and the weak often seem to be at issue, although her intent behind the imagery is rarely clear.

Playing on a loop in an enclosed room is Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba's "Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex -- For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards," a 14-minute film shot entirely underwater. It depicts young men racing from a beautiful beach into the water on tricycle taxis, fighting to make strides under the weight of the water. A metaphor for the exodus by boat that took place in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it's also a reflection on the plight of professional cyclo drivers, a threatened community in rapidly modernizing Vietnam.

The film ends with a display of white mosquito nets billowing in the water, symbolizing the graves of those who perished during the war. In a Discovery Channel kind of way, the bubbles and coral convey a sort of tourist incentive; otherwise, the drawn-out race seems to have left some meaning behind.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso's "Cemetery -- Vertical Garden" consists of thousands of artificial white lilies protruding in patches from a 12-by-43-foot wall. It's a political statement juxtaposing life and death: The lilies, a symbol of purity, exemplify the lives of victims of violence everywhere -- especially those who fell at the hands of an oppressive military regime in Colombia, where Yale-educated Cardoso was born and raised. Though impressive in scale, the installation is bland in its execution, all white flowers on a white wall, devoid of the sensory stimulation real flowers would have evoked. Perhaps the lack of artifice is fitting; this is a stark memorial to countless lives lost.

Reflecting upon Material Witness's title and the show's many references to death, the mind boggles at all the nefarious acts that inspired the works: War crimes. Social crimes. Crimes against humanity, against ourselves. Material Witness is a poetic attempt at divining meaning and significance for those crimes -- details often overlooked in our safe little American bubble. It's also easy on the eyes and a great place to take a date. Bear witness for yourself.

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