Sometimes it feels like today’s liberal Americans aren’t that different from 60’s hippie culture. In New York, a solidly left state, pretty much all of Brooklyn has turned into an artisanal food factory. Pot, too, remains plenty popular, and if given the choice, most Americans would still chose fucking over killing.
I’m not sure all this explains the simultaneous rise of socially and politically aware art, but there are more than enough parallels and departure points to make the history relevant. Certainly, hippy culture crossed my mind more than once while viewing “More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing since the 1990s”, an exhibition curated by Claire Schneider for The Ackland Museum of Art in North Carolina last April. The exhibition pairs love and politics, and after years of watching the country wage war on itself and others, I’ve come to wish more generosity from that generation would be taken on today.
You have to be careful for what you wish for, though. Drawing from the sixties has its own set of problems—I’m not great fan of dippy love—and while art makers often veer away from that, they sometimes use a formulaic approach as they do so.
All this is to say that, as a survey of love, “More Love” is a little more even-handed in its approach than I would like it to be, because I don’t value all kinds of love equally. Walk in the door, and a segment of Julianne Swartz’s piece Affirmation (2006-2013), in which women, men and children alike say “I love you”, creates a virtual shower of empty affection. It’s too much. One gallery in, Yoko Ono has invited people via wall text to demonstrate their love by hugging each for the camera. They do this in exchange for a glass prism made by the artist and the results are then hung on the wall.
I’m not convinced gestures like that have any effect on the participants or the viewers, and that lines up pretty neatly with what I don’t like about a certain tenant of hippieness: social utopianism that places so much faith in the power of demonstrative love that the emotion can seem common and dismissible.
That said, I ended up appreciating the more politically-targeted gestures for its alignment with my own politics. I suspect a lot of that had to do with the show’s theme of love and politics, a pairing we learned in the 60’s was not only incredibly powerful, but well-needed.
This extends not just to protest movements but to larger social issues. For example, Luis Camnitzer’s people sized prints “Last Words” compiles the last words of prisoners on death row down to only the sentiments about love, to surprising results. Despite expressing similar sentiments, the sentences never blurred together the way I thought they would. “Tell Mom I love her. I love you all. Tell my mother I love her and to continue without me. Goodbye to my family; I love all of you,” reads one block of text. Every once in awhile a mention of heaven or “the other side” crops up, but as an abstract concept it’s less powerful than love. After all, this is a group of people the State has deemed psychopathic and therefore fit for death, but their final words, almost unilaterally demonstrate compassion for others.
Similarly politically driven, an entire room is filled with the documentation of a 2001-2003 project in which American artist Emily Jacir asked displaced Palestinians what she could do for them in Palestine. She then used her American passport fulfill the request. On the whole, the asks feel less personal than they should—a result of both transcribing the request into a standard font and using an entirely illustrative approach to the documentation. (A request to “drink the water in my parent’s village” is captured with an iphone shot of the water in hand.)
Still, the group effectively illuminate the absurdity of the Palestinian experience, so some allowance for that needs to be made. One request sent Jacir to pay a phone bill in an Israeli post office because he was not allowed to travel there himself. Because the only phone company in “Area C” is Israeli, and an Israeli post office does not exist in “Area C”, it was the only place he could pay that bill. In another request, Jacir visit a grandmother in Gaza City, just so she can deliver a hug and a kiss from her son. The requests don’t need to be dressed up to communicate the common suffering imposed upon the Palestinians.
Jacir’s generosity ties her work to the theme of the show, which in a political context, often interpretes love as compassion. The hippies did much the same thing, and to good effect, so it’s a relief to see that those strategies haven’t been entirely lost. Sharon Hayes probably shares the strongest tie to that kind of ethos, in a audio work in which she reads a tormented letter to her lover. On the other hand, one doesn’t get the sense she’s trying to smother war with love.
“I know you had leave, you had to return, you had no say” she begins. It is one of five letters she read outside the corporate headquarters of UBS in Midtown, one per day. “I am insensitive and cruel…When I offered to give up everything you refused.”
What follows are the kind of irrational conversations one has as a relationship falls apart. “If you want to come, you should call the president and have him call off the war.” Hayes recounts the cruelty of her lover who has gone off to fight in the Iraq war and doesn’t want her to follow. She responds as the injured lover. “I am so much yours. I’m in a state. I don’t know how to be anything else without you.”
With only the audio present, it’s hard not to miss the video footage, where we see Hayes try to make eye contact with passersby on the street. That almost no one will return the favor isn’t particularly surprising, but it serves as a reminder of how unwilling we are to engage in the personal toll war wages on families.
Lacking that, the audio seemed a good pair with Janine Antoni’s 1999 photograph Mortar and Pestle [Work 3], in an adjacent room. It is a close-up of a tongue licking an eyeball.
While not quite as political as Haye’s letters, it evokes the same kind of tangible discomfort with bare intimacy one expects would have been felt on the streets. I don’t enjoy looking at the photograph.
And yet, I don’t quite want to look away, either. It’s that sixties ethos, presented in the form of contemporary photography; let the expression of love itself move you.