Colbert Inspires Contemporary Art

Seung Woo Back’s ‘RW01-001’ (2004)

Combining two great contemporary elements of the entertainment world- Stephen Colbert and Contemporary Art- there is a new exhibition at Site in Santa Fe, called More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness. A few posts back was Robert Hughes death, and legacy on the theory of art in, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s term, the age of mechanical reproduction, though today the more apt term is ‘technological reproduction’. This particular exhibition attests to this postmodern rhetoric of reality being not only untouchable, but underrated, and how surface for the postmodernists is depth.

In the pilot episode of his widely successful and satirical spin-off show The Colbert Report, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’, to mean ‘the quality of preferring concepts one wishes to be true over those known to be true.’ Such a term aptly illustrates the mentality of many people today, and artists are now attempting to capture Colbert’s idea. The landmark image being advertised for the exhibition is the disturbing RW01-001(2004) from a series of photos by Korean artist Seung Woo Back made at a theme park in South Korea, filled with replicas of famous buildings and objects, including New York’s World Trade Centre.  Another work, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Phantom Truck (2007), a life size model of a mobile weapons lab based on an imaginary vehicle introduced by Colin Powell’s presentation before the war in Iraq, shows the powerful links between war and reality. Jean Baudrillard, popular though heavily criticised postmodern theorist, inspired by the advent of televising war when the Gulf War broke out, published one of his most notorious works, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). While critics were quick to spot the flaws, Baudrillard was in fact not attempting to express a belief that the Gulf War was a fabricated pseudo-event for the world, but instead was arguing that in an age where war, just as everything else, can now be televised, the truth is a somewhat dubious and distrustful element when in the hands of the media. All the mysteries of the Holocaust, and all other wars that pre-date broadcast television, die with the event, though with what Baudrillard termed the ‘bombardment of images’, the truth is perhaps even harder to grasp.

Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s ‘Phantom Truck’ (2007)

Yet the idea that we are in an age of truthiness where artists are experimenting with perceptions of reality is not at all a new endeavour. Rebelling against the rigid realist depictions of the world, the Surrealists, Expressionists, Impressionists and Cubists, among the other Modernist art movements, were obsessed with purposely distorting the world, much to the shock of the bourgeoisie, who found vulgarity in these artful alterations of the world. Today, the difference is that it is harder and harder to become shocked by anything claiming to be a ‘new’ alteration of reality, since such a practice has become incessant that, similarly to pornography, greater lines need to be crossed in order to instil in the public a sense of shock.  This exhibition I would imagine is thus quite tame compared to others that features artists such as Orlan and Mike Parr mutilating themselves in the relatively recent avenue of body art. Meanwhile, questions of reality remain somewhat in vogue, with popular films such as Donnie Darko (2001), and most notably The Matrix (1999), acting as the ‘artworks’ of modern day existentialists. So this exhibition doesn’t entirely break new ground, though it is another intriguing addition to the ongoing debate, a thoroughly postmodern one at that, about what constitutes reality in an age of technological reproduction.


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