You go up to the 4th floor, you turn left after getting out of the elevator to look at the description of the show. There, you can see the work which intrigued me the most in the show: A statesmanlike, official looking portrait of President Obama placed high up on the wall. Beneath it, people gather to read the description about the show.
“Why is he there?” I ask my wife. We are at one of the most prestigious cultural institutions where, at least to me, openness and examinations of possibilities should be encouraged, and the shapes, positions and the contexts of humanity in our lives should be explored without any authoritative boundaries. I was disturbed to see him introducing the show, greeting a few thousand museum goers everyday. For a starter, this president joins a meeting every week with the people from the spy agencies, generals and other officials to discuss who should be assassinated with remote controlled planes. This president engages, without due process, the executions of suspects which include the US citizens and innocent bystanders. The attacks are often aimed at wedding ceremonies, funerals, and they often include “double tapping”, a war crime according to international laws, in which a successive attack is aimed at rescuers, desperate relatives in tears and the brave people who volunteer to help the injured victims. My wife sort of avoids the question saying “I don’t know”. We often get into arguments when I start talking about things of this nature.
I really hated to ruin the day with a fight. After all, it was my birthday and she came out to pick me up in the city where I was working for a week. It was nice to see her after a week of separation, but I felt the burning anger and sadness thinking about the deaths and the destruction, the words “why is he there?” just dropped out of my mouth. My wife might have rolled her eyes, but that was not unusual. I also forgot about it after 5 seconds. We were back to our fun outing.
Moving along, looking at art works, I might have taken a picture or two. I thought one of the cardboard sculptures on the wall was nice. My wife complained that she didn’t like anything except for the pots with dinosaurs on them. I wanted to say that some of the works seem to be like blue prints or recipes. They seemed to include instructions or narratives but they didn’t actually create the magical tastes in my mouth, or the profound shock of transformation in my head. But before I could actually open my mouth and say it, we weren’t walking together anymore. I guess I tend to think in a day dreamy manner sometimes, my wife would get mad because I think in my head and I fail to actually say it, resulting in, well, ignoring her without meaning to do so. In short, we were just appreciating the art works in the show.
Anyway, we moved to the 3rd floor. By that time, however, I was feeling something again. I noticed that I was repeating the words “why was he there?”. The portrait: his piercing eyes, the image of the people swarming beneath him. And I almost forgot to mention this but you could also hear low ominous sound effects coming from a sculpture around the corner adding to the undeniable unsettling feeling. Come to think of it, the placement was sort of odd too, stuck at the corner, sort of too high as if it was calling your attention to bring out the question “why is he there?”
I had to tell my wife that I had to go back to the 4th floor to see what the portrait was all about. A big mistake, of course. Later I was accused of leaving her wondering in the museum alone. But the question kept repeating in my head “why was he there”. I could not help it.
This is what the description on the wall said:
“Many of Dawound Bey’s photographs–including the others on view elsewhere on this floor–reflect on the nature of portraiture. They explore the limits of what the genre can and cannot do, using it to pose complex questions of identity and our relationships to history. Bey’s portait of Barack Obama is, by contrast, an excellent but straightforward example of the genre. It is included here as a tactical move within curator Michelle Grabner’s quasi-pedagogical strategy; Grabner notes that this image can be viewed as “a signifier of both civil unity and political and racial instability, a punctuation of nationalism and hierarchy in a shifting field of artworks that occupy the fourth floor””.
OK, so the museum does acknowledge the portrait as a “punctuation of nationalism”, and “a signifier of both political and racial instability”. But the president’s portrait, which is positioned to preside over one of the most important cultural events in the city, is also seen as a symbol of “civil unity”.
There is a civil unity based on justice and humanity and a civil unity based on violence and fear.
The Obama administration has succeeded in rounding up the entire population of the planet under the vast NSA global network. The government is collecting everything we do online and more. They send out bugs to infect our devices to spy. They infiltrate democratic movements to hunt down dissenting voices. They threaten journalists with unjust laws and imprisonment. And as the elected officials talk about peace and democracy, they keep 1000 military bases across the globe with 57% of our taxes going to the defense budget. The US fights numerous covert and overt wars, all of them are offensive and are based on the special interests of the multinational corporations and the giant banks. At home, the police force is militarized. We have 2 million people, mostly minorities and mostly for victimless crimes, incarcerated in domestic prisons, the running of which is out sourced to private corporations, providing virtually free labor for the major US corporations. OK, I’ll stop but my point is that it’s the “civil unity” by the rule of fear.
There is no word about any of that in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. We may talk about gay rights. We may talk about women’s rights. We may express and explore the boundaries of our culture and our perceptions. But we are unified under the piercing eyes of our commander in chief. Why is he there? Because he is the symbol of our corporate cage. We are free and creative as long as we stay inside of our cage. And the more I see our moral and ethical obligations neglected in our art community by our silence, the brighter the president’s portrait on the 4th floor shines.
Of course, that is just all in my head. But I fantasize and I’m dying to want to believe that one of the curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial sees it through. She is compelled to step out of the cage and poses important questions as a responsible human being: Why is he there? Don’t we know what is going on? What is art for? What is culture when our basic values are based on corporate interests? Don’t we care?
As we left the museum, the entire building seemed to be a giant art monster with President Obama’s portrait as the head and the long line leading out of the door as its tail.