21c Plays Truth or Dare with Their Current Exhibit

In a sociopolitical landscape marked by alternate facts and conflicting realities, 21c Museum Hotel's exhibit asks us to question our initial perceptions.

click to enlarge The Good Samaritans, 2015-2016. Acrylic, gold leaf, mixed media with LCD screen and video. - Federico Solmi
Federico Solmi
The Good Samaritans, 2015-2016. Acrylic, gold leaf, mixed media with LCD screen and video.

Two short stanzas reign; hung on a wall in a neat, simple script and forged in three-dimensional brass.

[the Queen falls.] [the King dies.]

To an undiscerning eye, the phrases are baseless — faceless characters unapplied to any real story. But there’s specificity here. Jorge Méndez Blake’s piece pulled two stage directions from Act 5, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They just aren’t the words you’d expect.

And that’s the point. In the play, these actions are the most pivotal moments. But they’re easily lost in translation, as viewers wouldn’t immediately know them as iconic lines in Hamlet.

The piece — located on the second floor of Cincinnati 21c Museum Hotel — adequately illustrates what their current exhibit, Truth or Dare: A Reality Show, explores with depth. Alice Gray Stites, the exhibit’s curator, points to Blake’s work — dubbed Sin título (Acto V, Escena II) — as mining the relationship of truth and perception.

“What we need to be paying attention to is not right in front of us, it’s off to the side,” she says. “We’re distracted by our phones, by salacious scandals. We’re distracted by the holiday season shopping. Meanwhile, our lives are potentially being impacted by forces we are not paying attention to.”

Truth or Dare opened in September and runs through July of next year, but it’s actually an expanded take on an exhibit housed in Nashville’s 21c in 2017. During its stint there, Stites says the themes — shaky realities, contradiction, surveillance, fact and fiction — were relevant and precedent then, but continue to be in our current social and political landscape.

Upon first entering the hotel, guests are greeted by a multi-colored wallpaper covered with geometric shapes made by artist Claudia Hart. With a cellphone app called Layar, those designs morph into internet-coded art — as if you fell asleep mid-scroll and experienced a Twitter fever dream complete with emojis.

Stroll further and you’ll encounter drifting, electric clouds, a halved ping-pong table facing a mirror, deceptive photographs, a fake puddle you might hear before you see — drip — carved, collaged encyclopedias, a warped and mind-tripping selfie installation, a steel column that's actually wood slicked in oil, a gun safe purposefully made non-functional and countless more.

The materials and methods used to convey such concepts are as diverse as the artwork is itself; the individual pieces come from around the globe. Take Argentinian artist Miguel Angel Rio’s Mulas as an example. A video follows a pair of mules (sans riders, but carrying cargo) across the Andes, panning from close-up to wide, minimalistic shots. A trail of white powder spreads behind them. There is both distance and closeness as the viewer becomes entangled in the everlasting drifting, meant to act as a metaphor to drug trafficking.

“We’re really fortunate to work with a collection that is very diverse and global in nature and always has been...I think it is especially pertinent and important in an exhibition that is examining the nature of truth, knowledge and power,” Stites says.  “Because we need those conversations to be diverse, and if art can be a way for everyone to have a seat at the table — I think that’s really important.”

The work of Italian-born and New York-based Federico Solmi also dominates a wall. His animated paintings depict political figures and imagery, made in streaky, distinct strokes. Their gaudy and ornate frames overwhelm, which adds an extra layer of satirical madness. President Donald Trump sports a horrific grin, surrounded by George-Orwell-meets-Jonathan-Swift imagery. Each panel in his work is hand-painted and scanned into a 3-D animated environment.

click to enlarge The Good Samaritans, 2015-2016. Acrylic, gold leaf, mixed media with LCD screen and video - Federico Solmi
Federico Solmi
The Good Samaritans, 2015-2016. Acrylic, gold leaf, mixed media with LCD screen and video

Shahzia Sikander’s work Disruption as Rapture also utilizes moving stills — this time to recreate the 17th-century epic poem “Rose Garden of Love.” (Or, in Persian, Gulshan-i 'Ishq.) Through often warm, nature-inflicted and traditional imagery Sikander breathes new soul into an age-old fairy tale. Questions of cultural identity and historical reality underscore the piece.

Ultimately, as the exhibit’s statement puts it, Truth or Dare asks its viewers to second-guess reality in an age of “global strife, political instability and economic disparity.” Truth is masked in sociopolitical layers, each artist contributing their own message to a collection that ultimately reflects the often skewered, daunting and increasingly connected society we find ourselves immersed in. 

"Contemporary artists are not only reflecting on what's happening around them," Stites says, "but often are quite visionary in that what they are examining or illustrating for the audience is something that is about to happen or going to happen." 

For more info visit 21cmuseumhotels.com

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