Political art project needs to take a stand

'The I-71 Project' claims to critique red-versus-blue politics during the presidential campaign, but doesn't directly address this particular campaign's issues or candidates.

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click to enlarge Glenn Ligon’s 2014 “Double America 2” artwork (detail) - Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; Regan Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; Regan Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Glenn Ligon’s 2014 “Double America 2” artwork (detail)
Bob Dylan, the new recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote, in one of his most memorable song lyrics, “So let us not talk falsely now/The hour’s getting late.”

That’s how I feel about much of The I-71 Project, a series of 14 different artist-designed billboards and signboards (by five artists) presented by the Contemporary Arts Center, in conjunction with the Columbus Museum of Art. (They’re actually all over Cincinnati; only two are on Interstate 71.) 

Each supposedly “mimics and critiques the theater of red-versus-blue politics during the U.S. presidential campaign.” That quote is from a statement of purpose printed on the project’s pamphlet/guide, along with the notice that the “artists engage political issues with nonpartisan nuance.”

That’s a way of saying that these signs don’t directly address this particular campaign’s issues or candidates. A number do provide commentary, in an oblique and sometimes-humorous way, on the burnout many people say they feel at the whole expensive and adversarial process of electing a president. In that, those signs embrace a kind of “pox on both their houses” approach.

And as such, they speak falsely. This election isn’t about the process, flawed and long as it is. It’s about the candidates, and one is so bad he has been called a “clear and present danger” by the Enquirer, a paper that historically backs Republicans for President. Even The Simpsons oppose him! 

I’m not saying there should be a public art project specifically about this presidential campaign. But since this is an art project supposedly about presidential politics, for it to be “nonpartisan” in this year, of all years, threatens to make it irrelevant. And, in a way, to be “nonpartisan” is partisan, since it assumes Clinton is equally at fault with Trump for making this year such an unpleasant campaign. That’s a false equivalency. 

This project too often caters to that uninformed sentiment.

Take for example the artist’s sign that probably the most Cincinnatians have seen — Mel Bochner’s “Blah, Blah, Blah,” on four LED signboards in Washington Park. (It’s also at two locations in Columbus.) 

Bochner is a conceptual artist who works with words, often exploring the precarious nature between meaning and blather in language. He’s been exploring different ways to express “blah, blah, blah” for years now. 

Then there is Ryan McGinness’ “Re-Elect Skull & Bones” billboard on northbound I-71, between mile markers 40 and 41 (and not far from an old barn with a huge painted Confederate flag). This has a red, white and blue stylized skull and crossbones in the center, with a similarly colored donkey and elephant at opposite ends.

I’m not sure I’d even understand this if I hadn’t heard Anne Thompson, who curated this project with the CAC’s Steven Matijcio and Tyler Cann, explain it at a CAC lecture. McGinness is commenting on how President George W. Bush and John Kerry, his challenger in 2004, were both members of Yale University’s Skull and Bones secret society, and thus both of the power-elite class. It’s a way of saying “they’re both the same.” I’m not sure that was relevant then, but what in the world has that to do with now? 

The I-71 Project is an offshoot of The I-70 Sign Show, which Thompson — an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Missouri — organized for a stretch of I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City in the Show Me State. As she explained it, that region suffers from a surfeit of billboards that often contain confrontational political, religious and social messages. In that context, The I-70 Sign Show and its inclusion of “Blah, Blah, Blah” have bite. 

Despite my overall frustrations with this project, there is an artist whose work is very effective here. Three other billboards around town contain photographs of African-American artist Glenn Ligon’s neon sculptures of the word “America.” Seeing a sculpture of that word in black-outlined lettering, with its innards-like wires hanging out, takes all the bloated symbolism out of the word. And seeing his “Double America 2” as a billboard along the Norwood Lateral, where its impact is as flickering as a sputtering neon sign, is also powerful. It doesn’t directly relate to this campaign, but does address the troubled state of the nation.

THE I-71 PROJECT signs are up through Sunday. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org.

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