In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the famous economist Albert Hirschman couldn’t get a job in Washington, D.C. He was brilliant, Jewish, and anti-Nazi, so the CIA thought he was a Communist and made a conspiracy to keep him unemployed. Hirschman was unbeknownst such a file existed and quickly left W.D.C. – his biographer uses the chapter for laughs. Still, this must have been a weird, tragic, and paranoid time. Just as often, a malcontented hero like George Costanza of Seinfeld strikes a resounding chord that it’s all a conspiracy to keep him down, when in truth George is just a jerk who deserves what he gets. Connecting the dots between both stories, I have a paranoid hunch the “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” show going on from September 18th to January 6th 2019, at the Met Breuer is one of the most fun exhibitions running right now.
In the first half of the show, art about true conspiracies is the subject. A true conspiracy is any paranoid theory of the past that turned out to be true later on. In this half of the exhibit, that means the inappropriate dealings of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the misdeeds of the BCCI bank, the torture programs of the war in Iraq, and the late 1980’s AIDs epidemic. Conspiracies here aren’t a misnomer. The curators, Ian Alteveer and Douglas Eklund for the Metropolitan Museum, seek nothing less than a sense of empowerment of a conspiracy theorist in the present day, because each of these works was proven right.
Two suspicious art pieces confirm the transition from nonfiction to fiction. In an entire room, yellow nylon rope holds up photographs of arbitrary lawn and corporate settings. The curators’ notes for this piece said there are clues in each of the photos, but I didn’t have the patience of it, and some creepy music was playing that gave me the willies. A second art piece, this time by the Met Breuer itself, was neither true nor false. As I walked, the security guards started talking about jobs, and discrimination, and asking each other if something was true. I was so happy, confused, and paranoid, that I couldn’t ask if it were part of the exhibit or not.
In the fantasy side of the exhibition, one artist Jim Shaw in 1978 took photographs of his friends, and then turned those photographs into faces of aliens. The alien faces look realistic, like giant cockroaches, and yet the potency of the work is its effectiveness as satire. In the male’s photo, the artist kept the man’s name tag, which is ridiculous because why would an alien need a name tag? The photos reveal the absurdity of thinking aliens are hiding in plain sight.
A second piece is interactive, so the viewer can walk into a cave, here--behind a curtain the artist made to resemble a theater production. Inside, giant sculptures of gnomes worship slime green crystals. This conspiracy was in an episode of South Park about “underpants gnomes.” The meta-economic theory is the subject of marijuana-fueled debates at any given time. The question is, if money is gold or paper, isn’t money therefore symbolic and created? The answer is yes, however underpants gnomes aren’t making money from crystals. Trust and maturity are needed here, and maybe some common sense.
Next to the gnomes piece, the curators return again to nonfiction. Sarah Anne Johnson in her “Black Cloud,” from 2008--among several others by Johnson--tells the story of the artists’ grandmother who went to see a Canadian psychiatrist. The psychiatrist abused the power, and gave the grandmother hallucinogenic drugs. For decades, the “CIA does Acid,” conspiracy was ruled out as a crackpot theory. 50 years later, declassified documents proved this conspiracy theory true. The curators saved these pieces for the end as the most damning confirmation of their thesis, that sometimes the minority pariah is correct, and the world really is that bad.
I’m not convinced this show addressed the easier target that conspiracies are often bullshit. As a Jew, I’m always apprehensive about conspiracies because they often paint Jews as the bad guys, albeit alien lizard synagogue-goers. Beam me up, I wish I were that observant! QAnon—popular culture’s new conspiracy in 2018--doesn’t produce any fun or beautiful artwork, because QAnon is barbaric nonsense. And conspiracy theories have often hurt blacks and Jews. The racist conspiracy literature Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a bad document meant to keep Jews like Professor Hirschman from jobs.
This show does argue for a sense of courage and empowerment. Its view of history lends credence to the idea that if the teenagers do the work of investigation with insight and courage, eventually they will find out what’s real and what’s make-believe. And the latter part of that, the courage, is foundational for us all. What’s astounding about the first half is how much audience members will already know about torture memos, racial discrimination, and the AIDS cover-up. The show is right to say--commit to those facts, dig in your heels, and demand answers. Although the curators’ moral isn’t anywhere near as fun as the show’s individual pieces, this conclusion is important, and worth fighting for.