Exhibition Review: Sunset Décor at Marian Goodman Gallery
By Madeleine Leddy
“Sunset” may refer to the metaphorical sun “setting on the American empire” (as it may or may not have on the British “empire,” depending on which side of the debate one takes), or perhaps to the very real, famed majesty of sunsets in the American West. Either way, curator Magalí Arriola’s Sunset Décor at Marian Goodman Gallery, a refreshed take on the philosophy behind Marcel Broodthaers’ now-legendary Décor: A Conquest show in 1970s London, takes on both the physical and historic aspects of American Expansionism—all based on two of Broodthaers’ very telling photographs of his strange and unprecedented installation.
Broodthaers’ photographs, which he sent to art critic and colleague, Alain Jouffroy, following the opening of his London exhibition, encompassed the installation’s two distinct rooms, both of which were decorated like slightly kitsch, homey parlors. The first room, called Salle XIXème Siècle (19th-Century Room), was a sort of homemade battle scene—a turf carpet spread out beneath an unusual hodgepodge of Napoleonic canons pointed at a stuffed snake statue, a potted exotic plant, Edwardian dining-table chairs, and a card table where stuffed lobsters sat playing alongside a copy of a publicity poster for the 1969 Western film, Heaven with a Gun. The second, Salle XXème Siècle (20th-Century Room), contained a similar mélange of home furnishings, in this case, a lawn chair-and-table set with a striped umbrella and weaponry, a rack of contemporary handguns and grenades lining one wall and an unfinished puzzle depicting Napoleon’s failed Battle of Waterloo sitting on the table.
The subtropical flora and fauna of the first room were positioned as targets of the evidently European weapons—a commentary, it would seem, on European conquest of the Global South. The presence of a late sixties Western movie poster in an otherwise nineteenth century-style salon seemed to deliver a prediction on the U.S.’s slightly later, but no less significant, development into a colonial power of its own as it expanded westward and outward throughout the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The equally odd situation of a depiction of the Battle of Waterloo in the room otherwise dominated by inter- and post-war American paraphernalia (the lawn furniture a staple of the suburban-sprawl lifestyle, the guns and grenades of primarily U.S. manufacture) indicates a nod to the U.S.’s colonial predecessors. This provides an evocation of the disturbing way in which colonial history repeated itself from European-dominated Africa and Asia to the U.S.-appropriated North American West. The guns and canons are the focal points of both rooms; conquest is both a façade for its underlying motivators—material greed, racism, institutional instability in Europe and a troubling, continuous reality in both “centuries.”
Arriola’s show is a meta-interpretation: it is her take on Broodthaers’ photographic interpretation of his own object installation. The primary medium represented at the Marian Goodman expo is, fittingly, photography; and the pieces of other media—a bronze horse skull by Jean-Marie Perdrix, a neon text sculpture by Cerith Wyn Evans, a slow-motion film by SUPERFLEX based off of Frederic Remington’s late nineteenth century Western painting The Parley (which is also on display)—are all, like Broodthaers’ stuffed lobsters and puzzle pieces, part of the “décor”.
Arriola has turned away, for the most part, from Broodthaers’ fascination with colonialism’s European incarnation (and his particular engagement with Napoleon, the colonialist-conqueror par excellence of the 19th century) and examined, instead, the evolution of U.S. colonization—and forceful incorporation—of the American West from the early 19th century until today. The human face of this colonialism comes across in the works that interact with American Indian culture, such as The Parley (both Remington’s painted miniature and SUPERFLEX’s surreal, live-action reenactment of the painting’s clashing characters); the environmental face, through landscape photographs—such as those of Lothar Baumgarten and Carleton E. Watkins—that provide comparisons of the virgin nineteenth century West to its industrialized, infrastructure-laden twentieth century inheritor; the institutional face, in nearly all of the works on display.
Landscapes are the most prevalent genre of photography on display, and some served better as backgrounds for other media—particularly Baumgarten’s black-and-white clichés systematically documenting the rail-and-road infrastructure from Appalachia to Washington State, which hang surrounding Perdrix’s ominous, death-invoking bronze horse skull, perhaps a testament to the transformation of an untouched landscape into a wasteland hostile to its own wildlife.
But Arriola’s choice to showcase a timeline, leading up to our own Digital Age, made the more recent works seem more climactic. Trevor Paglen’s time-lapse captures of Western skyscapes, made with telephotographic equipment that detects, and shows, the otherwise invisible streaks left in the sky by classified surveillance satellites, both take advantage of and expose technology. He uses his advanced machinery to his advantage, but, vigilante-style, subverts the very nature of digital photographic tools by uncovering to viewers how similar tools are used to scrutinize and implicitly control their everyday lives. His work unmasks a postcolonial form of domination: that of a government and institutional apparatus that is better equipped than ever to tame its landscape, and to exert control over the people who live on it.
Arriola has noted, in the past, how Paglen’s own writings have compared the government’s contemporary digital appropriation of the Western “frontier” to its original conquest of the nineteenth century frontier land and its American Indian populations. This parallel holds the otherwise disparate works in the exhibition together: it is thought-provoking, Orwellian, and painfully relevant at a particularly aggressive, hawkish moment in American political history.