Conspiracy Theories, Paranoia, and Some Inconvenient Truths

Öyvind Fahlström’s “World Map” (1972) illustrates the use of tin-pot dictators by multinational corporations to extract wealth and suppress dissidents. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | When German artist Hans Haacke documented real estate moguls Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo’s Manhattan properties in 1971, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s director objected, calling the piece an “alien substance.”

A Guggenheim curator was soon fired for supporting Haacke’s works — which presented column after column, neatly arrayed, of public records that offered commentary on how Goldman and DiLorenzo hid their identities behind shell companies from tenants’ rights groups.

No doubt Haacke’s works today could be reinvented to visually expose the landords of 21st century New York.

But for now, Haacke’s depiction of real estate holdings from the mid-20th century joins 69 other works from 30 artists in the Met Breuer’s latest exhibition, “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy.”

Hans Haacke’s “Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System” (1971). | Photo by Sydney Pereira

The exhibition explores an “alternate history” — both in fact and fiction — of anxieties and paranoias that beset American society from 1969 through 2016, just before President Donald Trump took office.

The idea was born in 2010 when lead curator Doug Eklund happened upon a 1991 interview between John Miller and the late Mike Kelley — two artists featured in the exhibit.

The line-up was chosen by 2014, to the delight of Eklund, who wanted to show that the nature of conspiracies, corruption, and American anxieties — both based in truth and otherwise — are not new in the era of Trump and so-called “fake news.”

“What [the show has] wound up being is a kind of archaeology or reminder to people that these are not new issues,” Eklund said. “These are issues that have constantly been happening in a democracy between the Establishment and the voices that are [on the] outside.”

Doug Eklund, curator of the Met Breuer’s “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy.” | Photo by Sydney Pereira

Eklund said that 1969 was chosen as the starting point because, among other things, it was a time when conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination were blossoming and just a few years before the Watergate hearings explosed the corruption at the heart of a presidency.

But more importantly, he said, art was created at that point about “the assault on the hippie community and communities of color — assaults by the Deep State, so the FBI, the CIA — the kind of paranoia that those communities rightfully had, knowing that they were being infiltrated.”

Eklund added, “Their members were being murdered [like] in the case of Fred Hampton,” a member of the Black Panther Party who was killed by Chicago police just a month after he was filmed speaking about systematic racism and the Panthers’ free breakfast program for children. That documentary, filmed by an experimental group from upstate New York, is one of the pieces on display.

But you won’t see any works from today here that parallel the same anxieties about injustices and systemic racism among police officers as the Black Lives Matter movement and others shine a light on issues such as the shootings of mostly black men at the hands of law enforcement.

“The way that we conceived it is an historical show,” Eklund said. “And so we didn’t get into younger artists’ issues of today, and we may be criticized for that, but I was really hoping to provide an historical framework.”

Work from the Silence = Death Project begun in 1987. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

Eklund said he hopes the exhibition inspires younger artists to create works that reflect the concerns of today. He suggested that another appropriate sequel could be an exhibit about international perspectives toward America’s foreign policy. Though some artists in this exhibition are from other countries, most are American.

“Art and Conspiracy” will run through Jan. 6 at the Met Breuer, on Madison Ave. at E. 75th St., while the Metropolitan Museum’s primary home on Fifth Ave. features “Stasi City,” a video installation by Jane and Louise Wilson documenting the former headquarters of the East German secret police in what was then East Berlin.

Though “conspiracy” is part of its title, the Met Breuer exhibition has two sections — one where artists adhere to a factual basis and is almost journalistic in nature.

Works there include Mark Lombardi’s pieces on corruption and money in politics, such as the connections between former President Bill Clinton and an Indonesian banking conglomerate, and Jenny Holzer’s blow-up of declassified documents from George W. Bush’s presidency that emphasize the bureaucratic language employed to describe and defend the torture of detainees.

The exhibition also features work by the Silence = Death Project, which attacks the Reagan White House for the president’s silence on the death of tens of thousands of Americans from AIDS, and an examination of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s ties to South American dictatorships.

The other half of the exhibition veers into less rigid definitions of truth, with cartoonish, sometimes colorful depictions of conspiracy theories — from UFOs and aliens to critiques of powerful elites.

A half-cemetery, half-car lot installation by Tony Oursler criticizes America’s reliance on oil and Mike Kelley uses a digestive system schematic to demonstrate what he views as the Democratic Party’s shift in the 1980s toward elites and away from working class concerns. Kelley also depicts a California pre-school where child sexual and Satanic ritual abuse allegedly occurred on a staggering scale, though years later it was found that psychiatrists and social workers had manipulated the small children into believing they were molested.

Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, at the exhibition’s press preview. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

These works, whether based on “deep research and almost journalistic methods” or an “intermingling of facts and fantasy,” broach critical concerns Americans have had in the past half century, the Met’s director, Max Hollein, said at a press conference on the exhibit.

“They all address an urgency to question, to imagine, and to understand that the world that surrounds us and that we live in is way more complex than we think or that others want us to think about,” Hollein said.

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