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Antebellum Angst in Art

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a subsequent war in Afghanistan, and the prospect of war in Iraq all contribute to a mounting sense of anxiety throughout the world. The anxiety includes a sense of foreboding over future acts of violence that may occur in one’s immediate vicinity or elsewhere. This antebellum angst is embodied in two current exhibitions of contemporary art.

Rosemarie Trockel at the Dia Center

In her video projection Manu’s Spleen 4, currently on view at the Dia Center for the Arts, Rosemarie Trockel revisits the story of Bertoldt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Manu, the protagonist of numerous Trockel video works, interprets the long-suffering Courage who pulled her canteen wagon along the road, servicing soldiers on both sides of the Thirty-Year War.

Still from Manu’s Spleen 4 by Rosemarie Trockel, 2002, video projection with sound, color, 7:42 minutes, courtesy Monika Sprüth Galerie, Cologne, and Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York.

But Brecht would not recognize the cultural personas that Ms. Trockel associates with his characters. Yvette the prostitute, for example, who makes good in the play by marrying a colonel, becomes Jacqueline Kennedy in Manu’s Spleen 4. Trockel’s Yvette Kennedy wiles away her time caressing an enormous black cannon. Swiss Cheese and Eilef, the sons of Mother Courage, wear flesh colored jump suits with penile erections. At intervals they do ‘60s retro go-go dances and are ultimately charged head first down the barrel of the cannon by Yvette.

Katrin, the ill-fated daughter of Courage, becomes Joan of Arc, dressed in a man’s chain mail. She sits beside the canteen wagon changing stations on a portable radio. For a brief moment we hear the voice of John Lennon, “imagine all the people…” Kattrin changes the channel and we are confronted with the realpolitik of Jaqueline Kennedy and the cannon fodder brothers. In the end Mother Courage yokes herself to the canteen and like a draft horse, pulls it forward into the unknown. Of course, neither Brecht’s nor Trockel’s Mother Courage questions the validity of war. Like many she adapts to it, navigating its perils, turning a profit, and seeking in vain to protect her children.

Marcel Dzama, untitled, 2002, watercolor on paper, 14 x 11 inches, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Marcel Dzama at the Corcoran Biennial

Marcel Dzama exhibits 174 gouache drawings at the Corcoran Biennial that reflect an unsettling warscape of violence, bestial transformations, and psychosexual perversions. The disturbing tableaux of Dzama’s work would be all too familiar in spirit to Mother Courage as she traversed the battlefields of the Thirty-Year War. They also call to mind Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros which examines the descent of civilization into Nazism through the metaphor of men becoming rhinoceri. Dzama’s men are more likely to become monkeys who swallow the spent shells of machine gun fire with ravenous delight. Or they sprout branches. Tree Man, one of the protagonists of the series, is dressed in mod clothing complete with Beatle boots, and rakishly smokes a pipe. From his head fresh green leaves seem to be sprouting. In one gouache, Tree Man caresses the genitals of a partially dressed man standing by his side as a group of young women looks on. This same group of women with flapper haircuts takes center stage in another work from the series. To the right of the drawing is a statesman with a sash over his chest who holds the head of a decapitated beast in his left hand. To his immediate left is a group of four women, one of whom sews the hem of another woman’s dress, and to the far left a young woman leads a freshly decapitated beast by one hand and holds a carving knife in the other.

Another gouache from the series features twelve distinct personality types. These include hybrids between men and bears, bats, and birds, and the requisite monkeys. More human types include a three-faced woman, an overgrown baby, a government spook dressed in a trench coat, an executioner in a green jumpsuit, and a one-legged Napoleon leaning on his crutch. By way of his rogue’s gallery, Marcel Dzama seems to combine dark humor with an admonition against succumbing to our interior demons in these troubled times.


Rosemarie Trockel, Spleen, October 16, 2002 through June 15, 2003 at the Dia Center for the Arts, 548 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Marcel Dzama in the 47th Corcoran Biennial: Fantasy Underfoot, December 21, 2002 through March 10, 2003 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 West 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.

© 2003 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.

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