Slick Concept Trumps Content in "Covert Operations" at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Jenny Holzer, Ribs, 2010 (SMoCA Installation view). Eleven LED signs with blue, red and white diodes, text: U.S. government documents, 58 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 3/4 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York. © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jenny Holzer, Ribs, 2010 (SMoCA Installation view). Eleven LED signs with blue, red and white diodes, text: U.S. government documents, 58 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 3/4 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York. © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo by Chris Loomis

In the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, visual and performing artists have explored the delicate dance between privacy and protection. Some hunt for undisclosed information. Others highlight things revealed but never appropriated by our cultural consciousness. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art contributes to the ongoing dialogue with "Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns," an exhibition of works by 13 international visual artists and collaboratives.

"Covert Operations," which is curated by SMoCA's Claire C. Carter, consumes all four of the museum's galleries through the fall season. It includes 37 works that tackle classified military sites, nuclear weapons, narcotics and human trafficking, and illegal extradition flights. The exhibition is billed as "the first major survey of a generation of artists working in the violent and uncertain decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks to collect and reveal previously unreported information."

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Like redacted U.S. government documents, exhibition publicity includes words and phrases hidden by fat lines. It's a slick take on spy lore but signals the problem that plagues this ambitious survey. For "Covert Operations," concept trumps content. Unfortunately, it seems that creating a cool, covert vibe mattered more than delivering a thoughtfully guided museum experience.

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Most gallery spaces are painted black. Several display walls are left blank, serving as wasted space in a maze of work that needs more explanatory text about individual artists and the themes they tackle. Most text panels are small. Many have tiny typefaces that are difficult to read. Some are downright hard to find. They obfuscate rather than elucidate.

Bottom line: Deciphering information -- much of it essential to truly grasping and appreciating featured works -- shouldn't be like digging for secret files. Still, the exhibition includes several intriguing pieces, several by Jenny Holzer.

Her Ribs, which has uniform arches resembling a row of bike racks, consists of 11 LED signs with blue, red, and white diodes that flash phrases from government documents. We're at War is an oil on linen work depicting the two-page memo that gave us the terms "war on terror" and "axis of evil." Phoenix yellow white replicates the seven-page memo by an agent in the FBI's Phoenix field office who warned of possible attacks by flight trainees affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Hasan Elahi, Orb, 2013. 72-channel digital color video installation; three elements, 72 inches in diameter each; installation dimensions variable.
Hasan Elahi, Orb, 2013. 72-channel digital color video installation; three elements, 72 inches in diameter each; installation dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the artist. © Hasan Elahi

Hasan Elahi's Orb, a 72-channel video installation comprising three suspended starbursts with beams that terminate in small screens, shows images from the artist's everyday life: toilet, meal, transportation, and more. Tracking Transience, a digital projection using a live feed from Elahi's website, is an ongoing work started in 2002 after the artist was flagged for FBI surveillance. It documents his daily activities, thereby "pre-empting government surveillance by doing it for them."

David Gurman's Memorial for the New American Century, a bronze bell cast in 1905, captures and uses data about civilian casualties collected through www.iraqbodycount.org. Every hour, it tolls according to the number of newly reported cases. Some hear the bell before seeing it. Either way, it's haunting. So is an untitled 16mm black-and-white film by Kerry Tribe showing images of 29 unpaid participants who replied to this ad: "Potential terrorist: any age, gender, ethnicity. Must look like a terrorist."

You'll need more than 90 minutes to watch every film, video, and digital projection featured in "Covert Operations" and information from other sources to truly appreciate these artists and the significance of their work. Conveniently, you can purchase a "Covert Operations" catalog published by Radius Books in the museum store. The 136-page hardcover catalog, with 55 color images, is $55. You'll like the book if you like the exhibition, but I can't shake the feeling that commerce has trumped content, too. I shouldn't need a catalog to cull facts missing from exhibit spaces.

Diehard fans can register for a free "Covert Operations" symposium, complete with curators, journalist, and trio a of exhibition artists, taking place Saturday, November 22, at SMoCA.

Even those not moved by this exhibition should recognize its value in raising a crucial question: What roles should contemporary artists and exhibition spaces play in exploring issues at the crux of our cultural identity? I'm already looking ahead to see how local, national, and international artists deal with emerging threats such as ISIS and Ebola -- and hoping for a better balance between technology and other mediums including sculpture and fiber art, which have proven their power to elucidate events from genocide to internment.

"Covert Operations" continues through January 11 at SMoCA, 7374 East Second Street in Scottsdale. For more information, call 480-874-4666 or visit www.smoca.org.

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Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

7374 E. Second St.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251

480-994-2787

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