Beyond the West Bank
What is Dallas afraid of? What is the source of this potentially cosmopolitan city's pronounced dread? Why does it so willfully participate in the worldview of paranoia that threatens to undermine what has been since the nation's inception a foundation at once steadfast yet supple, almighty yet benevolent, superpowerful yet democratic? So often cloaked in a mawkish politesse, such fear and trembling in the local art world serves only to stultify an otherwise promising intellectualism in the arts. What I am getting at here is the peculiar but unfortunately reigning collective fear of letting the city be as big and city-like as it really is. Being Dallas in full and unflinching form includes, among other engrossing and titillating things, being host to a politically provocative, even raucous art scene--a venue of creativity sometimes feral and always unapologetic. As it goes, though, the city restlessly slumbers, as if forever haunted by a drug-infused, flutter-eyed Rip van Winkle, weaving in and out of states of consciousness, momentarily awake, then sleeping once again.
Along comes an artist like Laray Polk, and all this changes. Polk forces the issue of local and mutual zombie-ism, demanding that Dallas wake up and come to the table not just as a city in Texas but as a city in the world. Polk's show, Gaza Zoo, now on view in the art gallery at the University of Texas at Dallas, calls upon Dallas to be a city that participates not only in the greater economic network of globalization but also in its harried maelstrom of social, cultural and political forces and events. For Polk, being global does not just mean that your country, its businesses and corporations, registers high on the NASDAQ; it means that your citizens know both world geography and politics. It means you and your country are political agents, and consciously so.
Polk's Gaza Zoo sounds a murmuring but earth-shaking tocsin the reverberations of which she hopes will shake citizens from their comfy perch amid the beams and trusses of that ever-invisible but oh-so-material edifice of media-constructed oblivion. Taken in most literal terms, the title of the show is almost misleading, because it is not forthrightly about the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. But this is not a show about the literal. It is about the circuitous--the mechanism of intention rather than intention itself. The show is an exhibition of Polk's book of the same title. Laminated and mounted in transparent plastic, the pages of Polk's book--150 digital prints--adorn the walls of the gallery one after another in cinematic fashion. While it is the pamphlet accompanying the show that draws most direct attention to Palestinian-Israeli politics, with unabashed quotes from Noam Chomsky ("Gaza is a cage") and Yasser Arafat ("Gaza is...a big prison"), the pictures on the wall are profoundly subtle, drawing only rarely on the specific question of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, terrorism and the drive for statehood on the part of both Israel and Palestine. Rather, one finds on the wall a series of soft plastic plates, about 18 by 10 inches, with quotes laid out in designy patterns from a variety of intellectuals and figures in history, from Nietzsche to P.T. Barnum. Polk's goal is not belligerent in nature. She is an intellectual who redirects the white noise of the mass-media apparatus back into itself, using mass media against mass media in word-on-word combat, firing vocables as though they were part of a ballistics of the alphabet and semiology combined. She seeks to both inspire and teach ways of critical reading.
Following her greatest influence, the Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan, Polk forcefully but peacefully tells us that it is not so much the message that bears the truth but the medium bearing the message. It is not what Fox News tells us but that it is Fox News telling us.
Nevertheless, her work continues to raise the hackles of local activists for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Protesters often show up at her exhibition openings, accusing her of being anti-Semitic. The hackles have been so rigid and so high that in past exhibitions a policeman has been brought in for the opening night to buffer gallery-goers and art lovers from the messiness of political activism. On one hand, we might look upon such protests as democracy in action. And indeed it is. Polk's work instigates a political dialogue, raising righteous indignation from all camps while educating the public, from providing techniques of critical and conscious reading to information on the political geography of the Middle East. On the other hand, the political activists who accuse Polk of being anti-Semitic seem woefully if not dangerously misinformed. To confuse the drive for an Israeli State with the drive for a Jewish State casts Israel's problem in millennial hues, making it not only the problem of the world, but a problem that uses the Bible, metaphysics and genesis myths as the slave-like handmaidens of a false democracy. The great strength of democracy as we know it, since the American and French revolutions that rocked the Western world in the 18th century, has been the separation of church and state. Perhaps Polk's work is critical of the Israeli State, but she does not hate Jews. Polk's interests lie not within religion-bashing but in institution-questioning. The great irony here, though, is rooted in the very aesthetic of Polk's work, namely in that she is bound to a technique of closely reading texts very much in the Talmudic tradition of Orthodox Judaism. Polk's project is fundamentally concerned with closely reading and arguing the meaning of the text. And, quite frankly, that is what she asks us to do. She demands that we educate and inform ourselves--learn how to deliberate over words and technological mediums. In short, she works within the Enlightenment tradition shared by our founding fathers since the crux of her argument is doubt. We must doubt as the act of doubting leads us to the truth, or at least some semblance of it.
Knowing well that skepticism and words go hand in hand, Polk has written and graphically designed a text that brings together such unlikely bedfellows (or perhaps not) as Joseph Goebbels and George W. Bush. The quotes she chooses revolve not so much around politics per se, but around television, Goebbels telling us in the 1930s of the fundamental importance of TV in the 20th century and a spokesman for Bush telling reporters that the president is perpetually tuned in to current events by way of CNN. With respect to design, Polk's information comes to us as if in flashing Times Square real-time, transforming the linear sequence of stock market numbers into Deconstructivist hypertext. While the presentation of her work is slick, suggestive of cinema and contemporary computer-aided design, the actual installation is low-tech. In related fashion, the show's technique and meaning are rooted in the much older tradition of printmaking. Trained at the University of Dallas in painting and, more significantly, printmaking, Polk approaches "truth" as it is based on the slippery relationship between original and copy--a problematic inscribed long ago with the advent of the very mechanism itself, Gutenberg's ingenious movable-type printing press in 1450. Just as words--the Word, for that matter--are open to deliberation and questioning, human nature for Polk is something dynamic, changeful and open to negotiation. Polk brings home this belief in what she calls her contract with the public. Rooted in the pithy words of McLuhan, Polk's agreement is based on the notion that "there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is the willingness to contemplate what is happening."
In its no-holds-barred intellectual sensibility, Polk's work tears down the hierarchy that might otherwise raise the question of whether this it truly art. Yes, it is propaganda, but it is also art. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is very clear design intention in this work, notable in the layering of images and overall graphic design. They are pictures for delectation, sensual and intellectual alike. And, most important of all, Polk's message is powerful. We are not the way we are because of fate, God or manifest destiny. Rather, we have control of our destiny, and we must urgently take heed of this control and guide it in a peaceful and just manner.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.