Using modern art techniques to examine Big Brother

Nov. 21, 2013 @ 11:15 AM

“Surveying the Terrain,” Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh.  Gallery hours are Monday, Wednesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 6:30 .p.m; and  Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-513-0946.

Big Brother is watching us; never mind that George Orwell’s “1984” (written in 1949) was a work of fiction about a society that used technology to enable an oppressive government to monitor and control its citizens. Today “1984” seems too close to the truth to be comfortable.
In this current exhibition, 10 artists who rely on current technology to create works of art come at the theme of Big Brother in a quiet but persistent reminder of their sources and what the bottom line really is. The images are seductively beautiful, and so we the viewers must read the texts to understand they may be the results of deadly toxins created by man-made processes; or space exploration junk left swirling in the atmosphere; or oil fields with their thousands of pumpjacks, storage tanks and pipelines spread across the American landscape; or people going about their daily lives, being watched without their permission.  
The centerpiece of the exhibit is Maya Lin’s “Blue Lake Pass,” (2006) a three-dimensional abstract version of the topographic line of the mountain range near her Colorado home.  She has divided her mountain range into large handmade segments of particleboard sheets glued together so the viewer can walk through and experience a topographic three-dimensional map. In the lower galleries Lin’s video “What is Missing?” is a stark reminder of the animals on this planet that have become extinct or on the brink of extinction. Just outside the projection area is a place for visitors to interact with her by telling about their own experiences where birds or animals they saw as children have disappeared in the ensuing years.
In five square panels David Maisel views the Great Salt Lake, open pit mines in Butte Montana and the Owens Lake region in California. These abstract photographs, taken from space, are gorgeous views of some of the most devastating misuse of natural resources in the United States. 
In two separate series, Trevor Paglen shows us abstract paintings of space debris in one and, in the other, San Nicolas Island seen through a telephoto lens from 65 miles away. The debris looks like twinkling stars in a clear sky and the very dark forms of San Nicolas Island reveal nothing about the place but call our attention to this top secret United Sates military area off the Pacific Coast where missile testing goes on regularly.  
Laura Kurgan offers four very large panels, white, blue, gold and green; they are satellite images produced by Ikonos and Quickbird. As examples, the white one is of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, under constant siege from oil interests to open it up to exploration, and the green one is of a rainforest in Cameroon. Look closely at the green panel: There a carpet of trees is cut through by an illegal logging road. Mishka Henner uses Google Earth Pro to show us American oil fields. As we zoom in on his 18 images we see a minuscule pumpjack nestled in a tidy row of crops. While these photographs bring to mind Abstract Expressionist canvases or a giant circuit board, he wants his viewers to think about the price we pay for oil over all the natural resources it decimates.
Doug Rickard and Matthew Jensen use Google street images to make their points and to make their art. Rickard shows us scenes from Detroit to New Orleans to Arkansas to Dallas, Texas. In the Texas image we see a lone man walking between a blue roofed convenience store and a red shed with “Quick Car Wash” written on the side. In Jensen’s “49 States” there are 49 small photographs, one for each state except Hawaii. Each has a spot of light from the sun, an acknowledgement of the Google omnipresence.
In Vik Muniz’s “Mappa del Mundo,” he pays homage to Alighiero Boetti who commissioned women at an embroidery school in Kabul to embroider his maps. Between 1971 and 1994 there were some 150 made. During this time the geopolitical world changed; the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell. Muniz photographed one of Boetti’s maps, added color and re-photographed it. The maps are art objects rather than a record of the world at a particular time. 
Clement Valla collects Google Earth images. His contribution to the show consists of   postcards (choose one and take it) from hundreds of images where highways seemed to bend like elastic and bridges expand like melted butter. He tells us these are the logical results of the system and make for some very funny postcards, but reveal the fact that Google Earth is a database disguised as a photograph. 
In the lower gallery area is Alfredo Jaar’s “Lament of the Images.” Here, we read about Nelson Mandela being blinded temporarily because he worked in the lime pits during his imprisonment in bright sunshine, and Bill Gates’ buying the largest collection of historical photos in the world which he intends to bury so they will never be destroyed, but can never be unearthed. To reach the end of the installation we walk through a maze and come into a room where a large screen blinds us with the whitest of light. The artist uses this blinding light as a metaphor for the fact that we have limited access to images and thus to history. 
Satellite imaging is quite remarkable, but with this tool there is little control to protect individual privacy.  Just as the mythical genie is out of the bottle so is the technology to know everything about us, perhaps even our most secret thoughts. We cannot put it back. Can we control it and not become its victim?

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.