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Art That Really Means Confrontation

Political Art Show at American University Takes a Bold Approach

There aren’t many museums in D.C. showing anything as bold as American University’s Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. Where else in D.C. is there anything like Sandow Birk’s wood-carved depictions of American soldiers’ mistreatment of Iraqis?

Alexandre Arrechea and Birk are two of the artists currently on display at the Katzen Arts Center as part of “(more) ART of CONFRONTation,” an exhibit that curator Jack Rasmussen says is about “confronting the status quo.” All of the art currently on display has strong political tones, but each piece is open to interpretation. Last year was the first “ART of CONFRONTation” exhibit, featuring Fernando Botero’s strikingly frank paintings interpreting the Abu Ghraib abuses. This year’s exhibit is just as directly political, despite Rasmussen’s assurances that the exhibit’s theme is simply “confronting the status quo.”

But Rasmussen admits that the political inference is undeniable.

“It translates into being political,” Rasmussen said.

The first thing visitors will see is Arrechea’s “Garden of Mistrust,” best described as an automated moving tree where security cameras monitoring the exhibit replace the leaves at the end of the branches. Around the corner are two flat-screen displays of everything the cameras see, although visitors have to go out of sight of the cameras to watch the televisions.

Perhaps the most memorable object of the entire exhibit is Arrechea’s smaller “America (Wrecking Ball),” a hand-blown gray glass orb held up by a thin metal wire with a little bit of rubble inside. The ball appears fragile, more like something for holding tea.

The exhibit also features another wrecking-ball work by Arrechea called “Black Sun,” a video of a rubbery wrecking ball hitting a building but never breaking it.

Another piece of art is Chris Jordan’s picture of Barbie dolls. It’s a photograph of 32,000 naked dolls lined up in circular patterns. The 32,000 represent the number of breast augmentations that women have every month. From a distance, the photograph looks just like an amorphous pattern of pink and tan, but up close it’s clear what the pattern intends to show.

The second floor also features Birk’s large wood etchings of tortured Iraqis and vicious acts by American soldiers in Iraq. The etchings are an update of Jacques Callot’s wood carvings of Catholics persecuting Protestants. Many of the etchings are based on the photos released from the Abu Ghraib scandal and other photos of American solders mistreating Iraqis. Some of the carvings depict Abu Ghraib prisoners in human pyramids or American soldiers beating Iraqis.

The third floor offers what might be the most obscure exhibit and also the most sobering work by Yoko Ono, called “Ex It.” About 20 wooden boxes similar to the coffins fallen soldiers are put in for transport from the war zone to American soil are on the floor in orderly rows. A tree grows out of each box, and Ono’s piece incorporates both dead and live trees. Ono made sure that her boxes were in three different sizes with three different-sized trees growing out of them.

The coffins might be interpreted in a number of ways by viewers, Rasmussen said. They could be perceived as a comment on war or on the coffins of returning soldiers the public isn’t allowed to see.

The Katzen Arts Center is located at 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW and is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m Tuesday through Sunday. The exhibit runs through Oct. 26.

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