How Conspiracy Theories Shape Art

How Conspiracy Theories Shape Art

As this convulsive, cacophonous midterm election campaign reaches its end, no exhibition captures the national mood quite like “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” a nightmarish show at the Met Breuer.

Its conjuring of American conspiracy theories, through paintings and installations evoking secret cabals and satanic cults, feels all too relevant amid today’s crackpot theories of world leaders running child sex rings in pizza restaurants. Its artists’ examination, and occasional embrace, of wild skepticism appears prescient now that the most violent acts — the murder of students in Parkland, Fla., the mailing of pipe bombs to former presidents — are dismissed as “false flags” even on a leading cable news channel. Its regard for the violence that conspiracy believers may commit feels especially urgent this week, after a terrorist who was convinced George Soros was masterminding a national Muslim takeover walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and assassinated 11 mostly elderly Jews.

And its suggestion that conspiracy is the animus of American public life — and, thus, a natural subject for American artists — lands with particular force as we all swim in the daily flood of half-truths and dubious theories from the First Twitter Account. If this show needed an alternate subtitle, Richard Hofstadter could supply one: The Paranoid Style in American Art.

The proposition of “Everything Is Connected” — nimbly hung by the Met curators Doug Eklund and Ian Alteveer, assisted by Meredith Brown and Beth Saunders — is that artists have a particular facility with the American conspiratorial mode. They understand its baffling flights into unreason; they see past the wild connections to the human frailty that inspires them.

For most of the 30 artists here, any common view of the present is a nostalgic fiction; in place of shared action are suspicion and despair. Those familiar feelings make this a powerful and relevant, but also depressing show, not least for how it dissolves the more activist works on view into a fog of paranoia.

The curators have dedicated “Everything Is Connected” to Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose abject art often intertwined personal anxieties and desires with public misdeeds. Several of his works in this show hark back to a hysterical episode that swept the United States in the 1980s and ’90s, when countless American parents accused preschools of Satanist child abuse. “Educational Complex” (1995), a large, white architectural diorama, fuses Kelley’s childhood home and his classrooms at CalArts with labyrinthine tunnels and passageways recalling the McMartin Preschool in California, bailiwick of abuses that never took place. A blown-up “Abuse Report” translates petty art-world grievances into the bureaucratese of a government complaint.

The show’s first half highlights artists who work with public records to disclose conspiratorial networks great and small. Sometimes this takes the form of bringing hidden materials to light — like Hans Haacke’s renowned 1971 documentation of the New York real estate holdings of interconnected shell companies, and Alfredo Jaar’s 1984 collation of photographs with Henry Kissinger skulking in the background, his face ringed each time by a conspiracist’s red circle. Sometimes declassified or leaked materials serve as artists’ raw materials: Jenny Holzer’s room-saturating LED display broadcasts memos of American actions in Iraq, while Trevor Paglen shoots telescopic photographs of “black sites” in Afghanistan.

In two panoramic drawings from the late-90s by Mark Lombardi, the arch conspiracist of contemporary American art, boggling flow charts link up hundreds of financiers, drug smugglers, politicians and criminals grand and petty in a web of financial and political patronage that the artist spent years researching. (When the larger one here was last on view in this building, in a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the F.B.I. came to call.) The Gordian knots of conspiracy are factual, though Lombardi did not always explain the precise nature of their connections. Gazing on his precisely arced diagrams of corruption and glad-handing feels like looking at some unfathomable astronomical phenomenon, too complex to be understood, alarming but awesome.

The show’s second half tips away from these artist-as-investigator practices and embraces a more devious, more Kelley-esque mode, in which the conspiracy — a real form of hidden collaboration — becomes impossible to distinguish from the conspiracy theory: the more or less outlandish narrative that outsiders discover or invent.

In Rachel Harrison’s excellent early installation “Snake in the Grass” (1997), photographs that the artist took at Dallas’s infamous grassy knoll hang in a maze of suspended drywall fragments, uneasy and unresolved. Jim Shaw produced counterfeit alien sightings amid Kennedy’s presidential motorcade in his “UFO Photos: Zapruder Film” (1978-82). The Kennedy assassination looms large over this exhibition, which opens with two fluorescent portraits in outline, by the painter Wayne Gonzalez, of the mug shots of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.

These artists are not endorsing conspiracy theories (at least, I hope not!), but using them to sketch a vision of America: weird, unserious and tilting into madness. A 1998 painting by John Miller, one of many he made after television game shows, depicts a wry Pat Sajak and twinkly Vanna White at the puzzle board of “Wheel of Fortune,” where the winning answer is “ZOG”: an acronym for “Zionist Occupied Government,” used by anti-Semitic right-wingers as a name for Washington. And sometimes the artists here edge too close to the nut cases’ side for comfort. Sue Williams has recently painted churning, color-saturated works evoking the destruction of the World Trade Center; I bridled at one canvas’s inclusion of the word “nanothermite,” an explosive often mentioned by conspiracy theorists who doubt that planes felled the twin towers.

“Everything Is Connected” is a show of limited scope, featuring mostly American art from the Nixon to the Obama eras, by artists no younger than 40. Stopping the clock before 2016 was probably sensible. Yet starting it in the late 1960s feels like yet another case of the Met thinking too small at the Breuer — where it promised it would explore themes across time and geography, but almost never followed through.

And, within this fixed frame, there’s a worrying elision of the “real” conspiracies investigated in the show’s first half into the out-there conspiracy “theories” in the second half. Walking through the exhibition you go deeper and deeper into suspicion, and by the last gallery you feel as if you’ve lost your bearings, perhaps even lost your mind.

Real conspiracies and fictional conspiracy theories have blended into a Mike Kelley-approved mélange, and everything really does seem connected. It’s a beautiful piece of museum choreography. But where does that leave Mr. Haacke’s real estate muckraking, or Ms. Holzer’s war disclosures? As facts indistinguishable from fiction, to be dismissed as fake news?

To be American in 2018 is to be force-fed a daily diet of lies. We soak in bogus voter-fraud claims, anti-vaccine delusions and the biggest and deadliest conspiracy theory of them all: that climate change is a hoax, in the words of the president of the United States, “created by and for the Chinese in order to make American manufacturing noncompetitive.” (In October, Mr. Trump backed away from calling climate change a fiction, but added that scientists “have a very big political agenda.”)

“Everything Is Connected” suggests that this state of affairs was inevitable, which may be right. Conspiracy theories thrive among the discontented, as ways to avoid or compensate for changes they cannot accept. Such changes are only going to come faster and harder, with ever wilder justifications floated on ever more sophisticated media channels, and we’ll need artists to help us understand the chaotic, conspiratorial images to come.

For the real hazard of today’s conspiracy theory boom is that it had smoothed the way for actual malfeasance, which these days you can disclose publicly with minimal consequence. Mr. Trump responded to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with an outright admission in the Oval Office that the kingdom’s arms deals were too valuable for him to lose. Or consider last year’s release of the Paradise Papers, a huge cache of documents revealing offshore financial shenanigans by C.E.O.s, cabinet secretaries and celebrities. The papers disclosed the kind of connections Marc Lombardi spent years researching and drawing, yet they produced almost no public outcry.

How will tomorrow’s artists bring our attention to these wrongs, as Mr. Haacke and Ms. Holzer have done, and can museums do anything to keep them from drowning in a morass of alternative facts? “Everything Is Connected” may be the show for an age of conspiracy theorists, but the biggest conspiracies of all are hiding in plain sight.

Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy

Through Jan. 6 at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-731-1675, metmuseum.org.

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