Peripheral Views: States of America at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
MoCP journeys through the landscape of the American psyche.
It’s the season of road trips—time to escape the city in pursuit of “real America.” But where is that, exactly? The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s “Peripheral Views: States of America” questions the existence of this mythical locale and takes on the challenge of “picturing America in our time.”
As the title implies, the exhibition doesn’t focus on obvious road-trip subjects, but more elusive realities: the landscapes of the American psyche. Not exactly a fun summer show, “Peripheral Views” is conceptual in its focus—perhaps too much so. Most of the works emphasize intellectual content over emotional impact.
That distance partly stems from the absence of humans in the photographic works; many images imply the presence of people without showing them. Martin Hyers and William Mebane’s photographic series “Empire” (2006) presents fragments of interior spaces and human-made objects—the corner of a table, a clock in a school hallway, the snout of a bronze cow—captured as the photographers traveled across the Southwest. Each streamlined shot reduces the messiness of everyday life to simple lines, forms and color, privileging the artists’ aesthetic concerns over any commentary on American life.
Less successful are the minimalist photographs of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s series “American Landscapes” (2009). The photos’ titles—such as Heidi Klum, Volvo and Japan Airlines, Gap Kids—are more evocative than the monochromatic corners of interior spaces they depict. Each title comprises the names of products, magazines, stores or celebrities. According to the label text, the photos “were shot in commercial photography studios where prominent celebrities and brands have shot promo ads.” Inelegant writing aside, the execution is not as interesting as the concept.
Doug Rickard’s work, by contrast, is both accessible and disturbing. Blurred human figures inhabit photos of run-down neighborhoods in cities across the U.S. The label text explains that Rickard never visited these areas himself; instead, he took the photos from the comfort of his studio using Google Street View. This bit of information raises questions of surveillance technology in modern life and our own removal from the shadowy people portrayed.
More engaging than the show’s photos are its two video installations. Harry Shearer’s The Silent Echo Chamber (pictured, 2008) is difficult to ignore. Seven video monitors display images of politicians, reporters and news commentators (including Bill O’Reilly, President Obama and Anderson Cooper) in the moments before they “go live” in front of the television cameras. None of the talking heads talk; instead, they silently sit or stand. The irony escaped none of the amused museum visitors who chuckled at the familiar, yet strangely quiet, faces onscreen. The work turns the political tables, silencing the talking heads and empowering viewers to talk back.
The most entertaining—and provocative—of the videos is Liz Magic Laser’s I Feel Your Pain (2011). In it, actors recite a series of interviews between famous TV news journalists and politicians, altering the context and tone so that the exchanges seem like conversations in a bar or chats around a kitchen table. “Act I, Scene 1 First Date” is hilarious: Two actors reimagine Glenn Beck’s first, stilted interview with Sarah Palin as passionate banter between young lovers. I Feel Your Pain is political farce, but also a commentary on the current American obsession with humanizing our politicians, making them seem like “real people.” The video is a fitting, fun ending to a road trip that’s more head trip.