“This exhibition contains artistic works with strong content that could offend the sensibility or beliefs of the visitors. If for whatever reason you think you might be affected please do not enter.”
So begins ‘Bye Bye American Pie’, the newest and long-awaited addition to the collection at MALBA. The exhibition, curated by Philip Larratt-Smith, brings together 110 works from seven of the most important North American artists of the last 40 years: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cady Noland and Paul McCarthy.
The exhibition’s name references the famous Don McLean song ‘American Pie’, which talks of the loss of innocence of the 60s generation, and this is essentially the exhibition’s point of departure.
Placed individually, the works offer specific, subjective and often shocking views of the United States. Pulled together, the exhibition explores and questions the changing cultural face of the country from the 70s to the present day.
“The work of these artists prophecises the gradual decadence of the United States, not only in its economic and political hegemony, but also its culture and ideals,” explains curator Larratt-Smith.
The exhibition includes several different mediums, including photography, drawings and installations. Choosing to step through the black curtain and into the exhibition places you directly in the middle of Larry Clark’s ‘Tulsa’, a set of 50 black and white photos taken between 1963 and 1971 in Clark’s hometown of Oklahoma.
The documental, cinematographic images focus on the drug abuse and subsequent addiction from which Clark suffered. The proximity between the artist and the subjects of his images brings the spectator extremely close to the characters; it’s a first hand account of a drug underworld.
Without labels, the photos stand alone with no narrative. They leave you to make up your own mind and to develop your own interpretations, which sometimes lends itself to uncomfortable truths; a dead baby in a coffin, a retrospectively pregnant woman shooting up; a bloody wound followed by a crazed man holding a gun in front of the US flag.
The images are beautiful but sordid, exposing a rarely portrayed reality of rural America in the 70s – an underground riddled with crime, death, sex and prostitution.
Although the space is open, each collection is separated by grey walls, which heightens the juxtaposition between the artists and intensifies the specificity of every collection. Following Clark’s violent images for example, comes a set of more sarcastically critical collages by the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger.
The trademark bright red borders and ironic use of hackneyed advertising phrases produce a humorous criticism of both consumerism and Manhattan’s advertising companies, nearly always with a feminist stance. One collage proclaims: “It’s a small world, unless you have to clean it.”
Cady Noland’s installations, on the other hand, attack the ‘American dream’ full frontally, subverting conventional versions of the United States. Next door, Nan Goldin’s intimate images of her friends, or people she names her ‘tribe’, are accompanied by understated captions in the style of Diane Arbus, such as ‘Heart-shaped bruise, NYC’. The captions are so basic and objective that they allow no judgement of the more seedy themes being exposed.
The final section is perhaps what made the warning plaque outside so necessary. Paul McCarthy’s giant, pink and textured installation is a shocker and an epic criticism of ex-US president George W. Bush. ‘Train’ depicts two men with oversized heads and the face of Bush mechanically having sex with bent over pigs. It’s a horribly uncomfortable image, but spectators are lured in by an almost compulsively morbid fascination.
Walking towards the installation prompts the ‘Bush twins’ to stare mechanically in your direction; their heads are equipped with motion sensors and their Terminator-like movements follow you around the room, involving reluctant spectators in the installation.
The piece has generated a certain negativity elsewhere. Critics claim that its blatant shock factor – its overt and unashamed bestiality- in fact lessens its impact. But in this setting, ‘Train’ acts as an almost natural conclusion.
After witnessing the cultural shifts of a nation, after looking at powerful images that bring into question the ideals of the United States, and after some harsh criticism of recent times, such a disgusting finale seems strangely fitting.
While the content, imagery and sounds of the piece may well be off putting, its presence doesn’t necessarily feel unjustified. It’s the dramatic and almost suitable end to a build up of images that point towards the downturn of a culture.
Together, the works making up ‘Bye Bye American Pie’ present a fascinating journey through the political and cultural shifts of the past 40 years in the United States. The exhibition may well be shocking, but it’s a risk worth taking.