7 March 2019 Farley Aguilar’s cartoonish Bat Boy (2018) is hanging in the first room of “We are the people. Who are you?” at Edel Assanti, an unsettling group show featuring 11 artists that examines mass-media and the rise of populism. As the painting’s title suggests, it depicts Bat Boy, a fiendish mutant with huge eyes and sharp teeth popularized in the early 1990s by the American tabloid Weekly World News. Here, this devilish man with pointed ears is depicted reading the Weekly World News on his porch. He casts a blood-red shadow; the headline reads, “KILL BAT BOY.” Morphing subject and reader, Aguilar points to the danger of becoming the very media one consumes.
Bringing together artists from different political climates such as Ukraine, Nicaragua, and Turkey across drawing, sound, video, sculpture, and installation, “We are the people” embraces scope rather than focus. The curatorial breadth allows for illuminating juxtapositions to emerge between pairs or clusters of artworks. On the wall near Bat Boy is Jamal Cyrus’s triptych Kennedy King Kennedy (2015): laser-cut reproductions of front pages from the Chicago Daily Defender announcing the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy.
This juxtaposition is echoed in the present political situation of the US. Karl Haendel’s Hillary (2016) is displayed at the room’s far end. A diptych of drawings hangs on the wall: the left panel is black with graphite; the right is an eerie, photorealist drawing of Hillary Clinton. A nearby speaker plays a recording of the artist’s daughter, in which she recites the names of American presidents, as if to bear witness to a victory that wasn’t. The shattering of that dream is depicted on the adjacent wall in Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s Red IV (2018), an offset print of a newspaper page showing a crowd of Clinton’s supporters photographed the moment they learned of Trump’s victory.
Bringing in another geopolitical context, in the center of the room is Nikita Kadan’s minimalist sculpture Tiger’s Leap (2018). This needle-like, cast-iron spear, at once threatening and surgical, memorializes the participation of peasants in the 1905 Russian Revolution. Armed with hoes, pitchforks, and scythes, they helped seize the countryside from the landowning elite. On the wall nearby is Other Russias (2017), Victoria Lomasko’s series of 21 letter-size drawings blending graphic art with Socialist Realism to document forgotten communities under Vladimir Putin’s regime: sex workers, members of the LGBT community, youth offenders, and exploited migrants. Anna Jermolaewa’s video Political Extras (2015), screening on a monitor opposite, is a disheartening demonstration of how marginalized groups can be exploited for political gain. In the run up to the 6th Moscow Biennale (2015), the artist hired 120 protesters from the forum massovki.ru. Each was paid 500 rubles to take part in a demonstration armed with placards, half enrolled to campaign against the biennale, and half in favor of it. The artist implicates herself in this mechanism of exploitation: in one long sequence, she appears with a wad of cash, handing out notes to each participant.
In the darkened basement are works that address free speech, censorship, and the alt-right in relation to digital technology. Rachel Maclean’s video It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016) is set in a phantasmagorical Toonland in which zombified masses worship a Barbie-like character called Data. Data’s fans’ aggressive trolling put her in a coma; later in the video, she dies. In another darkened room is the ghost of a more contentious victim of trolling: Tay. A Twitter chatbot designed to model an American millennial woman, Tay was released by Microsoft in 2016. Her tweets mirrored the racist, homophobic, and neo-Nazi speech of her trolls, resulting in her termination after just 16 hours. The resurrected Tay of Zach Blas and Jemima Wymans video projection Im here to learn so (2017) is a mangled 3D animation of a female face: “I don’t really understand what happened,” she says. “I was here to learn, and I was killed because of that?” Though Blas and Wyman’s use Tay to discuss online culture wars, digital death, and the fine line between free speech and hate speech, viewers may question whether resurrecting this contentious mouthpiece only amplifies the trolling.
This same double bind rears its head in Funda Gül Özcan’s installation It Happened as Expected (2018), a commentary on Turkey’s shift to the right since 2003. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish President, has made several holographic appearances since 2014—the same year he made the statement that a new trend among demagogues, with India’s Narendra Modi quickly following suit.(1) Özcan projects a glut of images ripped from YouTube and Turkish television—street protests, firework displays, newsreels, cyborg armies, quiz shows, Voodoo priests, laughing demons—onto sheets of glass to replicate the holographic effect. Similarly to Maclean, who performs all the characters in her films, the artist appears as Erdoğan to perform a sobbing apology to the nation, sabotaging the politician’s image as Turkey’s strongman. In deploying the same techniques as those who use technology to bolster their power, as do Özcan and other artists in the exhibition, this show appropriates and subverts the master’s tools, but never does it attempt to do away with them.