ART REVIEW : MOCA’s Flag Mural: It’s a Wrap : Art: After 18 months in the planning stage--and overcoming many roadblocks--Barbara Kruger’s artwork finally adorns the Temporary Contemporary.
In 20th-Century art, politics has found its most direct expression in murals painted on public walls. Whether officially sanctioned by a public or private sponsor, or whether painted “on the run” as energetic graffiti, the words and images in politically engaged murals mean to take a stand.
By contrast, Barbara Kruger’s chameleon-like new mural appears able to change its conceptual colors according to the shifting currents of the day. This is not to say the artist has no firm convictions to set forth in her pointedly monumental work of art. Instead, choosing up sides on polarized issues seems less important to her than finding ways to stir the sluggish sediment of popular involvement with them. Kruger doesn’t offer answers in her art. She interjects questions.
“Untitled (Questions)” was painted last week on the south wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Temporary Contemporary, a former warehouse in Little Tokyo. It melds the traditional thrust of political murals with the graphic sensibility of advertising billboards in order to achieve two goals. One is simply to act as a sign for passers-by to identify the museum building, which is quite nondescript and difficult to locate even from the nearby corner of 1st Street and Central Avenue. The other function is, simply, to be a work of art.
The street sign is the easy part. Nearly three stories high and more than two-thirds the length of a football field, the commercially painted mural is hard to miss. So is its composition, which approximates the American flag. The upper left corner is a blue rectangle with white letters that announce: “MOCA at the Temporary Contemporary.” The remainder is a red field whose white sentences divide the expanse into visual stripes.
The chosen composition obviously flags MOCA for the passer-by, but it also evokes something more subtle and provocative. Such public buildings as courthouses, post offices and city halls are typically the ones that fly the flag out front. Kruger’s flag-mural insists that the art museum be counted as a place for important public business, too--the business of expressive thought, enacted in the social context of a public place.
Call it street democracy in action. In four lines of simple text, Kruger’s mural poses nine direct questions: Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose? Who does time? Who follows orders? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?
These simple queries are disconcerting, in part because of the emphatic scale of the blaring wall--even glimpsing it from a few blocks away generates a double-take--but, more shrewdly, because their form contradicts expectations. Big street signs, whether billboards or business logos, almost always address the viewer as a passive observer. They declare: Do this, buy that, come here, take my word for it. If they ask anything, they merely ask for your surrender. But not Kruger’s big sign.
Her mural addresses you as a peer, as a citizen or fellow member of the public world. It means to start a conversation. The huge and startling painting speaks loudly in order to be heard above the urban din; still, you’re pointedly addressed as an active participant in disputatious public life.
Even though we casually expect it from a modern work of art, identity is not being asserted here. Identity is, instead, precisely the issue held in question. The nine queries repeat, like a mantra, a single word: Who is beyond the law? Who is free to choose? Who prays loudest?
Kruger no doubt has her own answers, as might any passer-by who ponders the list. Those answers might differ or they might be the same; yet, once identified, virtually any answer implies that not everyone fits the bill. Only some people are beyond the law. Not all are in fact free to choose. Certain people do pray loudly. Against this poignant human reality, Kruger’s mural presses the great American ideal of complete equality, symbolized by the flag. Acting upon the questions gains urgency.
Kruger’s mural has been in the making for more than 18 months. Originally planned to have been painted in May, 1989, as part of MOCA’s widely discussed exhibition, “A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation,” it ran into some unanticipated roadblocks. Various city agencies had to give the go-ahead, and bureaucracy grinds slowly. Also, the museum approached neighborhood organizations in Little Tokyo about its plans. There, the project came upon an unexpected complaint.
The original design for the mural featured the nine questions as a border framing the image of the flag, with the text of the Pledge of Allegiance as the white stripes. Some people took offense. The mural faces the embarkation point from which thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to relocation camps during World War II, their loyalty to their country shockingly in question. Daily, these imprisoned citizens were forced by the state to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Aggravated by a flag-waving presidential campaign in 1988, which no doubt inspired Kruger’s meditation, the mural unintentionally rubbed painful wounds.
In keeping with the public spirit of the mural, the New York-based artist met several times with neighborhood groups in order to work out a mutually satisfactory solution. At one point she switched the bordering questions and the striped Pledge, finally removing the Pledge altogether to arrive at the version now gracing MOCA’s wall. There’s no way to know which of the three designs would be best without trying them all, but the finished mural is powerful and eloquent.
And, it has accrued new resonance that couldn’t have been anticipated when the project was first conceived. A loyalty oath--far less cruelly threatening than at Manzanar but still chilling nonetheless--is today being demanded of artists themselves, should they wish to participate in public programs sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Kruger’s nine questions were not originally posed with the present censorship crisis in mind. (Ironically, “A Forest of Signs” did receive federal funding.) But wrapping the museum in the flag and wondering Who salutes longest? is clearly as American as the Fourth of the July.
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