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On the Eve of the U.S. Election, a New Exhibition Explores the Relationship Between Art and Conspiracy

The Met Breuer's "Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy" takes a look at alternative histories, from the FBI's targeting of the Black Panthers to the Reagan administration’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis.

Peter Saul, “Government of California,” 1969. (OPPOSITE) Gerald Williams, “Wake Up,” 1969.

“This show is way more topical than we could have ever imagined,” says Ian Alteveer, co-curator of “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” (Sept. 18, 2018–Jan. 6, 2019) now open at the Met Breuer. Conceived in 2010, the show’s 70 works by 30 artists take on a half-century’s worth of alternative histories, from the Kennedy assassination to the FBI’s targeting of the Black Panthers; Watergate to Henry Kissinger’s incursions in Latin America; the Reagan administration’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis to the second Bush administration’s use of torture. The result is as much a reckoning with our past as a road map of our current era, a moment defined by echo chambers of paranoia and bewilderment. And while the contents include nothing explicit about the past two years, its specter will no doubt hang over the museum’s fourth-floor gallery space. As Alteveer says: “How could it not?”

Divided in two sections, presented as opposite sides of the same coin, the exhibition showcases the parallel tracks of artistic engagement with conspiracy thinking since the 1960s: First, the artist as investigator, those like Jenny Holzer and Trevor Paglen who use the public record to expose deceit; second, artists such as Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, and Sue Williams, who plunge down the rabbit hole of disgruntled fantasy only to resurface with phantasmagoric, though truth-telling, results. “Everything  Is Connected” offers up a different kind of chamber: an 8,500-square-foot hall of mirrors reflecting back to its viewers years of our own complicity and disaffection.

“The show will be provocative, but I hope that, more than that, it makes people think about moments in the past that have engendered such thinking, and such unease,” says Alteveer. “What we really want the exhibition to do is to make people think about our shared history—a history that builds up to where we are now.”

Sue Williams, “Hill and Dale, Black-Ops,” 2013. (OPPOSITE) Emory Douglas, The Black Panther (back cover), Sept. 21, 1974 “(I, Gerald Ford, Am the 38th Puppet of the United States).”
Silence = Death Project. “AIDSGATE,” 1987. (RIGHT) Emory Douglas, The Black Panther (back cover), Sept. 21, 1974 “(I, Gerald Ford, Am the 38th Puppet of the United States).”
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Mark Lombardi, “Bill Clinton, the Lippo Group, and Jackson Stephens of Little Rock, Arkansas (5th Version),” (detail), 1999.
Wayne Gonzales, “Dallas Police 36398” (1999) and “Peach Oswald” (2001).

We spoke with painter Wayne Gonzales about his works appearing in “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy.”

Two of your works—“Dallas Police 36398” (1999) and “Peach Oswald” (2001)—appear in this exhibition. Tell us about them.

I grew up thinking about the JFK assassination a lot because I’m from New Orleans and a lot of the investigation happened there. I never really cared too much about who did what—I was always interested in the stuff that wasn’t there. It was more that [conspiracy thinking] served as a kind of model for the construction of historical narrative. And I think that’s what we’re fighting over now: the control of the narrative, right?

What do you think when you hear the term “conspiracy theory”?

I mean, geez, there’s so much to process these days. It used to be about challenging institutions, and now it’s about tearing them down. There used to be a pursuit of proof or truth, whereas now it’s the complete opposite, where the lack of evidence creates a situation where it’s just muddy, so you don’t trust anything and can’t believe in anything.

What is the role of art in politics, and vice versa?

When I’m working with this kind of material, I always see myself, at best, as a Don DeLillo or something, creating a historical fictionalized narrative. The pieces are not put together scientifically. They’re put together intuitively. I’m reaching for something psychological and not necessarily literal. I’m not trying to expose anything. I’m trying to open up the person’s way of thinking about their relationship to this stuff. When it comes to art, I prefer things that make you look inside.

Where do you draw the line between conspiracy theorist and artist as investigator?

Artists are artists. I think they have license to be wrong. They’re not journalists.

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