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War (What Is It Good For?)

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 18

A permanent collection–what is it good for? The Museum of Contemporary Art answers: a rapid-response exhibit called “War (What Is It Good For?).” Assembled by assistant curator Michael Rooks, this show of 36 works by 22 artists and one video collective registers the pulse of war fever. In the strongest piece, a 50-minute video titled Border shot on the Israel-Lebanon border (on loan from Rhona Hoffman Gallery), Israeli-New York artist Michal Rovner meditates on turning war into art.

Two other shows at the MCA are also drawn from the permanent collection, begun in 1974 and now numbering around 5,600 works. “Categorically Speaking,” by associate curator Staci Boris, showcases artists behaving like curators, picking and packaging images. Under the omnibus rubric “Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain”–also the title of a work in the show, Bruce Nauman’s 1983 neon ouroboros sculpture spelling out those six words in a six-foot circle of blinking blue, red, green, and orange tubing–chief curator Elizabeth Smith displays a hard-to-categorize sampling of 80 works by 48 artists.

The selection of pieces for each show is forgivably arbitrary: it’s easy to imagine moving them around. Chris Burden’s massive The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991), which bears three million invented Vietnamese names etched in a dozen huge copper tablets hung from a freestanding Rolodex-like structure, belongs in “War (What Is It Good For?)” but is found in the more spacious territory allotted to “Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain.” You can imagine swapping the war exhibit’s eight affectless “Aestheticized Disaster” pencil drawings, which Jim Shaw copied from television screens and news photos, with Dennis Adams’s Patty Hearst: A Thru Z (1979/90), a Warhol-like appropriation of 26 news shots of the former Symbionese Liberation Army foot soldier, now in “Categorically Speaking.”

None of the works in the war show answers the rhetorical question Rooks poses, though prowar rhetoric can be found in statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recorded by the collective Artist Emergency Response in its 89-minute tape Video Petition Project (2002, ongoing). “The Intifada is justified,” opines one of the interviewees, Dread Scott, an opponent of “Zionist state aggression.” (This former student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago sparked protests here in 1989 with his What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, which required viewers to stand on the flag in order to write their comments in a guest book.) Scott expresses himself more artfully in Barbara Hammer’s artlessly edited three-minute video documentary Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War (2003), named after a performance piece Scott helped organize in Times Square on October 5, 2001–an antiwar response to the September 11 attacks. On a sidewalk stand long lines of silent volunteers bearing identical signs reading “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” Here the black uniform of the urban artist morphs into the ritual garb of old-world mourning. Eyes cast upward, the artists are mute behind their white dust masks in this affecting piece.

The most layered, articulate work in “War (What Is It Good For?)” is Rovner’s video (2000)–despite the gallery’s acoustics, which nearly obscure an atmospheric sound track with music by Dead Can Dance, Hamza El Din, and the Residents. This engaging landscape study is rendered in monochromatic colors with a tangible grain, the scenes often viewed through an extremely long telephoto lens. English subtitles translate the Hebrew conversations. Instead of reporting on the history and ideology of the so-called security zone, Rovner’s intent is to capture the intractable anxiety on the Israeli side of its highly militarized border with Lebanon. Her escort and interlocutor, Brigadier General Giora of the Israeli Defense Force, shoots some Hi-8 video for her from a helicopter–though he protests, “I don’t really know why I’m filming this for you.” From the very beginning, when the artist accosts two men waiting for a taxi, she poses to her subjects the question of how to design her video: “Wait, how should this film end?” she asks.

Border plays continuously on a monitor resting on a white pedestal before two black leather Barcelona chairs for viewers. Rovner structures her video with repeating elements, so a viewer can appreciate her art after watching only a fragment. Besides asking soldiers about her safety six times (“There’s no buffer zone? Someone could just shoot me?”) and bringing up the ending five times, she shows the same shot of a soldier swinging open a gate four times. Three times Rovner asks people, “What if you had to kill?” or some variant. Birds–in pairs or flocks–appear eight times. Rovner and Giora talk on their cell phones eight times. She shows herself and Giora walking down an empty road three times, a performance that suggests the general went above and beyond the call of duty to accommodate Rovner’s artistic needs.

Watched in its entirety, Border becomes a dialogue between Rovner and Giora about bridging the worlds of art and the military. Four times she asks about the bounds of her understanding: “Who knows what’s going on there?” and “Are there things I’m better off not knowing?” At one point she observes, “Those mountains in the distance look like China,” and later Giora points out, “You can make it look like China. That’s your profession.” At one point the general says, “You don’t understand what you’re seeing here. If I explained, you’d be totally confused, Michal.” Similar exchanges occur throughout the video. Another time he remarks, “My world interests you because it provides you with material that enables you to produce something that strengthens you in your world, but your world can’t do that for mine.” He adds, “I wonder what will come out of it. How can you turn it into art?” He teases her by saying that if he gets killed, she’ll get famous by selling her video to CNN. He says he faces life-and-death tactical choices, “and suddenly I’m talking to a woman for whom the most important thing is whether to film birds at sunrise or sunset.”

Border works as a montage but is more rewarding as a narrative–the reflexive diary of an artist traversing a frightful landscape. And viewers who merely sample the video may well miss a title that occurs just once: “This is not a true story,” Rovner says near the beginning. That title is followed by another, “Israel-Lebanon border.” In an earlier version, a longer title stood in for the “true story” one: “The story, all names, characters and incidents portrayed in this film are fictitious.” But toward the end of Border there’s an extremely chaotic shot, lasting mere seconds, that captures an explosion, a burst of flame, screams, and soldiers’ bodies on the road. If Rovner’s title is taken at face value, it’s a scene that’s expertly faked.

The “true story” title and the apparent explosion, which bookend Border, add a dimension of uncertainty to an already unstable terrain. The prospect of Rovner simulating a terrorist incident and scripting the general’s lines–a prospect she herself introduces–may undercut the video’s documentary aura, but it raises her work from the level of a topical notebook to a sublime essay on perception.

“Absolutely nothing” was the answer that songwriters Barret Strong, Norman Whitfield, and Edwin Starr gave in their 1970 hit “War” to the question that inspired Rooks’s exhibition title. And a Times-Picayune headline earlier this year for a review of the NBC movie War Stories asked the same question and answered “A television movie.” Echoing a key theme of Border, that film’s CIA operatives and cynical correspondents intone the truism “There’s no truth. That’s why they call them stories.” Rovner’s ambiguous story is unambiguously on target at a time when President Bush gave Iraqi inspections a thumbs-down review–“This looks like a rerun of a bad movie, and I’m not interested in watching it”–and Saddam Hussein’s science adviser called Colin Powell’s report to the UN “a typical American show, complete with stunts and special effects.”