Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 4, 2007

The Cost of Transgression

Strange as it sounds, this summer’s “must see” art exhibition is a “may not see.” Training Ground for Democracy, a colossal installation by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, was to have opened last December at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (MASS MoCA) in North Adams. But last week, after a series of fitful and last-minute demands by the artist that tripled its cost, the museum cancelled the exhibition and is now pursuing court action against the artist. Until the dispute is resolved, the installation will remain in limbo, roped off from the public—leaving only tantalizing glimpses of objects peeking out forlornly from above the yellow tarps.

Training Ground for Democracy is installed in MASS MoCA’s Building Five, a former mill that measures some 300 by 75 by 40 feet. Over the years, this hangar of a space has invariably affected artists in one of two ways, pushing them either to playfulness or to portentousness. Tim Hawkinson is an example of the first type; in 2000 he filled the gallery with a mad array of sputtering organ pipes, a Dr. Seuss fantasy that he called the Überorgan. Similarly lighthearted was Ann Hamilton’s Corpus (2004), in which machines mounted in the building’s roof truss released sheets of paper, to waft down like autumn leaves. An example of the portentous type is Robert Wilson, whose 14 Stations (2003) made a grim sacred procession out of concentration camp barracks. Büchel’s installation is of this sort.

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Strange as it sounds, this summer’s “must see” art exhibition is a “may not see.” Training Ground for Democracy, a colossal installation by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, was to have opened last December at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (MASS MoCA) in North Adams. But last week, after a series of fitful and last-minute demands by the artist that tripled its cost, the museum cancelled the exhibition and is now pursuing court action against the artist. Until the dispute is resolved, the installation will remain in limbo, roped off from the public—leaving only tantalizing glimpses of objects peeking out forlornly from above the yellow tarps.

Training Ground for Democracy is installed in MASS MoCA’s Building Five, a former mill that measures some 300 by 75 by 40 feet. Over the years, this hangar of a space has invariably affected artists in one of two ways, pushing them either to playfulness or to portentousness. Tim Hawkinson is an example of the first type; in 2000 he filled the gallery with a mad array of sputtering organ pipes, a Dr. Seuss fantasy that he called the Überorgan. Similarly lighthearted was Ann Hamilton’s Corpus (2004), in which machines mounted in the building’s roof truss released sheets of paper, to waft down like autumn leaves. An example of the portentous type is Robert Wilson, whose 14 Stations (2003) made a grim sacred procession out of concentration camp barracks. Büchel’s installation is of this sort.

Training Ground for Democracy juxtaposes emblems of American popular culture (a frame house, a child’s carousel, a mobile home, the interior of a 1940’s movie theater) against emblems of political tyranny (barbed wire, cinderblock walls, a guard tower that might have watched over the Berlin Wall). It was the scale of these emblems—Büchel’s last-minute demands included a scorched jet fuselage—that ultimately brought the installation to grief.

Having inspected it Thursday afternoon, I am not sure that it suffers from being enveiled. On the contrary: just as most naked bodies benefit from clothing, the yellow shrouds hiding most of the exhibit add a note of complexity and mystery to what would otherwise be a rather simplistic exercise in political art. Juxtapositions like the one Büchel ateempts here were startling in 1965, when James Rosenquist painted the fuselage of an F-111 fighter across a background of Firestone tires and bowls of spaghetti; today they are merely trite. And trite art—even if possessed of an epic scale and an equally epic budget, and even if it struggles mightily to say something urgent about the war in Iraq—is still trite.

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A “Mission-Critical” CIA Assignment

The CIA is currently attempting to fill a sensitive position that involves temporary “overseas travel.” All applicants for this slot are warned that “friends, family, individuals, or organizations may be interested to learn that you are an applicant for or an employee of the CIA” and that their interest “may not be benign.” Furthermore, one “cannot control whom they would tell.” The CIA therefore urges applicants “to exercise discretion and good judgment” in disclosing their intentions to sign up with the agency.

To get the job, an applicant must successfully complete a psychological exam, a polygraph exam, a polygraph interview, and an extensive background investigation. U.S. citizenship is required.

What is this sensitive job? Three hints.

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The CIA is currently attempting to fill a sensitive position that involves temporary “overseas travel.” All applicants for this slot are warned that “friends, family, individuals, or organizations may be interested to learn that you are an applicant for or an employee of the CIA” and that their interest “may not be benign.” Furthermore, one “cannot control whom they would tell.” The CIA therefore urges applicants “to exercise discretion and good judgment” in disclosing their intentions to sign up with the agency.

To get the job, an applicant must successfully complete a psychological exam, a polygraph exam, a polygraph interview, and an extensive background investigation. U.S. citizenship is required.

What is this sensitive job? Three hints.

First, back in April, in CIA vs. MPG, I commented on the progress our premier intelligence agency has been making in the fuel-efficiency of its LDV’s—the CIA acronym for “light-duty vehicle,” or in non-spyspeak, a car.

Second, the pay is $24.29 an hour.

Third, this particular job is part of a “mission-critical unit.”

Click here to find out the nature of the job and/or to apply.

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Forgetting Tiananmen

Eighteen years ago today, elements of the vicious 27th Army were mopping up scattered resistance in the center of Beijing. Most of the fighting occurred in the streets west of Tiananmen Square, where Chinese citizens took on armored vehicles with rocks. By the time the People’s Liberation Army pushed its way to the symbolic heart of China, the death toll had reached hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Beijing’s leaders do not permit commemoration of the dead and rarely talk about “that 1989 affair,” as they now euphemistically call it. In Hong Kong, however, Tiananmen remains close to the center of public discourse. This year’s June 4 vigil—an annual event in Hong Kong—attracted 28,000 residents, according to police, and 55,000 in the estimation of organizers. The crowd was about 10,000 larger than it was last year.

The increased turnout was no surprise. Ma Lik, chairman of the main pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong, recently stoked public debate on Tiananmen. “We should not say the Communist party massacred people on June 4,” Ma told a group of journalists last month. “A massacre would mean the Communist party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately.” His larger point was that Hong Kong, now a special administrative region of China, should not have universal suffrage until its students have received “proper” national education. The fact that people still use terms like “massacre” show, in Ma’s opinion, the citizens’ lack of “heart-felt” patriotism.

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Eighteen years ago today, elements of the vicious 27th Army were mopping up scattered resistance in the center of Beijing. Most of the fighting occurred in the streets west of Tiananmen Square, where Chinese citizens took on armored vehicles with rocks. By the time the People’s Liberation Army pushed its way to the symbolic heart of China, the death toll had reached hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Beijing’s leaders do not permit commemoration of the dead and rarely talk about “that 1989 affair,” as they now euphemistically call it. In Hong Kong, however, Tiananmen remains close to the center of public discourse. This year’s June 4 vigil—an annual event in Hong Kong—attracted 28,000 residents, according to police, and 55,000 in the estimation of organizers. The crowd was about 10,000 larger than it was last year.

The increased turnout was no surprise. Ma Lik, chairman of the main pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong, recently stoked public debate on Tiananmen. “We should not say the Communist party massacred people on June 4,” Ma told a group of journalists last month. “A massacre would mean the Communist party intentionally killed people with machine guns indiscriminately.” His larger point was that Hong Kong, now a special administrative region of China, should not have universal suffrage until its students have received “proper” national education. The fact that people still use terms like “massacre” show, in Ma’s opinion, the citizens’ lack of “heart-felt” patriotism.

But the thorniest problem for the Chinese government is not that China’s citizens will remember the incident—it is, paradoxically, that they will forget. The party stays in power through coercion and, on occasion, force. The Chinese people, however, stage demonstratations whenever they think they can get away with it. There is so much unrest in China today—there are, incredibly, about 150,000 protests in China each year—precisely because the Chinese people are forgetting about Tiananmen and losing their fear of the regime.

The reaction to all this unrest is that the nation’s fourth-generation leaders, especially President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have begun to paint themselves as ordinary citizens. They are increasingly giving up the imperial trappings so favored by their predecessors and spending public holidays in coal mines and isolated hamlets.

Currying favor with the people is the only possible course for this generation. It’s extremely unlikely that the party would survive another uprising of the kind so brutally put down eighteen years ago—it no longer has the ability to order mass slaughter. No current leader has the same kind of autocratic personal authority that Deng Xiaoping possessed, authority necessary to give such a command.

And it’s highly unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army, at this point, would obey an order of that sort. Even with his military credentials, it took Deng a long time to find a unit that would actually fight unarmed citizens in 1989. The current civilian leadership does not have Deng’s stature; such an order might split the military and cause a revolt among the officer class. Finally, even if the top brass wanted to shoot, it’s unlikely that ordinary soldiers would kill ordinary citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of most of its people.

So instead of condemning Ma Lik, now embroiled in the uproar he caused, let’s cheer him on. It might be best if the rest of the world remembers Tiananmen—and the Chinese people forget.

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Biden the Holdout

Press coverage of yesterday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire was so heavily focused on the in-fighting between the candidates over who was more fervently opposed to funding the military’s operations in Iraq, that, as best I can tell, not a single major media outlet caught the most important moment of the night.

Edwards, courting his party’s Left, accused Obama and Clinton of failing to offer strong leadership during the Senate floor debate over whether funding for the war in Iraq should be continued. Obama and Clinton, he noted, had voted against the funding, but neither had spoken against it from the Senate floor. Obama responded testily that he, unlike Edwards, had opposed the war from the start. Senator Clinton (with one eye on the general election) replied, “The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don’t want anybody in America to be confused.”

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Press coverage of yesterday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire was so heavily focused on the in-fighting between the candidates over who was more fervently opposed to funding the military’s operations in Iraq, that, as best I can tell, not a single major media outlet caught the most important moment of the night.

Edwards, courting his party’s Left, accused Obama and Clinton of failing to offer strong leadership during the Senate floor debate over whether funding for the war in Iraq should be continued. Obama and Clinton, he noted, had voted against the funding, but neither had spoken against it from the Senate floor. Obama responded testily that he, unlike Edwards, had opposed the war from the start. Senator Clinton (with one eye on the general election) replied, “The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don’t want anybody in America to be confused.”

But one contender is distinguished by a major difference: Joe Biden, the only presidential hopeful to have voted to continue the funding. Biden declined to criticize his colleagues, but explained that he had voted for the bill because—noting that most American casualties come from IED’s (improvised explosive devices)—“it contained funding for new armored vehicles that will better resist roadside bombs.” Biden went on:

As long as there is a single troop in Iraq that I know if I take action by funding them, I increase the prospect they will live or not be injured. I cannot and will not vote no to fund them.

You can expect Biden’s statement to resurface in the general election, when Republicans will present the “no” votes from either Clinton or Obama as a vote explicitly against protecting American lives.

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