Woeful Weapons: Josep Renau and Martha Rosler Reacting to War

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Jodie Dinapoli

Published on May 31, 2015

  • Description:

    The exhibition “Woeful Weapons: Josep Renau and Martha Rosler Reacting to War” is on view at the Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM) in Valencia, Spain, through the summer of 2015. My interest in the potential for art exhibitions to make connections between past and present, as well as between different cultures, and to find ways to push our level of comfort with certain issues that strongly affect us locally and globally, compelled me to attend this exhibit about war and its effects on the human condition.
    I dared myself to visit this rather unfriendly family topic exhibition with my year and a half old son who shortly after we arrived fell fast asleep. This was not necessarily owing to the exhibition’s lack of engaging instruments such as panels, interactive installations, workshops and other supportive outlets, not to mention that the labels with tiny lettering made reading a chore. That said, I must admit, however, that as I entered the exhibition, the title text layout immediately impressed me. It´s big, bold and graphic. So right off I thought of an activity using the letters in the text that might engage children. The layout of the exhibition is, neatly arranged and spacious, almost as if the curator wanted the the exhibited works to have enough room to breathe and the visitor to have sufficient uncluttered space to be able reflect leisurely on the impact of the experience. I wandered over to a small table with many books on it that were related to the exhibition´s topics and, mercifully, chairs to sit on and comfortably peruse the reading material or rest or chat with others. It´s not the first time that I see this resource used at IVAM, which seems to indicate that it´s an exhibition element that works with the public and the museum has taken note of that.

    The aim of the exhibition, as stated by the curator Juan Vicente Aliaga in the wall text in English, Spanish and Catalan, is to put together the works of two artists with different backgrounds who have lived in different locations and historical periods-Josep Renau (Valencia 1907-Berlin 1982) and Martha Rosler, (Brooklyn 1943). Both artists’ works present a critical vision of their respective realities and engage in a political approach to art making. The subject is war and the impact it had on both artists and their works, selections of which are exhibited by way of collages and photomontage. Josep Renau´s selected works refer to both the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Cold War (1953-1989), and Martha Rosler´s pieces address the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the wars in Irak (2003-2011) and the ongoing Afganistan that began in 2001.

    The exhibition presents a chronological narrative, divided in four sections that move from Renau´s work to Rosler´s, which also includes a moment of overlap. The first section presents Renau´s work during the years of the Spanish Civil War, when he became one of Spain´s most renowned creators of revolutionary art through graphic design, collage and illustration. These works are charged with enormous visual power as well as of symbols that splendidly exemplify the ideological struggles of those who were directly involved in the fight against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.

    In the second part of the exhibition, titled “two complimentary visions of bellicose imperialism,” the curator considers American imperialism in the 20th century and includes a series that Renau created during his exile in Mexico titled “The American Way of Life” (1949-1976) and Rosler´s “House Beautiful, Bringing The War Home” (1967-1972), created in California in the midst of the student´s protests during the war in Vietnam. Renau´s works present a stark criticism of the McCarthy era in The United States as well as of the American way of life in general. He does this through images of mass consumerism distributed by the media. However, from the perspective of our age, affected by postmodernism and a globalized approach to the very complex system that increasingly connects all of us in the world, this glaring narrative seems to fall slightly flat, though the clarity of its message endures and much of the emotional impact remains. Rosler´s images present her reactions to the Vietnam War by adopting a blunt feminist perspective of women trapped in their domesticity in luxurious homes. This view into the lives of women is reflective of life in the late 60s and 70s made me think about the feminist art movement of that time and its current impact. It made me wonder about the wives and husbands of war veterans today and how war upends the home life reality of a great many people.
    The third and fourth sections include more works by Rosler and a superb selection of fragments of anti-war films by other artists that are even more powerful than the images of Renau and Rosler. These include footage and stories taking place during the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Vietnam and Irak, and film footage of the Guantánamo Base internment camp. What unifies all of them is the way they poetically illustrate the devastating consequences of war on the fragile human condition, crushing the spirit and soul of life.

    As I left the exhibition, I was in a terribly vulnerable state of mind. I needed a onsite space where I could share my thoughts with others. I ended up doing so with one of the museum security guards, who said that many visitors leave the exhibition feeling the same way. I wondered if the museum was tapping into to the feedback available from those who, like the security guard I’d spoken to, are at the front line of the museum visitors’ engagement experience, and what creative approaches were being considered to respond to a much needed space for participation, reflection and share-back when an exhibition has such powerful effects on its visitors.

    I also thought about school visits and spoke with the museum´s Manager of Education, about the types of programs they offer related to this show. He replied that the exhibition theme was complex and that most of the visits were for high school students. Their visits focused on inquiry and active discussion, but with no follow up workshop. I left wondering how the museum could provide an outlet for students to transform those discussions into creative action projects on site, just like the artists had done in their works. I later found out about a family collage workshop offered on Sundays that accompanies a guided visit to the show and an activity working with a poem about peace. I would have loved to learn more about it and attend.

    The fantastic thing about my visit to the show was that it accompanied me out of the museum, all the way to my house and into my living room. It remained with me till later that afternoon I talked to my father about my experience. Realizing that my knowledge of the Vietnam War was less than the other wars referred to in the exhibition, I asked him about the war. We shared a moment in which I not only learned a few historical facts, but also gained an insight into the experience of someone who had lived those years as a young man who, fortunately, was not drafted into the armed forces shipped overseas to fight. He told me about some of his friends who had been inducted and fought in the war, and who upon returning to the United States shared with him their stories how the war had profoundly changed their lives.

    The exhibition got me to think critically about repeated patterns in war conflicts and their impact on society at large. It also brought me a bit closer to my dad and that was very powerful. This came about as a result of my visit to an exhibition that had brought together two artists from different backgrounds and times. That a museum exhibition can bring two family members who had grown up in different places (my father in the United States, and me in Spain) and times, struck me as something beautiful. I wonder if this was a goal that the curator had in mind.

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