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Full list of Reviews
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January 28, 2004
by brian boucher

False Metaphors
Liselot van der Heijden at Schroeder Romero
173A North 3rd Street
Brooklyn, New York
Through February 9, 2004
by brian boucher

Three photographs in the current show at Schroeder Romero gallery, one hanging in the entryway, might lead you to expect a show commenting on museum practice. In a move recalling Thomas Struth, Liselot van der Heijden has photographed museumgoers before wildlife dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. At first glance the work seems to partake of a tired polemic about museums sucking the life out of what they display, pinning butterflies to a board. But things get much more interesting in a group of works that, while small, opens out onto artistic concerns both perennial and very much of the moment.

Aporia, a video projected on an obliquely-placed, custom-built wall, shows the head of a dying zebra lying on the earth and staring out at the viewer from its last moment of life. This raw encounter with nature and with death reveals the museum photographs as dealing more with the human encounter with animals and the environment than with critiques of display. In fact, though, the film comes not from the artist's trip to Africa (as Holland Cotter, god bless him, reported in the New York Times -- she's never been). It comes from National Geographic, the very symbol of nature itself to urbanites like me. Other projects by van der Heijden have addressed so much of modern humankind's isolation from the outside world. Her installation Nature, shown at Momenta Art, showed tourists photographing scenery and animals such that "a vacation is broken down into a series of climactic moments of purchase and capture." (The 2001 video Transcendental Landscape, a collaboration by van der Heijden, Robert Boyd, Ashley Hunt and Thomas Peutz, is on view at Momenta now.)

Art's relationship to nature, especially as it touches on issues of mimesis, idealization, and the nature of creativity, is among the most classical concerns of art. As much of mankind has become more and more insulated from the elements, and as our ability to tamper with the order of things has grown, artists have increasingly studied modern humankind's troubled and distant relationship with the natural world. Nina Katchadourian's video GIFT/GIFT showed nature rejecting human interventions like an organism rejecting a transplant, and her Natural Car Alarms hoped to trump some of our assumptions about both the natural and the artificial. Ann Craven's paintings of birds mix and match parts of different breeds, hardly evident to most viewers, and then place them against kitschy, artificial backgrounds as if to suggest that birds are nature's own kitsch. Other artists comment on scientific adventurism and the hubris of engineering nature; Thomas Grünfeld's hilariously taxidermied animals provide one example. The list could go on and on, with Alexis Rockman, Steve Mumford and many more. Like many others on that list, van der Heijden communicates her own ambivalence, especially in the word aporia: an expression of doubt about a question. She admits that she comments on our distance from nature, but only with already-mediated images of the natural world.

Feast: Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers adds another layer of complexity, using more looped National Geographic footage, this time of a group of vultures devouring a dead animal. Three alternating texts are superimposed: "this is not political;" "a vulture is not an eagle;" and "this has nothing to do with oil." Communicating by indirection, with more than a nod to Magritte, van der Heijden asks us to read the piece politically; to see the vultures as symbols of America as it feeds on the corpses of failed states such as Irak; and to see a commentary on American dependence on foreign oil, the resultant wars, and the bald lies with which the administration tries to hide these awful truths. Neat trick, that.

The artist's reference to Broodthaers, moreover, expands the commentary on truth, falsity, and symbolism. The Belgian artist's Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles extended Duchamp's enterprise of undermining restrictive definitions of art, meantime turning Magritte's "this is not a pipe" to a different purpose: Broodthaers reversed the meaning of the negative statement by captioning each eagle in his museum "this is not a work of art." Say it ain't so, and it is.

Nature and art's relationship to it have long been central concerns for artists; the events of the day have become primary concerns only fairly recently, as history painting and all its variations have caught up with current events. With great economy, van der Heijden here addresses these two subjects, perhaps the least and the most political of any. Her take on both is layered, ambiguous and ambivalent, and laced with sharp humor.

--brian boucher is editor of

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