When he rolled out the word truthiness in 2005, Stephen Colbert applied it first to things like the slippery justifications offered by the Bush Administration for the invasion of Iraq. But in a world of reality TV, staged photo ops and any marriage involving Kim Kardashian, truthiness turned out to offer a way to think about all kinds of things. It was a term as widely useful as authenticity. Maybe more so.
This is the idea behind "More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness" a sly new exhibition at Site Santa Fe through Jan. 6. The premise of the show--the brainchild of Elizabeth Armstrong, curator of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where the show moves next March--is that a lot of new art is fascinated by the same spreading condition that Colbert put his finger on: the increasingly seductive plausibility of dubious "facts." To get the idea, just look at Korean artist Seung Woo Back's RW01-001, part of a photo series he did at a South Korean theme park crammed with scaled-down versions of famous places. In Back's picture, replicas of historic sailing vessels float just off the coast from a surreal herd of Manhattan landmarks, while the skyline of Seoul stretches out unexpectedly in the distance. You assume this visual mosh pit must be digitally altered. Not so. In a world where reality and illusion blend ever more easily, who needs Photoshop?
For Phantom Truck" the Madrid-born, Chicago-based artist Iigo Manglano-Ovalle took his cues from Colin Powell's famous presentation before the U.N. of purported evidence of Saddam Hussein's secret weapons program, wherein Powell described in detail mobile weapons laboratories that never turned up once the Iraq war got under way. Working from Powell's descriptions, Manglano-Ovalle produced a life-size version of one of those imaginary vehicles. His truck sits in a pitch dark gallery, so you sense it first only from the sinister industrial hum it emits. Then your eyes adjust, and it emerges from the darkness--a bad dream slowly materializing, but a fantasy all the same.
Phantom Truck is a reminder that art has always operated in the service of truthiness. It has always lent credibility--what you might call the prestige of the visible--to unverifiable beliefs. If you don't buy the biblical account of creation, for instance, the whole ceiling of the Sistine Chapel can look like an epic example of truthiness run amok. And art has always trafficked in illusions. A whole subset of 19th century American painting dealt in trompe l'oeil pictures of photos and small objects tacked to a wall. In this show, Houston-based artist Dario Robleto builds on that tradition with realistic objects that carry an unexpected message in their materials. The Melancholic Refuses to Surrender is one of them, a pair of boxing gloves that turns out to be an oblique meditation on African-American history--once you know that they're made partly from men's broken hand bones and a melted vinyl recording of a Lead Belly song about the black boxing champ Jack Johnson being barred from the Titanic.