On February 5, 2003, then–Secretary of State Colin Powell brandished a model of a vial of anthrax as he assured the United Nations Security Council that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Behind him, a blue cloth covered the tapestry reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) that normally hangs at the U.N. The sight of suffering civilians in Picasso’s mural presumably would have undermined Powell’s exhortations to war.
Goshka Macuga (pronounced “Ma-tsu-ga”), whose first survey, “Exhibit, A,” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art through April 7, recalls this incident in The Nature of the Beast (2009–ongoing). When she first presented this installation at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where she lives and works, the Polish artist hung the Guernica tapestry—available thanks to the U.N.’s renovations—above a table of her own design, where she invited visitors to hold meetings, as long as they provided documentation such as minutes or photographs, which became part of the work.
“I had an amazing archive of talks, videos, ephemera,” the artist told me during a recent tour of “Exhibit, A,” which demonstrates how her practice revolves around such research-driven, often site-specific explorations of historical events. It’s the first MCA exhibition to be organized by senior curator Dieter Roelstraete, who came to the museum about a year ago from his native Belgium. “Two major strands” of thought intersect in Macuga’s work, Roelstraete says. “One is an interest in politics, current affairs, political history, and the other is an interest in art history, the history of ideas, the history of culture.… I myself believe that art has a political role to play,” he adds.
If you schedule a meeting at The Nature of the Beast at the MCA (e-mail email@example.com), you’ll find yourself sitting beneath a new tapestry that Macuga created for the installation. The photographic image depicts the Guernica tapestry at her Whitechapel show, where England’s Prince William addresses a crowd. The unhappy-looking artist faces away from him.
The scene reflects Macuga’s uneasiness with the support her work receives from people whose values she abhors. Some pro-war groups have met at The Nature of the Beast. “Where does the money [funding art] come from?” the artist asks. “I looked at this situation as something I have no control over and made this work as a critique of my naïveté.”
Moral obligations are a recurring theme in “Exhibit, A.” Macuga also presents installations about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his partner, Lilly Reich, who didn’t balk at designing exhibitions for the early Nazi regime.
Despite the artist’s striking visual allusions to Socialist Realism and other propaganda, including monumental sculpture, she tells me, “I don’t really allow myself to do things just because it looks good.” Macuga, a 2008 Turner Prize nominee, is hardly an art-world outsider, but it’s bold of the MCA to commit to an artist whose work demands so much intellectual investment from viewers, rather than entertaining them. Roelstraete considers the cerebral show an introduction to his curatorial approach: “I believe in art as a space for ideas.”
Roelstraete leads a tour of “Exhibit, A” Tuesday 19.