Arts exhibit review

A convoluted installation that explores history, culture, and society

Three works by Edgar Arceneaux at the MIT List Visual Arts Center

Edgar Arceneaux: Written in Smoke and Fire
MIT List Visual Arts Center
On view through Jan. 8, 2017

The MIT List Visual Arts Center’s newest exhibition, Written in Smoke and Fire, feels as diverse and free-formed as the many sources of inspiration that artist Edgar Arceneaux is known to traditionally draw upon. A contemporary artist hailing from Los Angeles, Arceneaux often finds inspiration in history, science fiction, social movements, philosophy, and architecture, for the creation of his immersive installations that artfully synthesize diverse media like video, sculpture, and painting.

The exhibition, curated by Henriette Huldisch of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, showcases three interrelated projects by Edgar Arceneaux. Harkening back to the title of the exhibit, these careful selections each represent to some degree the smoke-like and often ambiguous quality of the narrative medium.

The Library of Black Lies (2016) fills the first room. In the center of the dimly lit space is a wooden shelter with an entrance that leads into a vaguely disorienting miniature labyrinth of book shelves and mirrored walls. Some of the books are burnt to a blackened husk, while others are encrusted in a translucent layer of sugar crystals. The selection of titles seems almost random. A copy of “Crime and Punishment” sits next to “Bible Stories,” a Webster’s English dictionary, and Descartes’ “Discourse on Method.”

After exiting the wooden labyrinth, one almost immediately notices the video being screened in a separate alcove. Electronic music permeates the otherwise silent space. This hour-long video, A Time to Break Silence (2013), is part of Arceneaux’s earlier work, A Book and a Medal (2014). A Book and a Medal focuses on and explores the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. Arceneaux’s science fiction influences are apparent in his use of a humanoid ape character reminiscent of the one used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that wanders through the debris and rubble of a dilapidated church in Detroit. King’s 1967 speech criticizing the Vietnam War is overlaid over these clips in addition to other blurred reenactments of King’s speech. This video appears three times throughout the exhibit, once in its larger projected format, and twice on smaller screens within other pieces.

A Book and a Medal repeats the motif of two redacted documents, one which attempts to blackmail King, and the other denouncing King’s children’s attempts to auction off his Nobel Peace Prize medal and bible. These documents are redacted with mirror-like reflective material, continuing the theme of mirrored surfaces that was apparent in the first part of the installation. This setup allows the viewer to see their own reactions as they read the fragmented and incendiary pieces. The installation has other disparate components as well. A few acrylic-on-linen amalgamations of newspaper print headings, half drawn faces, and sharp lines and angles hang from the wall. In the middle of the room, a small collection of artifacts gathered from the church seen in the video sits on a wooden shelf.

The final part of the exhibit is in an entirely separate room on the other side of the MIT List Visual Arts Center. This is a wise decision, because the third piece, Until, Until, Until… (2016) fills an entire dark room. It is a projection onto a semitransparent curtain of Ben Vereen’s 1981 blackface theatrical performance at the inaugural celebration for Ronald Reagan. This play was itself a tribute to the black vaudeville performer Bert Williams. Arceneaux’s tableau includes an older model television broadcasting the original televised version of Vereen’s performance, alongside a coat rack upon which hangs Vereen’s costume.

Though the placards posted next to the works provided some context and background on the projects being displayed, many pieces felt enigmatic or indecipherable. The installations relied heavily on the abstract and the highly symbolic. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the social and historical context of the subjects tackled is necessary for a more meaningful interpretation of this exhibit. With the sheer number of inspirations and subjects that Arceneaux attempts to synthesize and explore all at once, it is no wonder that his voice and his messages are occasionally lost in the complexity of his artwork.