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Terror? at Intersection for the Arts

The Breadth Of What We Fear

Terror is perhaps the major hot button term of our epoch. It used to define overwhelming fear, a sense of looming danger exemplified by an inability to act. At some point, that protean, not easily identifiable fear became alloyed by specific words and ideologies --such as the threat of systematic violence by hostile others, government intimidation, and the egregiously coined “War on Terror.” It’s impossible, these days, to even bethink the term without having it attributed to code red.

This is the understanding that’s essentially at the heart of Intersection for the Arts’ “Terror?”, a collection of paintings, illustration, graphic design, photography, and collage by over 200 artists from 20 countries. In examining the nexus between personal fear and political manifestations of fear, the artists in the exhibition redefine and disorient the very notion of terror. The pieces, which dot the gallery walls in an almost perturbingly uniform sequence, are as revelatory as torn-out diary entries, teeming with all manner of secrets and garish visions. The works are the uncharneled dead of our collective psyche, offering penetrating insight into personal and societal histories that are too often sullied by violence.

While the pieces are almost impossible to apprehend in just one sitting, the sheer scope of the exhibition is tempered by a balance between works that are explicitly political in nature and ones that are more intimate and personal. However, what makes all the art so extraordinary is the cogent manner in which commentary (on things such as how fear controls our lives, and how media distortion propels collective anxiety) is conjoined with personal exposition, so that the political can never be completely extricated from the personal.

Recurrent images of tortured animals, broken doll faces, skeletons, various representations of surveillance, and nightmarish apparitions of natural disaster become symbolic of a larger culture of fear that influences us in our daily lives. But while the object of fear -- whether it’s war, domestic violence, asteroids, hijackers, Condoleeza Rice, or circus clowns -- is usually clear in each of the pieces, the actual perpetrator (if there truly is one) becomes murkier and murkier as one progresses through the gallery.

Digital prints of ad posters and references to popular culture and cinema point to the insidious manner in which terror is proliferated and reproduced through the media in ways that are both obvious and subliminal. “Our Daily Snap Shots,” a series of digital prints by the Indonesian art collective The Haram, blends news, text, and disjointed comic book-esque pictures into a disturbing menagerie of images (ranging from monsters to children lovingly embracing volcanoes and tsunamis) that make violence seem almost otherworldly.

While expressions of abject fear, despair, and hopelessness are predictably plentiful in “Terror?” some of the most effective pieces are less chaotic and produce a quieter, more foreboding sense of solitude and contracted space. An eerie self-consciousness can be found in many of these pieces, such as Michael Bernard Loggins’ “Story of Michael’s To Be Read Parts 1-4,” a series of confessional, hand-written details about an adolescent boy’s life, including his nearly obsessive fear of people he passes on the street. The prosaic quality of Loggins’ series makes it substantially more accessible than some of the other works in the exhibition that read as heavy, impersonal polemics.

Laren Leland’s “Neighborhood,” a digital print with several miniature replicas of tract homes, accompanied by text, is another effective piece that delineates the fear of being swallowed up by conformity and the inability to process platitudes such as freedom in a psychologically stultifying environment. Leland urges complacent viewers to take a look around, because “whatever you see is literally what wartime looks like in the United States, 2006.”

The exhibition is part of a larger project -- including radio storytelling, film screenings, and public discussions on domestic definitions of the War on Terror -- that serve to not only examine the root of personal and collective fears but also to interrogate the manner in which fear is systematically manufactured and cultivated in our culture, sometimes with our own complicity. In many ways, most of the pieces in “Terror?” are not actually representations of felt or experienced terror; in fact, the function of such extreme (yet also glaringly commonplace) images is almost cathartic. In attempting to make sense of our culture of fear, the artists transform the very notion of terror -- inserting a certain amount of optimism and humanity into a patchwork of images that, just perhaps, may not be as bleak as the world it seeks to represent.

Terror? runs through November 11th
at Intersection for the Arts