Healing through violence 

The Missoula Art Museum fixates on disaster

Gesturing with his hands, Missoula Art Museum director Steve Glueckert says that art and artists help us cope with calamity. Indeed, and in Crash. Pause. Rewind., a multi-media exhibit on violence and disaster currently installed at the museum, there’s a lot of room to move with that.

To start with, a delightful pair of objects right inside the door: hammers, 2002 by Robert Lazzarini. A pair of strikingly deformed hammers, what hammers would like if a train skidded over them like pennies, distorted in a 3-D digital imaging program, cast at a foundry and finished by hand into objects of malice. But also beauty—the shapes suggest hammers in flight—and a peculiar vulnerability, because normally hammers give the impression of reassuring indestructibility and these hammers almost elicit pity. And right next to those: John Haddock’s photographic print on aluminum of an iconic Civil Rights scene, African-Americans mashed into a storefront by water cannons, only with the people and the hoses digitally removed. The water is a bit poorly done, actually, and you can see people if you look closely—faint traces of people, like the ghostly outlines of vaporized Japanese left on walls and houses by the ultimate expression of 20th-century violence.

Another take on the same incident—interestingly by the same artist—can be seen in the first-floor gallery, in a series of 20 or so re-imagined scenes of 20th-century strife and violence familiar to us through famous photographs and the singular vantage point of the photographer. That famous Vietnam photo of the naked girl fleeing the napalm: now, a view from above, behind and off to the right. The equally famous picture of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head: pull back for the long crane shot, extra eerie because the street is otherwise deserted. The coldly perspective-less new perspectives suggest a child playing with a 3-D digital illustration program. It’s the content that’s adult and sadly resonant. Glueckert has a sensible take on the six von Trapp children reclining rather incongruously in the grass around their guitar-strumming governess, and you’ll probably share it with him if you ponder awhile. It’s the lost innocence, the fabled shimmering summer of 1914 transplanted 24 years later to pre-Anschluss Austria.

Of course, there are other things to seize your attention first. Namely, the enormous General Lee replica in unfinished pine slamming through the roof of the Unabomber’s cabin. General Lee the car, that is—as in Bo and Luke Duke. Glueckert says as he was helping set up the exhibit he couldn’t get the theme song out of his head, and he agreed the Balladeer would have had something pithy to say about it right before the commercial break. The piece is tribute of sorts, says the signage, to two distinctive species of American antihero, and “scarily empathetic” for the link between artist Chris Larson’s skill with rough-cut lumber and the wooden bombs Ted Kaczynski used to make. Arguably, Luke Duke would have blown the cabin up from the road with a dynamite arrow instead of landing on it with his car, but…point taken.

The Unabomber’s cabin pops up everywhere in the exhibit. Next to the General Lee is a satisfying diptych of photos of its fenced-off footprint in Lincoln and the cabin itself impounded as evidence in a Federal warehouse in Sacramento. It’s the only thing in the warehouse. Cabin and footprint seem to miss each other.

Rather unsatisfying, on the other hand, is the Russian Ending series across the gallery by British filmmaker, writer and sometime photographer Tacita Dean. Named for a bit of apocrypha about Danish film producers in the early days of motion shooting different endings, always tragic, to satisfy the gloomy Russian market, the photos purport to do the same thing through notes scribbled on them. The effect, though, is smug and superficial: artist reveres the power of the written word, her artist’s statement claims—in love with her own penmanship and pet words and cod German, more like. Alongside the other works, engaging Dean’s pleadingly extruded creative process demands an unwelcome investment of attention and energy.

Scattered around the museum is a treasure-hunt of video installations. In the basement (temporarily), a 10-minute montage of airplane crashes (and one zeppelin crash) assembled from stock footage and Hollywood movies like Concorde 79, Airport ’77, Flight of the Phoenix and Alive!. On the first floor landing, John Azzarella’s pair of untitled video works endlessly looped: the Zapruder film of the John F. Kennedy assassination and video footage of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, digitally doctored so that Kennedy cruises unscathed and the plane flies right past the tower. The effect of seeing these famous clips with their terrible certainties excised is disconcerting, and would be more so if the digital effects were just a wee bit better.

No such shortcomings detract from the work of Timothy Hutchings, who in his seven-minute video accomplishes the dual feat of imparting motion to old photos of pre-war Danzig and inserting himself into these scenes as a digital tourist dressed in ’30s costume. The effect is similar to that of Walter Ruttman’s rhythmic 1927 film-poem Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, with its vibrant scenes of a civilization that would be utterly destroyed within 20 years.

That lost innocence again, the deep breath before the plunge. Makes you think.

This weekend the Missoula Art Museum celebrates the one-year anniversary of its renovated building with activities Thursday, Sept. 20 through Saturday, Sept. 22. Crash. Pause. Rewind. is the featured exhibit and will be on display through Saturday, Nov. 23.
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