Multi-media artist Tim Guthrie is playing with our heads, again.
Guthrie, a Creighton University professor in Graphic Design and New Media, has done this before with two collaborative instillations that messed with one’s mind as well as a certain cultural and socio-political status quo.
First with Nuclear Dichotomies (2007) and next with the truly Extraordinary Rendition (2010), both of which exposed and challenged society’s casual acceptance of, in broad terms, nuclear proliferation and political torture, respectively.
Both imaginative and thoroughly researched installations made their first appearance in the now closed Underground of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. This time Guthrie and Company have surfaced with a third Metro installment of artistic investigation and persuasion across the river in the progressive atmosphere and setting of Council Bluff’s RNG Gallery.
Not satisfied with just exposing harsh political realities, past and present, this ringmaster and his circus maximus of more than 25 artists, writers and performers bring this latest incantation closer to home hoping that all will get the point as well as the joke while inevitably offending some sensibilities.
The Museum of Alternative History opened successfully May 16 by all accounts and should close likewise June 1 with an “undisclosed” event by artist Doug Hayko plus two. As its title suggests, this is no ordinary museum or show for that matter, nor is its content. At its heart, soul and intellect, MOAH is a provocative and paradoxical alt take on think tanks and political ideologues that deliberately screw with history, science and religion for the sake of their own agenda.
Guthrie invited artists and writers to participate in any medium in response to the “ultraconservative effort to change education curricula. (MOAH) is about a fake, revised and twisted history…about opinions supplanting facts…about personal beliefs being forced onto others.” As evidence, he cites recent efforts, some successfully, by Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota and other legislatures and school boards to censor slavery by our Founding Fathers and to add Intelligent Design or Creationism alongside real science in school curricula.
Though he says MOAH is an exhibition about “alternative explanations for the nature of the world and universe,” rather than the expected analysis and exposure of such, Guthrie implores participants “to make shit up.” In other words, expose the chicanery and false prophets by beating them at their own game. In the end, that is what he gets, that is alternative and exaggerated explanations as well as made-up evidence, twisted analysis and conclusions that pass for real science and natural history.
Not unlike what is perpetuated in the Creation Museum (“Welcome and Prepare to Believe”), a 70,000 square foot venue devoted to “bring the pages of the Bible to life… in displays where children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers,” some 6000 years ago. Rather than attack such a mixing—read distortion—of science and history in the name of religion, MOAH models itself after the CM with its own brand of sincerity, display and propaganda, satirizing it in the bargain.
For the most part, this inaugural effort, which Guthrie plans to expand and take on the road, as he has done in the past with installations, before climaxing in a larger version as well as non-art venue in the Metro area, is successful.
Guthrie is nothing if not ambitious, as his two previous efforts testify to. His goal here is to raise MOAH’s bar gradually with augmented reality, iPad apps, a way-finding system or graphic interface and eventually, a complex and interactive book. The exhibit is Orwellian as it references novelist George Orwell’s social satire of any condition of society destructive to its freedom and welfare based upon mind control, denial and manipulation of the past.
Guthrie himself is Or-Wellian, Orson Wellian that is, if you will allow the pun. Not merely because, like film auteur Welles, he thinks big and has a worldview, but because he takes risks and draws other artists to his vision, direction and professionalism. And because he delivers on task and on promise. Group shows can be painfully dull and amateurish without a concept and an edit, and whatever MOAH’s shortcomings these are not it.
Mind you, Guthrie’s collaborators are not “yes men”. They were given a free hand in text, genre, style and content because he told them, “I’ve loved things you have done in the past.” All he asked for was new work that responded to the show’s concept. And that they did including painter Troy Muller who proved, as always, to be a bit of a contrarian with a signature altar piece that warned of science “run amok.” Other familiar Metro artists include Jamie Burmeister, Rob Gilmer, Susan Knight, Alex Meyers, Kristin Pluhacek, Tana Quincy, Nolan Tredway, Bart Vargas and Watie White.
But MOAH also widens its horizons with work from such as international clay artist Virginia Scotchie, LA abstract artist Elaine Parks, native Londoner Stuart Chittenden, now an Omahan brand consultant and arts entrepreneur, among others. Virtually all participants do so behind a persona of authority including the latter’s Dr. Jeremy Smythson, who in a YouTube interview, claims to have possibly discovered the “Catalyst of Humanity”.
These masks, as well as MOAH’s text heavy displays, particularly a yeoman task by novelist/artist Davis Schneiderman of Lake Forest College, as well as by local artists Skye Hawkins and Sally Deskins, contribute needed credibility. Credit also the show’s graphic design by Justin Kemerling, the skewed, angular set design and dramatic, low key lighting by Guthrie and Rene Orduna that lend MOAH’s convincing and desired alt and oft-kilter ambiance.
In short, MOAH mocks and rocks its way into one’s psyche. Visually, as said, it makes a strong statement. RNG Gallery has never looked better. In fact, its familiar confines recede from memory when you enter. Does this installation completely live up to its billing? No, not yet anyway. But, even in its first edition MOAH shows as much polish, promise and provocation as anything in this arts scene since Guthrie’s own Extraordinary Rendition.
As for individual pieces and mini-installations within, some under whelm the show’s concept, and a few didactic panels are rather verbose. One can argue that the overall tone may be softer than the attitude professed in the hanging exhibition statement. Nevertheless, the majority of MOAH comments on or parodies the exhibit's target effectively and entertainingly. Highlights in the auspicious opening salvo of the Museum of Alternative History include the following:
Although Guthrie has much of the work here, none is more outré than his multiple display of “limestone”, fully erect hermaphroditic figurines he titles “The Penus of Ribbentrop”. The clever text by Schneiderman, which dates them to 24,000, B.C.E has to be read to be “believed”.
Among the most prophetic , serious and true to oneself and style work on display comes form Meyers. His mixed media digital prints continue his exploration of the culture clash involving nature and society. His minimalist, part representational, part geometric abstractions are accompanied by text by Theron Jacobs who writes of “the brash, noisy concert of human nature, holding hands…pushing us to the cliff.”
Susan Knight, also known for her environmental studies, especially water and climate, offers her pale orange and voluminous interpretation of Deepstaria Reticulum, an exotic, elusive jellyfish in Tyvek and Styrofoam, which she calls “Cnidaria Deepstararia Cogitarum.” With the aid of texter Hawkins, Knight satirizes jellyfish’s lack of a brain and heart, which means like other creatures, human or otherwise, don’t know how old they are and don’t even care.
“Atacama Humanoid (Homo Vermis)” is new media artist Burmeister’s latest variation on his Vermin statuettes, this time with more elaborate setting and narrative. A sub-species of human form evolved in Indonesia during the Paleolithic Period, these incredible shrinking men and women became smaller to avoid predators, but, as the scenarios reveal, often became caught in their own traps and devices.
Tredway, one of the region’s most imaginative and calculating spirits, doesn’t disappoint with two Simian specimens in a bell jar that resemble the animated puppetry from his marvelous “Milk” videos of yore. “Ainamparaka” and Reconstructed Ainamparaka” primates were the unwitting foodstuff of the Seraphon, a small Brazilian tribe whose shaman said if these “playful warriors” were eaten, they would absorb their lack of fear thus allowing the natives to engage and defeat all kinds of enemies. Another case of evolutionary “monkey see, monkey do” heard from.
With perhaps the single most complex piece in MOAH, the “Evolutionary Tree of Trans-Humanist Species,” Muller reminds humanity that it can devolve, even deconstruct, due to an uncaring, amoral use of technology and science. His evocative altarpiece features such imagery as master-race overlords and cloned super soldiers a the top of the tree, sports fans (Reanimated Neanderthals), “We’re number 1” in the middle and much, much worse at the bottom.
The Museum of Alternative History continues through June 1 with a closing event at RNG Gallery, 157 West Broadway, Council Bluffs, IA. For details, go to museumofalternativehistory.facebook.com