“Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy”

“Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” was a powerful and troubling show at the Met Breuer in New York, which ran from September 2018 to January 2019. It advertised itself as the first major exhibition to directly tackle conspiracy theory and related themes as its main subject. Whether or not that claim was exactly true, it is certainly the case that the 30 artists whose works made up the show were a highly impressive and broad-ranging selection.

The first part was said to concentrate on works and projects that emphasized well-researched, “real” issues, and the second was meant to be oriented towards a more imaginary engagement with types of conspiracy and conflict—or so the claim was made. In truth, it felt as though that organization broke down somewhat under scrutiny. Actually, it seemed it was for the best that such delineations were permeable: for instance, by having Peter Saul’s works near the beginning and the end linking the halves with their comic book imagery and fun colours accompanying a searing moral perspective. Likewise Hans Haacke’s un-dreamlike, institutional critique piece Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971, was located near the end of the show’s sequence, while Jim Shaw’s UFO and Alien, X-Files-esque conspiracy works of 1978–79 were near the beginning. Of course, maybe shady real estate dealings and their museum connections ought to belong to mystical, oneiric wanderings of the mind, and also maybe aliens are real, here and controlling our thoughts. At any rate, many works in the show seem to balance both categories nicely, like Sarah Anne Johnson’s “House on Fire” works of 2008, with their sensitive combination of creepy surrealism, beautiful formal design and an all-too-real family history. This narrative related the terrible episode of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s CIA-funded mind control experiments at the renowned Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Montreal in the 1950s, to which Johnson’s grandmother was an unwitting victim.

Sarah Anne Johnson, House on Fire, 2009, mixed media, 31 x 33 x 45 inches. © Sarah Anne Johnson. Image courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchased with the assistance of Michael F.B. Nesbitt, 2009.

There was a mostly successful and engaging emotional ebb and flow to the texture of the show, its surface variegated in a multitude of ways, as we made our way through large installations and long videos, alongside paintings, sculptures and so on. Some parts of the exhibition certainly did aim to give more obvious visual pleasures and stimulation to the viewer, while others were more didactic but still possessing a certain fascination, inviting the audience to peer into more obscure or opaque works, into the research and text elements of various conceptual pieces, and to spend time doing some code-breaking of their own. These components were mostly interwoven and went together well. An example: Jenny Holzer’s own contrasted contributions—the visually powerful and mesmerizing large piece Red Yellow Looming, 2004, with its huge LED displays and semi-narrative unfolding of secrets, and her paintings The White House 2002, 2006, and Secretary of Defence, 2009, which coldly reproduce official George W Bush administration documents alluding to “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Denuded of any sensual qualities as paintings, they draw us into the impersonal, bureaucratically driven horrors of the industrial military complex from a totally different angle from Red Yellow Looming. Sue Williams’s paintings were another example, which delivered tremendous aesthetic punch along with deeply felt political messaging. Williams’s three paintings and two small mixed media works were strong inclusions, because, in addition to the political and conspiratorial subjects they explored, there was also a courageous and open sense of grief and a struggle with the evils of the world displayed in them—including on a highly personal level, with references made to the suicide of Mike Kelley, an intimate friend of Williams. Kelley’s work itself makes its appearance in the exhibition’s tapestry of fear and loathing: his low-key Low Definition Presidency, 1993, acrylic on paper, bringing a stinging sense of humour to the proceedings. His presence in the show added a layer of dark illumination to the feeling of hopelessness that often lives in and with conspiracy-minded thinking, proposing that paranoia and despair are members of the same psychological family.

Raymond Pettibon, No Title (I’ve prayed …) , 1984, ink on paper, 13.75 x 11 inches. © Raymond Pettibon. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

One mistake the show made, however, is the analogized overlapping drawn between conspiracy theory and political protest. In conspiracy theory, we are in fact speculating—often as though we have certain knowledge and with tremendous zest, but the basic premise of conspiracy requires that technically we do not know for sure what truth there is to our conjectures. In political protest, although there may be areas of dispute in how to interpret what is known, we are at the least operating with a large degree of reliable knowledge about what is being protested, even in calling for greater governmental transparency. It is, of course, possible to claim (especially in our era of “alternative facts”) that what seems to be certain to one group is less so to another, thus transforming all of politics and public life into potential conspiracy theory. In Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49, the heroine, Oedipa Mass, comes to discover there is an international conspiracy in which an entire alternative postal system exists and is run by a terrifying organization known as the Trystero. The thing about art about conspiracy theory is, when it’s really good, it provides an explanation for why these (mostly) seemingly questionable theories exist. Honestly, even though they don’t actually exist, it is still somewhat scary to type the name Trystero. There is no such conspiratorial, alternative postal system, but because of how persuasively good Pynchon’s novel is, it is hard to convince ourselves that it might not be—could not be—is not. And when big, consequential things happen—even just on the scale of our personal lives—it is hard not to believe that “everything is connected.”

“Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” was exhibited at the Met Breuer from September 18, 2018, to January 6, 2019.

Benjamin Klein is an artist, writer and independent curator living and working in Montreal and Brooklyn.