White Liberal Racism Explored in Get Out: Connecting Contemporary Film to Contemporary Art

In his brilliant directorial debut, writer/director Jordan Peele explores everyday racism through the satirical horror film Get Out. By exploiting the cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and unintended racism black people deal with in their everyday lives from white people, Get Out makes a horror film out of a very real social experience which is perhaps even scarier than any other axe murderer horror film could ever be.

Every aspect of the film, from the events, dialogue, and soundtrack, indicates to viewers the menacing nature of the apparently well meaning Armitage family, their friends, and neighbors. In the opening scene where viewers meet the protagonist Chris, Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” plays in the background. The chorus warns the viewers and Chris to “stay woke,” in the double sense of being “woke” to everyday racism, and alludes to the hypnosis induced sleep that Missy uses later in the film to control Chris. From the time that Chris and Rose arrive at the Armitages’ house, he is bombarded with various microaggressions from both the family and their party guests. Assorted friends of the Armitages comment on how Chris must be very strong, virile, and trendy because he is a black man. Little beknown to Chris, the so-called positive racist stereotypes the party-goers attribute him with are the reasons they are in attendance in the first place, in order to acquire his body for their own. Chris’ body is even sold off in a silent auction that replicates a slave auction, the highest bidder winning the physical qualities they seem to admire in Chris because of his race. On a deeper level, the affluent, white Armitages and friends symbolize how white American culture steals from black culture. The body snatching in the film is another form of the cultural appropriation that happens on a regular basis in real life. Various white celebrities, such as the Kardashians, have been spotted by the media as being fashion forward for appropriating styles that black women have been wearing for years. Cornrows, baby hairs, do-rags, and door knocker earrings on black women is often perceived as ghetto or hood by white people, but when appropriated by white women they are fashionable. Similarly, the hypnosis that Missy uses on Chris and her other victims represents how white culture also seeks to control black culture. Rampant police brutality against black people in this country is reflective of the disconnect between racist, white systems of power, and simply existing in America as a black person. When power cannot control otherness the way it desires the results are fatal. Get Out uses viewers’ knowledge of this epidemic and turns it on its head to create a happy twist ending for Chris, who is rescued by his friend Rod in a TSA car which initially appears to be a police car.

Blackness in America is a prolific subject in contemporary art due to the fact that it is a phenomenon that experienced by every black person living in America. Kara Walker takes the subject back to its roots during the Civil War through her 1994 work Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. The work is created in Walker’s signature paper cut-out silhouettes and brings together racist elements from the novel Gone With the Wind and exposes them with a narrative image. By doing so, Walker exploits the idealized, romanticized antebellum South depicted in literature and other media in culture like Gone With the Wind for the way that they treat black characters. In Glenn Ligon’s work, he appropriates text that reflects identity through race, mostly from black American authors. His Untitled (I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background) from 1990 uses the words of Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “how it feels to be colored me.” Ligon uses an oil stick over a stencil of Hurston’s words repeatedly so that they become muddied as they appear downwards. The quote reflects the concept of race as a social construct that only has power or meaning because people attribute them to it. The speaker in the text feels most colored when compared as otherness against white culture. Similarly in the film, Chris feels uncomfortable at the Armitage party as the only black person receiving nothing but racist comments. Upon meeting Andre, converted into Logan, he expresses his relief at seeing another black person at the party because their otherness is the same. The uneasy realization that Logan cannot connect with Chris through his blackness is what sets Chris off to the terror of the true nature of the Armitages.

What makes Get Out so groundbreaking is its use of a horrendous social phenomenon that happens to a large group of people in this country. It is a horror movie that not only uses conventional horror elements, like body snatching, but real life elements that are detrimental to certain people’s lives. The very real aspects of Get Out expose white liberal racism for what it is: racism. Even if it is well intentioned or positive, it is still as harmful as any other type of racism.

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Identifying With Place in Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View and the Silueta Series

Place is an integral part of an individual’s identity: where we grow up and reside shape the way we think about life. Staying in the same place or country for the entirety of one’s life is a very different experience from being uprooted from one’s home and moving to a different place. These opposing experiences of identity related to place can be explored in both Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View from 1997 and Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series from 1973-1980. In Parker’s work, she explores how an utilitarian structure and everyday objects can represent a national identity. For Mendieta, inserting herself into the earth’s elements help her regain or reshape her identity that has been displaced from its homeland.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View is an installation comprised of the pieces of a previously exploded garden shed and its contents, suspended from the gallery ceiling on wire and lit by a single light bulb in the center of the objects. The way in which the objects are suspended replicate the moment in which the shed was exploded by the British Army at Parker’s request, and the light bulb reflects the placement of the plastic explosives at the time of explosion.² Parker describes explosions as an iconic image in society, a phenomenon that happens in seconds but can be represented in a way that continues to exist at length.² Her decision in the type of garden shed and objects to be place within it are very specific. Parker’s desire to use an “archetypal” garden shed rather than a garden shed belonging to someone reflects her intention to create a work that speaks to the British identity rather than a biographical work.² Similarly, the objects inside of the garden shed represent the collective of what Parker remembers of her childhood garden shed and attic.² These items also aim to capture the British identity: objects include hair rollers, a toy sandcastle mold, ice skates, and Wellington boots. The title of the work comes in two parts. “Cold dark matter” refers to dark matter: unidentified matter that exists in the universe, what Parker calls “stuff in the universe you can’t measure.”² An exploded view is a technical drawing that shows machinery with all its parts separated to show how they come together to function. Therefore Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View serves as a way to depict how normally indescribable elements of life come together. Parker takes snippets of everyday British life: a bicycle pedal, a gas can, a toy police car, the garden shed that holds these memories; and explodes them in the literal sense but also in a way that allows viewers to see how these items come together to summarize the archetypal national British identity rooted in its homeland.

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Installation view of Cold Dark Matter at the Chisenhale Gallery, London
© Hugo Glendinning

Mendieta’s Silueta series, however, explores how multiple places can shape the identity. A deeply personal series, Mendieta was a native Cuban exiled to an orphanage in Iowa when she was 12 years old, Silueta seeks to tie the artist with her homeland and her new home by inserting her body into the earth.¹ Mendieta carves the imprint of her figure in various elements: sand, grass, mud; on location in Iowa and Mexico in poses that are symbolic of bringing together the land and the sea, much in the same way Mendieta brings together her Afro-Cuban identity with her American identity.¹ She creates these performative, ephemeral sculptures that exist only in photograph after their creation, rooted in essence in her own body. The body as a recognizable, biologically female body is an important aspect of the work. Mendieta inserting herself into the earth is a metaphor for her returning to the womb, to reform the ties to her heritage she lost as an adolescence.³ These reliefs in rock and clay also mimic that of ancient iconographic depictions of fertility goddess and symbols, such as the Venus of Laussel. In her practice, Mendieta combines contemporary Western practices such as performance art, Earthworks, and body art with indigenous Cuban rituals and religions, particularly Santeria. However, Silueta is not Earthwork in the sense that Mendieta is not interested in the formal quality of the elements, “but their emotional and sensual ones.”¼ By inserting herself into nature and performing ritualistic acts from her heritage on location in both the place where she was exiled, and a place with similar cultural heritage to her own, Mendieta can bring together the two cultures and places that form her identity.

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Ana Mendieta, Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973–77/1991. Pigmented inkjet prints, four parts, 13 1/4 x 20 inches (33.7 x 50.8 cm); eight parts, 20 x 13 1/4 inches (50.8 x 33.7 cm). Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy the Galerie Lelong. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC

Identity relating to place is an integral part of Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View and the Silueta series. The artists also bring in the themes of memory and the body to further explore how they relate to place to shape identity. Parker’s memories of childhood her childhood garden shed help form a representation of the average, middle class Brit. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View relies on the memories and identities of the viewers to relate to a specific place and nationality. In the Silueta series, Mendieta uses her body as a way to facilitate a connection between herself and the earth, as well as a connection between her Cuban heritage and her American nationality. Both works make clear the influence of place on identity and how it can be shaped when secured in its homeland, or displaced and thrust into an unknown territory.

 

Works Cited

¹”Ana Mendieta.” Guggenheim. November 09, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2017. https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/ana-mendieta.

²”Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View.” Tate. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/cold-dark-matter.

³Tate. “‘Untitled (Silueta Series, Mexico)’, Ana Mendieta, 1976.” Tate. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/mendieta-untitled-silueta-series-mexico-t13356.

¼Warchol, Julie. “Performed Invisibility: Ana Mendieta’s ‘Siluetas’.” Smith College Museum of Art. January 10, 2013. Accessed March 15, 2017. https://www.smith.edu/artmuseum/artmuseum/Collections/Cunningham-Center/Blog-pap er-people/Performed-Invisibility-Ana-Mendieta-s-Siluetas.

Time’s Effect on The Body in Synecdoche, New York: Connecting Contemporary Film to Contemporary Art

Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York follows aging theater director Caden Cotard in his vain attempt to produce his magnum opus that mimics his life in a way that is too close for comfort. In the film, time is accelerated in a surreal way; within the two hours that the viewer experiences the film, Caden has aged 50 years. Although events take place chronologically, they are sped up and interwoven in a way that is often confusing. Throughout the course of the film, Caden is also constantly reminded of how the passing of time is taking its effect on his body; how humans age and how their health declines culminating in their deaths. Caden becomes riddled with various physical ailments as the film goes on, and his mental health suffers as he faces various personal problems. The overarching theme of the film implies the inevitability of time and death serve as a synecdoche for life. As humans, the sum of our life ends in our death, but death is only part of our life.

The theme of time is present from the very first moment of the film when Caden wakes up to his alarm clock radio. It shows the time as seven forty-four a.m. and plays a talk show about autumn as a prominent theme in literature because it represents the beginning of death. These few opening minutes set the tone for the entire film: Caden himself is entering the autumn of his life. From this cue, there are a myriad of references to Caden’s obsession with time, with aging, and with particularly dying. Viewers are made hyperaware to the passing of time as the film leaps forward so quickly, which makes them mindful of not only Caden’s impending death at the end of the film, but their own death as well.

A related work that raises viewers’ consciousness of time is Fèlix González-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) from 1987-1990. The piece consists of two identical clocks that initially keep time together, but eventually desynchronize when one falls out of time and stops before the other. Using the clocks as representations of people, González-Torres shows how we as humans have a limited amount of time, and will eventually run out of time and die before our loved ones or vice versa. Caden experiences this himself in Synecdoche, New York.  The irony of Caden’s death is while he spends the whole film preoccupied with the fear of his death and tries to evade it, he is one of the last people in the warehouse alive at the end of the film. Time takes its effect on every significant person in Caden’s life, and eventually Caden himself.

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Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990

The way in which the body is explored in Synecdoche, New York is in relation to time: how the body changes when it ages, how death can be accelerated by illness. Within the minutes that set the tone of the film, Caden receives a magazine in the mail called Attending Your Illness, and his daughter Olive watches a t.v. show about viruses and illness. He also sees a myriad of doctors throughout the film, from a dentist, to an ophthalmologist, to his shrink to whom he laments he has various ailments and worries he won’t do anything worthwhile with his life before he dies. Caden’s last name is a reference to the Cotard delusion in which patients believe that they are already dead or their internal organs are failing. Caden worries his body is in critical condition due to his age, and that time will slip away from him and he will die before accomplishing his goals.

Viewers watch Caden age and his health fail over the course of 50 years in the film. Connected in theme is Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters, an ongoing portrait photography project documenting his wife and her sisters from 1975, covering the breadth of over 40 years. When viewing the photographs in succession, time is evident on the sisters’ bodies: wrinkles form around their eyes and mouths, their hair grows gray. The inevitability of the sister’s death looms in the back of the viewers’ minds. What will happen when one of the sisters dies? Will Nixon end the project and choose to show his representation of the sisters as a complete unit? Or will he continue to photograph them with the deceased sister’s absence, just as life itself will go on for the rest of the sisters? In Synecdoche, New York, viewers watch time’s effect on Caden as he ages just as in The Brown Sisters project, however they also see the ultimate effect of time on Caden: his death.

Caden spends the entirety of the film worrying about the consequences of time on his body: his aging, his illness, his death. He tells his cast and crew, “We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” Caden knows he will die because it is his fate as a human being, and the thought consumes him, yet he does not want to accept his fate. Hazel buys a house eternally on fire conscious she will die of smoke inhalation, but accepts this because she will die regardless. While this may seem somewhat bleak, it sums the entirety of the film. We all are, indeed, hurtling towards death, but it is simply how time works on the human body, and an unavoidable part of life.

Un-individualized Individualism: My thoughts on the 2017 Whitney Biennial

This year’s Whitney Biennial boasts a theme of “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” with work that focuses on race, immigration, and activism. However, what has been dominating the media in regards to the Biennial is the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s 2016 Open Casket, the painting depicting the dead, brutalized body of Emmett Till. While the aim for the Biennial is to promote self and the individual within society, some of the works included in the show this year do the opposite. Instead of exploring the individual, certain artists use tropes and generalizations to convey their meanings on issues like race.

Open Casket is problematic mostly because Schutz is a well-to-do white woman commenting on an issue in which she has no place. She claims that through this painting, she was attempting to understand the feelings of Emmett Till’s mother after the murder of her son, Schutz being a mother herself. However, her rationalization is not a strong enough argument for the painting. By using the image of a severely beaten and disfigured Till, Schutz is using him as a spectacle to symbolize black death from white brutality, an epidemic that is currently happening in the United States. Appropriating Till essentially turns him into a stand-in for any other black body that has been the victim of white brutality. Open Casket dehumanizes and commodifies Emmett Till and his murder by making him a trope.

Even certain works by black artists do not rise to the occasion to tell the stories and experiences of specific black people, rather rely on generalizations and cliches having to do with the black experience. In the wall text accompanying the work of Deana Lawson, it describes her work as “subvert[ing] the ways in which portrayals of Black bodies are often subjected to biased perceptions of Black personhood in American culture.” Yet, Lawson’s images are in fact staged compositions comprised of strangers on the streets. They fall back on stereotypes often attributed to working to lower-middle class black folk,

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Deana Lawson, Signs, 2016.

such as Signs from 2016. The photograph depicts a group of young black men against a blank black background. All of the men are shirtless, wear loose pants low on their hips to expose the waistband of their underwear, sport tattoos, and hold their hands above their hands above their heads or obscure their face to show various gestures. The young men featured in Signs may or may not be affiliated with gang activity, but it is obvious that the work intends for the viewer to conjure a backstory for these men on the premise that their hand signals could be gang signs. If Lawson’s work is meant to turn black stereotypes on their head, then why would she employ those exact stereotypes she wishes to disrupt? Similarly, there is a lack of relationship between using complete strangers staged in scenes that appear to be everyday moments between friends and family. By creating these vague, unspecific portraits, Lawson in fact encourages the viewer to project their own ideas onto the subjects. In a museum like the Whitney, this means the average viewer is an upper-middle to upper class white person, therefore their own ideas of these subjects will most likely fall back prejudices. In this way, the subjects of Lawson’s photographs are commodified in the same way Emmett Till is in Open Casket, and in a way that is the opposite of Lawson’s intentions for the work and the Whitney’s theme for this year’s Biennial.

For a show that boasts diversity and individuality through the races and genders of the artists featured, and through those exact themes that are supposedly shown through the work, the 2017 Whitney Biennial in fact falls somewhat flat. Although there is great work to be seen, some of the work does not live up to the radical ways of conjuring the self that the Whitney boasts it does this year.