Conspiracy, Discounted Histories, and Nostalgia at the Met Breuer

By Tausif Noor
December 17, 2018

“Thickening the air with its pollutive force, conspiracy became a national pastime in late 1960s and 1970s America, particularly surrounding the assassination of JFK and the Watergate scandal. Mistrust of government officials, the ongoing war in Vietnam, the fight for civil rights, and the spread of counterculture had fractured the notion of a unitary national identity; conspiracy allowed the American public to find common ground. Jim Shaw’s UFO Photo series and Martian Portraits(both 1978) recall the fervent spread in the belief of extraterrestrial life in the ‘70s. These cryptic photographs, with their sepia and gray washes, evoke a double nostalgia: the one felt by viewers in 1978, and another that is so apparent now, forty years later. Sarah Anne Johnson’s graphite and acrylic interventions on family photographs, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide and Black Cloud (2008), refer to the CIA-backed MK-ULTRA experimental mind-control programs billed as psychiatric treatment, that were conducted at Montreal’s Allen Memorial Institute. Project MK-ULTRA was investigated by joint Senate hearings in 1977 and widely reported by media outlets. While these facts are acknowledged in the wall labels, the decision to place Johnson’s pieces in the second half of the exhibition alongside Shaw’s UFO photos raises questions about which histories are remembered, and which are routinely dismissed.”

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