The Kennedy assassination, Watergate, 911 and the war in Iraq: all these landmark events in U.S. history fueled public suspicions about the elites and fostered conspiracy theories that inspired artists, and are now the focus of a new exhibition at New York’s Met Breuer museum.
“Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” which opened on Tuesday and runs until January 6, attempts to capture the zeitgeist of an age riven with alternative theories about the hidden machinations of power, in what museum director Max Hollein calls a “timely exhibition.”
The history of conspiracy theories goes back centuries, but the show at the Met Breuer — an offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to modern and contemporary works — kicks off with the most famous of the modern era, the assassination of president John F Kennedy.
It is not so much the event itself but the investigations that followed, notably the Warren and Church commissions that examined the actions of the U.S. spy agencies, which drive the show. “It was really spurred on in a way by all of the commissions that were taking place in the 1970s reexamining what happened,” said curator Ian Alteveer. “It begins to simmer and it comes to a slow boil by the 1970s.”
An example of how that has translated into the artistic psyche is the 1976 work “The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview,” featured on the poster for the exhibition.
The work by veteran U.S. artist Lutz Bacher — who uses a pseudonym and has never revealed her real identity — features an imagined interview the artist herself carries out with the president’s assassin, together with a montage of pictures of Oswald. The story of Lee Harvey Oswald looms large over the exhibition, which opens with a huge portrait of the assassin entitled “Peach Oswald” by painter Wayne Gonzales.
The first part of the show is dedicated to works that are based on factual research, and try to alert the viewer to the real cloak-and-dagger operations of the U.S. government, businesses and arms dealers.
That includes Trevor Paglen’s series of photographs of secret CIA prisons and Alfredo Jaar’s work recalling former secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s support for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The second part of the show is devoted to artists inspired by conspiracy theories to create abstract, often fantastical art that sheds a light on the way society is affected by such tales.
“These works… all address an urgency to question, to imagine and to understand that the world that surrounds us and that we live in is way more complex than we think or that others want us to think,” said Hollein.
The exhibition does not include any works about President Donald Trump, a long-standing backer of conspiracy theories such as his predecessor Barack Obama’s allegedly falsified birth certificate, or his favorite topic of “fake news.”
“There’s not yet enough historical distance, even for an artist, to kind of respond,” said Alteveer.