UC Irvine’s current troika of compelling and conceptual art exhibitions are positioned to provoke rather than entertain, to question the purpose and nature and art rather than regale visitors with aesthetically beautiful art pieces. To that end, Irvine’s premiere university is presenting shows that demonstrate its political proclivities. 

At a recent press preview, journalists entered the Beall Center for Art + Technology where they viewed the intermedia “American Monument” exhibition. Attendees were informed that the “monument” is not a statue or building, but a monumental, conceptual iteration, designed to be enhanced by participants over several months, concluding on February 8, 2020. After that date, the display will move across the country to other universities, museums, storefronts, community centers and churches. 

Participants were advised that the exhibition addresses the relationship between culture and law, while examining the cultural conditions under which African-Americans lose their lives to police brutality. 

American Monument (Courtesy of the artist)

As the first full iteration of this art and law exhibition, it follows a brief showing of this work at California State University Long Beach, where it “was paused there by the artist as an act of protest,” according to publicity material.

The display begins on the bucolic grounds outside the Beall Center, where an installation is imprinted with the names of 22 African-Americans who have lost their lives to police brutality since the late 1990s. (Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are among the 22 victims.) As the exhibition proceeds, the grounds will also include wind chimes, representing flowing water and ground cover featuring red plants.

Within the Beall Center, 22 turntables on pedestals form the core of the exhibition. Each turntable, which viewers are invited to use, features an audio recording, representing one murdered victim, and comprises police reports, court transcripts, witness testimonials and audios of bystanders. A second room displays 22 large metal boxes containing legal documents, one for each murder. Visitors are welcome to open the boxes and read the documents.

“American Monument” — which also involves the UCI School of Law, the university’s Center on Law, Equality and Race, and its departments of African American Studies, Social Ecology, Art History and Art — addresses the relationship between race, violence and power. Lauren Woods, an interdisciplinary artist from Texas who created the exhibition, and its curator, Kimberli Meyer of Los Angeles, anticipate that the participatory monument will ultimately affect police brutality laws.

Blue Wave (Jeff McLane)

“Blue Wave Lutz Bacher,” in the nearby University Art Gallery and Contemporary Art Center Gallery, is a multi-faceted exhibition involving video, photography and prints from pages of Russian spy novels. With the title alluding to the 2018 U.S. election’s dramatic shift, resulting in partial congressional takeover by Democrats, it is intriguing that politics are barely referenced in the work.

This exhibition by the recently deceased artist, who was known for conceptual work in many different media, and for the fact that “Lutz Bacher” was a pseudonym, are in sync with her mysterious personality. 

The core of the show is the artwork titled “Moskva” that the artist completed shortly before her death in May 2019. It consists of nearly 100 unframed prints, all blow-ups from the pages of Russian spy novels (which she apparently read voraciously). These personal pages, emblazoning the gallery walls and descending to the floor, reveal the artist’s dark and elusive nature. One sentence from a page reads: “Instead you are here, and you have me, and we are daring and desperate and dangerous operatives, saving the world and planning the destruction of evil.”

Curated by UC Irvine professor of art Monica Majoli, the exhibition also includes two wall-size iPhone videos, titled “Blue Wave,” of New York City’s East Village rooftops, presumably shot during the 2018 midterm elections. Here also are “Rocket,” an enormous color photo of a rocket, and a series of short videos titled “Modules,” which will be screened continuously in computer labs in UCI’s art department. Both the artist and the curator have their work in major museums collections, including the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

UCI’s smaller Room Gallery features an exhibition of 30 films to be screened over five days each week. Titled, “Beirut Lab: 1975(2020),” the films are by artists living and working in Beirut, and these works were chosen and curated by Juli Carson and Yassmeen Tukan. Carson, a UCI art professor, taught at the American University of Beirut from 2018 to 2019, where she became acquainted with these films; she simultaneously raised her awareness of the significance of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991). 

At the press preview, Carson discussed the implications of state-sanctioned evasive memory in Lebanon, particularly regarding that civil war. She also talked about the younger generation of artists in that country who are attempting to untangle their inherited, “gap in Lebanon’s state sanctioned national history,” as she said. She then compared the compromised collective Lebanese memory with political conditions and evasions in the United States.

When asked to further explain this perspective, Carson wrote in an email: ’’Beirut Lab’ is at once an illumination and a cautionary tale. On the one hand, the exhibition sheds light on an intergenerational group of artists who chase the repressed memory of Beirut’s Civil War, a specter that haunts the city’s reconstructed landscape to this day. On the other hand, ‘Beirut Lab’ is a cautionary tale for Americans, as we look forward towards 2020. For we, too, are experiencing the kind of vociferous cultural tribalism — characterized by a paranoid disregard of those we deem ‘other,’ that drove Lebanon to war with itself in 1975. So our future is unknown. But as the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard (a French philosopher, sociologist and theorist, known in part for his writings on the later 20th century movement known as postmodernism) who said in 1985: ‘That we know not how to name what awaits us, is the sure sign that it awaits us.’ ‘Beirut Lab’ is a space to ponder that question.”

“American Monument” is on view through February 9, 2020; Mon.-Sat.,noon-6 p.m.; beallcenter.uci.edu. 

“Blue Wave” and “Beirut Lab” are on view through December 14; Tue.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; gallery@uci.edu, uag.arts.uci.edu. 

Admission is free for all exhibitions.