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A Victim's Vindication
12 February -- 8 April 2001
The recently-established National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens continues its interest in the impact of mass media on society with its second exhibition, Pierre Huyghe's The Third Memory. The audio-visual installation is on loan from the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
From one perspective The Third Memory contains essentially one work, two synchronized video projections that last about ten minutes. The video projections juxtapose Huyghe's reenactment/documentary-like reconstruction of a bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn, New York in 1972, and footage from Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a movie about that robbery. In Huyghe's work the actual robber, John Wojtowicz, many years older and out of prison, retells, acts out, and analyzes the robbery on the sets used in Lumet's movie. About The Third Memory Huyghe says it is "…the story of a man who was robbed, who was dispossessed, of his own image." And the "author of an action" is given the opportunity to "speak up…in order to regain his place at the centre of the plot…"
The film sets are minimal in design, with floor to ceiling glass windows, sleek countertops, and shiny metal surfaces. The projected images almost mirror one another as they cover what happened on that day in the bank. The audio comes only from Huyghe's work as Wojtowicz tells his story as he "remembers" it. With a charismatic air Wojtowicz goes through the events, ending the presentation with a description, which differs from the other accounts, of the execution-styled murder of his eighteen year old accomplice, Sal Naturale, by the FBI, acting on orders from Washington.
Included in the exhibition are displays of enlarged copies of magazine and newspaper articles, a movie poster, and a video of a talk-show program. Though the latter are merely referential documentation, their significant inclusion in the exhibition creates a subtle layer and another perspective that is perhaps an even more powerful statement than the actual work.
A video copy of the Jeanne Parr Show (January 25, 1978) features Wojtowicz from his prison cell and, on the CBS set, Wojtowicz's ex-lover, Ernest Aron, who has undergone a sex-change operation and has become Liz Eden. Both parties relate the intimate details of their unfulfilled lives. The camera angle on Wojtowicz gives prominence to a Pepsi can at his elbow. With an actor's professionalism, Wojtowicz looks directly into the camera, and tells us that he did the robbery for Aron/Eden so that she could get the sex-change operation. She tells us that essentially she has everything she wanted but, inexplicably, she is still suicidal.
A display of the front and back pages of the New York Times, August 24, 1972, features pictures and articles about the robbery and large headshots of Nixon and Agnew with articles on their reelection campaign. Nixon's nationally-televised speech at the Republican National Convention was cut off for the news flash covering the Brooklyn robbery. Is it possible that the President would order the execution of the robbers because of his interrupted speech?
On the front page of the Daily News, August 23, 1972, in huge bold type is the headline about the robbery. Also on the front page is a surreal-looking half-page photo of President Nixon and his family being greeted by admirers at the Miami airport. Among the several signs held up is one that says, Youth for Nixon.
The article about the robbery in Life magazine, September 22, 1972, is reproduced in its entirety but also included are half-page hard-sell advertisements for cigarettes, a shrinkless cotton material, and a miracle corkscrew. The article is written in the form of a screenplay and it prophetically compares the "rugged good looks" of Wojtowicz with Al Pacino.
Displayed is a copy of one of the versions of the scenario for Dog Day Afternoon (January 16, 1974), initially co-written by P.F. Kluge and Franck Pierson. Kluge was one of the contributors to the Life article.
There is the movie poster from the Dog Day Afternoon, which announces, "…the bank was like a circus sideshow…And it's all true."
In High Society magazine, November 1980, there is a glamour picture of Liz Eden.
In the universe of The Third Memory, and recognizable in real life, the advertisements, the politicians, the movies, and the magazines promise us an exciting, rewarding life, a life filled with "spectacle". The consequences of this manipulation are etched on the body of a suicidal transsexual seeking the perfect existence and it inspires a holdup man to shout, according to Life magazine, "I want people out there, I want reporters out there, they're what's keeping me alive."
The irony is that these "victims", whilst looking for fulfillment in being the "spectacle", in turn become the "stars" and the manipulators of the media. But before The Third Memory’s catch-22 theme exhausts itself it begs the question: who are the real victims? Is it Nixon, Wojtowicz, Naturale, or Aron? Or, perhaps, is it Huyghe, who is “forced” to manipulate postmodern methods and “use” the media to become a star? Or is it us, who have to sift for meaning through this work and come out of the exhibition wondering “who cares?”
Michael Newberry is an artist, critic, and the director of The Foundation for the Advancement of Art.
Originally published on anartistsvoice.org
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