Guest-curated by Jens Hoffmann, “The Past Is Present,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, invites 17 international artists, including Martha Rosler, Tania Bruguera, Andrea Bowers and Pedro Reyes, to create murals that reflect on the city’s history post-1933. That year marked the completion of Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry, his famed fresco cycle for the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it still circles around a large gallery near the entrance. Marking both the achievements and failures of the rise of industrial manufacturing in Detroit, the Rivera mural is a strong example of the form’s capacity for critical social commentary. Hoffmann selected artists for their dedication, shared with Rivera, to voicing a radical political vision through their art. None have a primarily painting-based practice, but each artist submitted a design that was then given to local Detroit artists to paint. The Detroit artists were credited in the show but their names were not announced in the press materials, leaving one to wonder if Hoffmann couldn’t have arranged for a more hands-on collaboration between the two groups of artists. The resulting exhibition gives a sense of Detroit’s political accomplishments over the past century, as well as cultural touchstones like Motown and techno, while also displaying a keen sense of the economic crises that have put the city’s future in doubt.
The exhibition is composed of 14 9-by-12-foot single panel murals, held up on wooden stands and placed throughout a large gallery. Many of the works concern themselves with the history of organized protests by the working class. William E. Jones speaks to this heritage with his enlarged photorealistic replica of a Detroit News picture depicting the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, a historic clash between union workers and Ford Motor Company security guards. Andrea Bowers contributes an image of a woman, holding her baby, her fist defiantly aloft, in front of the words “We are worth more.” In the corner sits the logo of D15, a current organizing effort by Detroit-area retail and fast-food workers to raise the minimum wage to 15 dollars. As the exhibition’s title suggests, labor struggles of the past for equality and fair compensation remain present, if not having intensified—see French artist collective Claire Fontaine’s rendering of a Detroit Zoological Society postcard depicting polar bears on barren rocks, gazing into the distance, for a dire metaphor of extinction for the working class.
“The Past Is Present” does tend toward one-dimensional didacticism, however. Given the curator’s and the artists’ distance from the city, the historical context provided in the exhibition—including a reading room full of print publications and a historical timeline that wraps around its walls—reads unfortunately like an attempt to school Detroit on its own history. Certainly, for visitors with little or no existing relationship to the city, this may be a welcome education. For those more closely connected, and for whom this history is a lived experience, “The Past Is Present” may seem like unnecessary commentary from an art world parachuted in. One would hope for more works along the lines of Julieta Aranda’s mural, however. In a crossword dwarfed by its stark black background, Aranda fills in the grid’s spaces with words familiar from the standard coverage of Detroit: neglect, decline, bankruptcy. Aranda’s work is a welcome attempt to point out how easily the city is reduced to generalized perceptions, the rest of its expansive nature shrouded from sight.