Founded in 2003, Mission 17 is a recent addition to San Francisco’s large population of not-for-profit visual art spaces. Nevertheless it will close its doors this summer, a casualty of the economy. In the meantime, the organization’s penultimate offering is a tidy grouping of three projects, “The Man Behind the Curtain”, organized by assistant director and curator Laura Mott as her first and last exhibition after a year of work for the organization. It’s a premature ending for the space and for Mott, depriving the city of subsequent exhibitions as complex and compelling as this one.
“The Man Behind the Curtain,” suggests a series of narrative mysteries — artist-led adventures in search of the wizard. In all three projects featured in the exhibition, the artists present or enact the deceptive ventures of economic wizards in an uncanny overlap with both the fate of Mission 17 and the troubled economy in general. Instead of pulling back the drapery to find the mastermind, however, they disrupt business-as-usual by instigating a productive uncertainty in the mind of the viewer.
Swedish duo Goldin+Senneby present a three part video investigation of an offshore company called Headless Ltd. Through outsourcing the bulk of their labor, their project mirrors the secrecy of the company, leading to suspicions of an elaborate shell game. The artists have enlisted filmmakers Kate Cooper and Richard John Jones to make three films, which provide some footing through a convoluted series of interviews with journalists and bankers who address concepts ranging from tax havens to public-image-aversion. The filmmakers also address deceit within the Goldin+Senneby project in a psuedo-exposé fashion that further complicates any attempts to sort fact from fiction — it seems that both are equally strange.
In his installation, Bay Area artist Seth Lower travels to rural Texas to gather information about the staged death of 23-year old-Clayton Wayne Daniels. Conspiring with his wife, Daniels faked his own death and assumed another identity (the couple was caught while waiting for the insurance money to arrive). A narrative account of the event, a letter written by Daniels’s new identity, a vitrine encasing a tire tread and other car parts, images of an empty grave, and creepy snapshots of a home interior appear as unconnected fragments in the installation. The short video on flat-screen might make sense of these traces but comes up short. While Lowers mystery is solved in the written narrative, the specific content of the images and material artifacts in the exhibition are left undefined, creating a meta mystery. The installation might be an elaborate staging of context meant to inform the reading of Lower’s collection of unlabeled scraps of media and sculptural detritus. Or perhaps it is real, as the artist insists, and the presence of his project in the gallery nominates it as fiction.
The one exception to this narrative approach is a project by the French collaborative Société Réaliste that occupies the office space outside the gallery. Using banners, maps and stylized-but-formal wall graphics, The San Francisco EU Green Card Lottery Registration Office appropriates the bureaucratic facade of a government agency for its sign-up kiosk which accepts applications for an EU green card lottery that doesn’t exist. The project mimics unscrupulous companies in the U.S. whose websites resemble that of the federal government and who charge unsuspecting applicants for a service that is officially free. By reproducing the participatory con – inviting visitors to sit down and sign-up – the project points to a grey area in capitalist logic.
For the exhibition, the Mission 17 gallery space is cleanly divided into three separate chambers, allowing each project enough room to construct its own language. While there’s a clarity of presentation in these projects nothing about the exhibition feels traditional; formal conventions are used as tools, not as crutches. By highlighting the abstraction and uncertainty within the real-world narratives and by withholding easy answers, the projects transcend their subjects to live-on as unsolved mysteries. Mysteries that, more often that not, lead circuitously back to the artists.
[From the top: Seth Lower, installation view of documentation and car parts from crash site; Société Réaliste, The San Francisco EU Green Card Lottery Registration Office, installation view. All images courtesy the artists and Mission 17.]