WHITTIER — When the satirist Steven Colbert coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, it seemed to capture the tone of the toxic, facts-be-damned punditry he parodied on his fake news show, “The Colbert Report.”*
Take a stroll through “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” the new exhibition of reality-bending contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and you might come to the conclusion that truthiness is just a fact of life in this disorienting digital age.
For many, the borders between real life and unreal, online environments are dissolving. Political parties seem to operate on entirely different sets of “facts,” and new technologies allow their constituents to live in media cocoons, where they are protected from information that doesn’t conform to their own biases.
The encyclopedia, that redoubt of factuality? Replaced by Wikipedia, an open-source forum where definitions shift from minute-to-minute.
“More Real?” reveals this new world through a mix of wit and poignant reminders that skepticism is a modern survival skill.
Nothing hits harder than “Phantom Truck,” a full-scale mock-up of an Iraqi mobile chemical weapons lab by the Spanish-born, Chicago-based artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. Installed in a darkened room, the details Manglano-Ovalle’s emerge slowly from the gloom — just as they emerged from the imaginations of Iraqi defectors whose misinformation was fed to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and repeated in his 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council, a regrettable misstep on the path to invasion.
Zoe Beloff concocts a fizzy alternate history in which Sigmund Freud visits Coney Island in 1909, inspiring an American amateur psychoanalytic club whose members reenact their dreams on film and draft plans for a Freudian amusement park. Beloff mixes authentic ephemera — including contemporary comic books and 8 mm films — with made-up bits to create a treasure trove of pseudo-historical documents.
Several artists examine the way real historical events conflate with modern interpretations of those events, including the photographer An-My Lê, whose shots of Vietnam War re-enactors might be hard to distinguish from images of the actual war if not for their superior clarity.
Often, Hollywood shapes our perception of history. For his dual-screen video, “Spielberg’s List,” the artist Omer Fast interviewed the Polish extras cast in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic, “Schindler’s List,” and it’s hard to tell if they’re talking about the actual German occupation of Krakow or a scene in the film.
Much of the work that tests our ability to discern the real from the fake is of the more playful, trompe l’oeil sort, including “Stuck Elevator,” an illusory sculpture by Argentine artist Leandro Erlich that appears to drop through a nonexistent hole in the gallery floor. Sharon Lockhart photographs two museum installers preparing a gallery for the work of sculptor Duane Hanson, and Hanson’s eerily lifelike construction crew fabricated from fiberglass and vinyl can be hard to distinguish from the two real humans in the room.
The museum gets in on the act, too, inviting Mark Dion to create an installation that riffs on its popular period rooms. Dion takes a closet-sized space and transforms it into the office of Barton Kestle, the MIA’s first curator of modern art who mysteriously disappeared in 1954, leaving his office an untouched time capsule of his professional life.
There are a novella’s worth of details about the Ivy League-educated easterner packed into the space, with its overflowing ashtray next to an in-progress canvas, period-appropriate liquor cart and numerous personal effects, all evocative of Kestle’s imaginary life.
“More Real?” proposes a reality so warped its can only be clearly viewed through funhouse mirror of Colbert-style parody. A visit sharpens the senses, tunes the truth sensor and prepares you for this unreal life.
*There’s a bit of truthiness in the lead paragraph to this story: As the lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer pointed out in a post on his Language Log blog shortly after the original “Colbert Report” segment ran, the Oxford English Dictionary includes a citation for the word predating its television debut by a over a century — although it was exceedingly uncommon before Colbert reintroduced it into the language. Of course, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.
“More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness” runs through June 9 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 870-3000. artsmia.org
Take a fieldtrip to “More Real?”
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts plans to offer free lunch-hour tours for adults of “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness.”
On each day the one-hour fieldtrips are offered, a bus will pick up 45 adults from a surprise location, deliver them to the museum for a half-hour tour of the exhibition and then return the group via bus to the pickup site. A complimentary lunch from East Isles’ The Lowry restaurant is part of the deal.
The museum plans to broadcast news of the fieldtrips a few days in advance of each event only via its Facebook page and its Twitter account, @artsmia.