It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there at Gallery Sofie Van De Velde

By Sam Steverlynck

Emmanuel Van der Auwera, VideoSculpture II (Victory Speech 2), 2015, multiple LCD screens, polarisation  lter, video, 120 × 140 cm. Photo: Evi Peeters. Courtesy the artist and Gallery So e Van De Velde, Antwerp

Named after a 1955 poem by William Carlos Williams, this seven-artist exhibition investigates how the mainstream news media frame – and manipulate – our perception of the world. The show is cocurated by Joachim Naudts and Belgian photographer Max Pinckers, whose Margins of Excess (2018) exemplifies the themes. The series shows the lives of individuals who briefly became famous after the idiosyncratic behaviour, often the result of a dream or obsession, was sensationalised by the US press. Darius McCollum, a train buff with Asperger syndrome who has been jailed almost thirty times for crimes such as impersonating a New York subway employee, is portrayed in his prison uniform. In a text alongside, McCollum admits the trouble he has with the term ‘imposter’ that was used in the media used to describe him. Next to his portrait are other pictures related by association to the subject: the control chamber of a cruiser instead of that of a train; a burnt-out bus.

With May 1, 2011 (2011), Alfredo Jaar repurposes the iconic picture, distributed by the White House, depicting leading members of the US government watching live footage of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound from a situation room. The scene looks rather staged; it evokes a historical tableau vivant, with Barack Obama frowning and Hillary Clinton covering her mouth in disbelief. This is shown on one LCD monitor; the other, a white screen which the politicians appear to look towards, evokes the out-of-shot TV they are watching.

Emmanuel Van der Auwera, Boris Mikhailov and David Birkin also deconstruct official media images, in distrust of their supposed truth. In Parliament (2015–17), Mikhailov takes pictures of his TV screen when parliamentarians or newsreaders report on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and unplugs his TV and then plugs it in again, which creates a fleeting image as distorted as these versions of the events. Van der Auwera presents a series of LCD screens with lacerated polarised filters, creating a fragmented and hard-to-decipher image of the inauguration of President Obama (VideoSculpture II (Victory Speech 2), 2015). In the Embedded series (2011), Birkin changes photos of mass executions from jpeg to tiff format, leading to pixelated images which he combines with computer codes indicating the names of the victims that feature in it, uncovered through his research. Though these three artists use different techniques, the central doubt of the official narrative is comparable and the curators could have perfectly made their point with one work less, especially as, taken individually, some of the works are not that strong.

Matthias Bruggmann’s pictures from warzones are presented without contextualising information. They have a glossiness about them that leaves the spectator in doubt as to whether they are real or staged, reinforcing the general mistrust and questioning of media images that runs through this show. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), the masterpiece and contemporary classic with which Johan Grimonprez brought the art of montage of found footage to the next level, sketches the history of airplane hijacking as portrayed by the media, encapsulating the climate of fear – reinforced by Hollywood – during the Cold War and Cuban missile crisis. Though restricted in size, the exhibition gives a coherent yet sometimes rather literal interpretation of a theme that has lately become more and more topical. It unquestionably speaks to post-truth times, in which it’s not only difficult to get the news from poems – as per the show’s title – but also from mainstream media.

It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there at Gallery Sofie Van De Velde, Antwerp, 25 January – 18 March

From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview