Aladdin Sane: “A Whole New World” at Third Party Gallery

December 15th, 2011  |  Published in *, December 2011

Edward Said’s “Orientalism” as a concept and a way of seeing is one of those Western-World-shattering moments in academics (and beyond) in which European literature, philosophy, politics, culture, and art are re-imagined and re-positioned all at the same time as a vast and beautiful conspiracy of dunces:  imperialism in the guise of books and paintings and United Nation speeches.  In one fell swoop, Said decoded and reinvented the way Western cultures interpret/use/receive Eastern cultural artifacts and messages.  In his 1978 book Orientalism (which introduced the world to his postcolonial genius), he writes:   “Modern Orientalism embodies a systematic discipline of accumulation.  Far from this being exclusively an intellectual or theoretical feature it made Orientalism tend fatally towards the systematic accumulation of human beings and territories.

A small upstart gallery in Cincinnati called Third Party, in Brighton, has taken Said’s complex demystification of The Other and given it a smart-alecky new shine.  The show, titled “A Whole New World” and up through December, has an elegance and brevity that allows for that “accumulation of human beings and territories” to be cleared away in order to see the Oz behind the genocidal curtain.  Power gets sucked back into its hole for a few beautiful brief moments in “A Whole New World,” like a Magic Genie vacuumed back into its bottle.

Simplifying Orientalism down to its bare and absurd essentials, “A Whole New World” features sly, sophisticated art that riffs on the concept of the Magic Carpet, one of those pseudo-magical racist symbols (like the Magic Genie) that combines a tourist’s wide-eyed naiveté with Imperialism’s need to keep products on the shelves.  While dedicating a show to that object, and using a line from a Walt Disney feature-length animated film as its title, may seem a little too cute on the surface, that’s the show’s effortless triumph:  subject matter and style don’t compete; they merge.

Sheida Soleimani, Chris Reeves and Aaron Walker, the curators, don’t want to impress us with their intellectual acumen or ambition.  This show is above showing off.  It’s about a fresh, committed aesthetic that provides insight into a post-postcolonial world where Wal-Mart transforms into a diplomatic hub (Chris Collins going all Duchamp on us in “Custom Wal-Mart Photo Rug, Personalized with Oriental Rug.jpg Taken from,” a readymade that is simply just what its title indicates), and “carpet bombing” becomes a death-dance almost rivetingly beautiful in its aggravated stubbornness (in Nicki Davis’ video contribution, “Carpet Bomb,” where images of “carpet bombing” form an incessant pattern hard to look at and hard to turn away from at the same time).

Yelena Zhezlov’s “Earth, Erect” uses paper, feathers, moss, fluff and even (as cited in the one-sheeter accompanying the show) gravity itself to conjure up a storybook innocence in a sculpture that deconstructs that innocence even while indulging in it.  The piece has a puppet-show symmetry and yet somehow unnerves you as you watch it.

What I love most about “A Whole New World” is that it doesn’t overreach or try too hard to use Said’s intellectual touchstone in any other way than as a prompt to ask questions and get reacquainted with the overall absurdity of the 21st Century “Developed “World.  And even if it’s a little bit smart-assed, there’s no Occupy Aladdin silliness here.   “A Whole New World” is not starchy or pedantic in anyway.  It doesn’t try to teach us anything.  It’s just a beautiful little art exhibit that somehow, in its essentially unpretentious way, focuses our attention beyond the limits of its premise, and allows poetry to emerge from propaganda.

The best example of this is Abdullah Syed’s “Flight of Fancy, Flying Rug Series.”  Syed takes dollar bills and hand cuts them into miniature flying rugs that simultaneously reference the snowflakes you made in elementary school, the rusting away of the Western World’s stranglehold on the global economy, and the elegance and humility of beautiful artistry done without a lot of hoopla.  The way these small, gorgeous pieces are hung in the gallery give them significance without losing their playfulness.  Attached to string, they spread out from the wall and up toward the ceiling, spot-lit so that the shadows the cut-dollars cast onto the walls and floor become Gothic reminders of a lost language disintegrating right before our eyes.

The dollar bill is no longer what it used to be, literally and figuratively, and yet that cliché in Syed’s piece, and in the whole show, gets transformed into an insight only visual art can offer.  Absurdity and genocide and cultural hubris are considered so thoroughly and without a lot of pomp and circumstance that they can be seen for what they actually are:  the horrible, mundane and yet completely apocalyptic things power does to people, and what powerful people then do to the powerless.

— Keith Banner

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