I visited Claire Pentecost‘s installation at threewalls over the weekend, and now all I want to do is listen to Johnny Cash. What the hell does one have to do with the other, you ask? In this, the latest example of what I have come to think of as art reviews that are not in any way, shape or form truly art reviews, or acts of criticism, or any other label you might want to put on ’em, I shall elaborate. On view through May 22nd, Pentecost’s exhibition is titled VictoryLand: you, I shall answer your letter. It revolves, and evolves, around the following question:

What is the best way to remain human? For that matter, is there any virtue or advantage in clinging to an idea of humanity that has not been automated or enhanced by the awesome mechanics of prosperity and progress? In VictoryLand…you, I shall answer your letter it gets harder and harder to tell the difference between the good life and the killing machine.

The exhibition itself was segmented in a manner that seemed to correspond, in my mind anyway, to a split between experiential modes of thinking and analysis vs. feelings and empathy. The geography of the installation at once replicates this divide and implicitly encourages viewers to reconcile the two sides for themselves, because they ultimately offer a false dichotomy. You walk in, and there’s a kind of waiting room setting with two chairs placed on either side of a small wooden table of the sort you might see in a therapist’s waiting room or a lawyer’s office. I think there was a bowl of chocolate candies on it, but my memory’s fuzzy on that part. On the table were several exhibition pamphlets with writings by Pentecost and others. It also contained interweaving narratives (via pages placed out-of-order) that described drone military planes alongside various individuals’ attempts to describe what ‘compassion’ means to them (the latter were all excerpted from material shown in a video in the next room). Next to these was a large notebook containing pages and pages filled with the artist’s research, but someone else was perusing it while I was there and I never got a chance to look through it. In the next room were two flat-screen monitors positioned on opposite walls. Each played a video consisting of a series of interviews with several well-known artists/intellectuals on the subject of (on one monitor) Compassion and (on the other monitor) Awe. I was fascinated by this portion of the exhibition, and watched each video all the way through.

In the middle of the room was a large wooden structure around which were many drawings of unmanned military aircraft used by various nations, each drawing labeled by country of origin on the back of the panel (and visible only through the slats of wooden structure). When you peered into the structure you saw a pile of wood and the reddish-brown, bushy tale of a creature that appeared to be lodged in between the pieces of wood as if it were burrowing into them, or, more likely, was in the process of being crushed by them. Radiating from the tops of the wooden structure toward the outer corners of the room were several lines of bunting with flags consisting of black and white headshots of good-looking–I would even call them glamorous or charismatic–people, each one groomed in a manner suggesting the picture was taken decades ago. Each image was sealed in some kind of yellowish plastic that was often slightly brown at the edges. Some appeared to have been partially burned.

In contrast to these faces, I found myself drawn to the much more ordinary faces of the people on the videos. Here were real, lived-in human (as opposed to televisually charismatic) faces talking about what compassion and awe meant to them. Each person appeared to be answering their interlocutor in as honest and open a manner as they were capable in that moment. I found one aspect of the interviews to be lacking, however. I wanted these people to step away from the more abstract discussion of “compassion” and “awe” with which they seemed fairly comfortable, and instead attempt to relate those words to lived experience. I wanted them to take a stab at answering these questions: “When have you personally witnessed compassion?” “When have you personally felt awe?” I wanted to connect the dots between verbal articulations of what compassion and awe are with how those concepts might be experienced on an everyday level. This seemed especially important given the utter absence of compassion that drone weapons not only signify but enable. Drones give us permission to absent ourselves from our own humanity, to abstract ourselves from what it means to be human. And the drone’s dehumanizing purview, Pentecost’s research make chillingly evident, will only expand in the coming years.

As I was thinking about all this while driving home, I started fiddling with the preset buttons on my car radio in search of something to listen to. One of those oldies/classic rock type stations had just started playing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the live version from the album At Folsom, the one Cash recorded at the prison in 1968. Compassion and awe: here I found both, crystallized within a single song. Cash’s music sprung from his compassion for men who had degraded others and had experienced degradation in turn. Cash identified so strongly with those men that he saw himself as one of them. Isn’t that what compassion is? It seems like there should be a better, tougher word for it, somehow. And as for awe: that’s what I imagine the men at Folsom experienced when Cash got up on stage and sung for them. Sung songs about them. In one case, sung a song written by one of them, a man named Glen Shirley.

Yeah yeah yeah, I know that At Folsom is also a construction, and to some degree a self-conscious act of self-mythification on Cash’s part, but — and I know this point is also debatable — I don’t think it negates the fact that Cash’s performance was radically compassionate in nature. What I do wonder about though is what my current fixation on Cash’s Folsom performance means vis-a-vis my visit to Pentecost’s exhibition. Am I trying to avoid my own complicity in my country’s use of robotic military weapons by listening to Johnny Cash instead? Is it a failure on my part as a viewer (or as a citizen) that, instead of delving deeper into Pentecost’s research, I thought through her questions by listening to At Folsom all weekend? Or did the exhibition foster my sense of paralysis in its failure to articulate the radical possibilities of human compassion? Is that why Folsom Prison Blues felt more like an answer to me than a mere chance encounter?

I’m still not sure, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for Artforum.com and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.