21 July – 31 August 2009
Southbank Centre, London
This conceptually crisp group exhibition initially appears as dry as the surface of the natural satellite it refers to. It's 40 years since the first lunar landing, yet 'Deceitful Moon', featuring a dozen international artists (and throwing in William Hogarth for good measure), provides little in the way of bells, whistles or shiny attractions to mark the fact. But as curator Tom Morton explains in the exhibition notes, the project is born of suspicion towards the global-event-anniversar-exhibition phenomenon. For underneath the commemorative Apollo 11 coin, it would seem, lurks a lunar-related history of hoaxes, conspiracy theories and Muzak. 'Deceitful Moon' covers the gamut, from the shady, Rabelaisian world of the tarot to post-moon-landing commercial marketing strategies.
At first spec, it's hard to marry the rich intellectual promises of the press release with the sober museological test-site on view, to get over the is-that-it? response that the historical framing of sites and objects can induce. The ideas are still in evidence, of course, just purposely concealed within the politics of display. Keith Wilson's moon-boot-material yoga mats, placed here and there, set the tone and territory of Morton's constellational arrangement: 1960s spiritual, 1970s retail and twenty-first-century eco values collide in this remodelled object. Fanned out on the ground, they appear to have broken the fall of a TV set playing Aleksandra Mir's sublime film First Woman on the Moon (1999), which follows the daylong transformation of a Dutch beach into a lunar landscape. The temporal nature of the endeavour brings to mind Robert Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty' (1970), while Mir's tenderly filmed cast of faux-1960s women, burly construction crews and passersby imbue her gender-political message with rich human as opposed to dry academic undertones. Snippets of space-mission audio and an eclectic score supplied by Hasselblad, the cameramaker contracted by NASA for the original landing and a sponsor of Mir's project as well, raise and lower the exhibition pulse as if at the behest of a coronary condition.
Naturally, very little is as it seems. Formally light works harbour expansive narratives; truth and fiction layered to form improbable theoretical structures. Carey Young, for example, stipulates that her 'Plato Contract' (2008), a boy's bedroom poster-cum-photowork of the moon's Plato crater, will only become art for the purchaser once installed on the moon. The distance between wag-the-dog plausibility and mad-as-a-box-of-frogs lunacy often appears too close to call. It's impossible to say at what point science bleeds into fiction during Karen Russo's docufictional video account of a male psychic describing a location ('the dark side of the moon') simply from a set of map coordinates. For while his Ancient Egypt-inspired vision appears the stuff of comic-book fantasy, 'remote viewing' is known to have been used as an experimental surveillance technique during the Cold War.
Morton's hyperallergenic curatorial response to commemorative-exhibition politics could so easily have become a tight leash-tug in the opposite direction, getting caught up in the anthropological knotwork between Nixon and New Ageism, between ecology, economics and the new space race. Rather, taking advantage of our institutional expectations, he provides a curious set of cultural positions from which to look back at the collectively perceived historical picture.