"We only move into the 21st century on the foundation of things that have been established long, long ago."
From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 4 (2007)
This episode examines the ways in which contemporary artists picture and question war, express outrage, and empathize with the suffering of others. Whether bearing witness to tragic events, presenting alternative histories, or engaging in activism, the artists interviewed in “Protest” use visual art as a means to provoke personal transformations and question social revolutions. “Protest” is shot on location in New York, New York; Hoosick Falls, New York; Wappingers Falls, New York; Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California; and Santiago, Chile.
For decades, Nancy Spero has drawn from the political to create compelling works of art that make a statement against war, the abuse of power and our male-dominated society. Regarding her paintings made during the Vietnam War, Spero says: “I guess maybe my art can be said to be a protest…The War paintings are certainly a protest because it was done with indignation.” Spero further explains how the politically-inspired work of her late husband, Leon Golub, not only stimulated, but also posed a challenge for her own work. “It was pretty damned difficult contending with someone who was so…brilliant,” she says. Viewers observe Spero as she creates a new work for the Venice Biennale.
Landscape photographer An-My Lê is fascinated by military war exercises. “I think my main goal is to try to photograph landscape in such a way so that history could be suggested through the landscape, whether industrial history or my personal history,” she says. Lê discusses her return to Vietnam, where she grew up amid the violence of the Vietnam War, to photograph people’s activities, revisit childhood memories, and reconnect with her homeland, as well as her experience photographing military re-enactors, whom she found on the Internet. Unable to travel to Iraq to document current U.S. incursions in the Middle East, Lê worked with marines training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California.
“I strongly believe in the power of a single idea,” says Alfredo Jaar. “My imagination starts working based on research, based on a real life event, most of the time a tragedy that I’m just starting to analyze, to reflect on…this real life event to which I’m trying to respond.” Through his work, Jaar explores both the public’s desensitization to images and the limits of art to represent events such as genocide. Art21 follows and films Jaar in his native Chile during a major retrospective of his work, which he shares for the first time with the Chilean public—a triumphant and moving homage in his homeland after leaving to live abroad shortly after the Pinochet regime’s military coup.
Jenny Holzer discusses the concepts behind some of her most well-known projects, including “For 7 World Trade” (2006), for which she projected text onto a glass wall of the lobby. Much of Holzer’s work focuses on devastation and cruelty, and uses the words of others. “I stopped writing my own text in 2001,” she explains. “I found that I couldn’t say enough adequately and so it was with great pleasure that I went to the text of others.” Viewers observe Holzer creating new work as she prepares an exhibition of paintings and prints of declassified, redacted government documents, some of which are letter-size, while others are blown-up to an overwhelming scale “…in hopes that people will recoil,” she says.