Democracy’s Doppelganger 

 

Installation view, Krzysztof Wodiczko: A House Divided…, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, January 25 – March 7, 2020. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.
Installation view, Krzysztof Wodiczko: A House Divided…, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, January 25 – March 7, 2020. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Abraham Lincoln once confessed to friends of seeing his double on the night of his first election. He was resting on his couch when he happened to turn in the direction of a mirror and saw two faces. Next to him, was his pale and ghostly doppelganger looking at him. He sprung up from the couch and the “other” had disappeared but when he sat back down, he saw it again. His wife Mary Todd, who believed that spirits have the ability to communicate, interpreted the apparition to mean that the doppelgänger was his dead self and that Lincoln would win a second term but not finish it. The story came to mind upon seeing Krzysztof Wodiczko’s twin replicas of the Lincoln monument in a darkened room of the Lelong Gallery. About eight feet high, the monuments face each other, animated by projections of residents from Staten Island, which was split along party lines during the 2016 election. Extending the motif of dualities, the recordings are of people who are friends, colleagues, even family members. They come from the same demographic strata but express opposing viewpoints which bounce back and forth across the twin Lincoln monuments. While the conversations about politics and race are often interrupted by instances of name calling, the general responses are civil. “A house divided against itself cannot stand” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 speech during an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate. He borrowed the phrase from the Bible in order to gain support for the controversial proposition of unifying an industrializing nation on the brink of war. Wodiczko repurposes the statement to highlight the ongoing partisan contention. Born in 1943 and growing up in post-war, Soviet-occupied Poland, Wodiczko initially had a career designing popular electronics products. He started his interventions using electronic projections in the 1980s, tackling great divisions in history that shape current national politics from Germany to South Korea. From his body of work consisting of habitable pushcarts for the homeless among other ingenious forms of social engagement, the talking projections offer a more annotated view of Wodiczko’s social commitment. While LED projectors are a recent technological innovation, the practice of making statues speak goes as far back as the 16th century. Known as the Congregation of wits, talking statues provided an outlet for anonymous political expression in Rome. Criticisms in the form of poems or witticisms were posted on famous statues; an early instance of community boards. An earlier incarnation of the work such as Veteran’s Flame, were set in abandoned buildings turned into a makeshift memorials. Whispered testimonies of war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were played as a candlelight is projected on a brick wall, barely audible unless standing close to the flame. In A House Divided, the audiences are placed at the foot of the conversation, assigning to them, the role of an out-of-sight confidant of victims of de facto social segregations. The conversations feel overripe and literal in the current context of US politics, although, the allegory  is most powerful in pregnant pauses. Pitting divisions in civil society, that of church and state or of Democrats and Republicans, were once thought to be essential in the conduct of civil society. As early as the 5th century BC, however, Plato has warned of the triumph of populism as democracy’s evil twin. In Wodizcko’s work, they are depicted not as two parts of a cohesive whole but as unmoving doppelgangers in a deadlocked conversation.

 

 

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