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“For President”
Photogenic qualities will win the elections
An unusual contemporary art exhibition dedicated to the election campaigns for American President is in progress at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.
It focuses on the mass media as instruments of social manipulation
by Pietro Marino
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Francesco Vezzoli. Democrazy, 2007

As the duel for the White House between Obama and Romney enters its last and decisive phase, an exceptional exhibition in progress in Turin focuses on the election campaign for American President as a media event of world interest. A great political and visual theater is what has been staged by the exhibition taking place at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (until 6th January 2013). Photos taken by reporters – both renowned and unknown – working for the famous Magnum agency. Works by contemporary artists who with diverse means (videos, photos, paintings, installations) evoke the phenomenon without limits on their imagination or freedom of comment. A parade of objects produced for the election propaganda (ads, posters, gadgets, pins, badges and flags). But it’s not only a “historical” exhibition; the current competition takes a “live” role in the event.

The overall sense of the project is clear in the central hall with the set-up conceived by New York artist Jonathan Horowitz for Obama’s first election in 2008. Two carpets, one blue, one red – the colors of the Democrats and the Republicans – cover the floor and on the walls are displayed the portraits of all the Presidents in the history of the United States. Hanging from a cloud of white, red and blue balloons inside a net on the ceiling are two flat T.V. screens facing each other. In 2008 that broadcast, on the day of the elections from the two headquarters; on 6th November 2012 they’ll broadcast live – for an impromptu Press room with guests – the new and exciting “sleepless night” which will proclaim the 45th President of the United States, as the balloons are let out of the net.

The idea behind this original exhibition belongs to Mario Calabresi, editor of the Turin daily La Stampa, who was their New York correspondent for years. He achieved it with the art critic Francesco Bonami, artistic director of the Fondazione Sandretto, who had also lived in New York for years, and with the help of Magnum, the photographic agency set up in America sixty years ago. There are about twenty authors behind the works on display, amongst whom great names in journalist photography like Cornell Capa, Elliott Erwitt, René Burri, Martin Frank, the Italians Paolo Pellegrin and Alessandra Sanguinetti, and the present-day director of Magnum, Alex Majoli. The photo taken in 1964, of a picturesque supporter of the Republican candidate Goldwater, is by Eve Arnold, and is a very effective icon for the exhibition. It is decorated, let’s say, with propaganda items, confirming the strategic importance that the apparatus of visual consensus has assumed during the Pop era. Witness the 350 badges and 20 posters on display, from the collection of an Italian resident in America, Luca Dal Monte, who owns 1500 gadgets; from Roosevelt ‘s 1932 campaign (but the first badges appeared in 1896) to the present day.

A collection of political propaganda ads from 1952 to 2008 is proposed in a single video of 75’ by Antoni Muntadas, a well-known Spanish artist resident in New York, who has for years been interested in examining, with Marshall Reese, the mass media as instruments of social manipulation. It interestingly shows the evolution of tele-visual propaganda, as a vehicle for information to a machine of emotional persuasion. To create the “Perfect Leader”, as a controversial video by the Californian Max Almy warned in his work of 1983, produced on the occasion of the campaign waged between Reagan and Mondale. The rise of the former Hollywood actor to the White House marked a definite swerve in this direction, away from the commitment to ideas and towards the sale of a product.  

Other works on display show how the culture of the Conventions has also changed. On one hand the two “historical” videos in black and white from 1972, made by a group of video activists from San Francisco, channel TVTV (Top Value Television) amongst the electors of Nixon e Mc Govern. On the other, the alienating irony of Italian Francesco Vezzoli in the video entitled  Democrazy presented at the Biennale di Venezia 2007, in which the candidates fighting it out for the American Presidential elections were Sharon Stone and Bernard-Henry Lévi. She, the sexy Hollywood actress, he, the sophisticated French philosopher. But they move and speak according to the rules laid down by their respective communications strategists: it’s not the content which is important, but the “photogenic qualities, the confidence, the rhetoric”.

Will this be true also of the 2012 elections? Obama’s decision to run marked another turning-point in the communications strategy; the Internet people emerged: the great spontaneous and interpersonal web. But will it always be like this? There are two portraits of Obama and McCain from that duel of 2008, painted in watercolors like ancient oriental heroes by the Chinese artist Yan Pei Ming. But also the photos by Ramak Fazel, an Iranian artist resident in Milan. They show people who have fallen asleep in the Smithsonian Freer Gallery in Washington: it was 20th January 2009, they had sought refuge there from the cold and the fatigue while waiting for the swearing-in ceremony of the first Afro-American President in history. Shown again here in Turin, those paintings and photos take on diverse senses of disquiet and doubt. Are the heroes tired? Is the dream about to fade?

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