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"Simulating Iraq" at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Posted by Sebastian Smee  February 13, 2012 12:36 PM

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04212010_21galler2.jpgClaire Beckett's riveting show, "Simulating Iraq" is entering its final weeks at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT. My colleague Cate McQuaid already reviewed this haunting body of work when it showed at Boston's Carroll and Sons last year. But I wanted to draw attention to it again because, ever since I saw it at the Wadsworth in January, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.

There's nothing ostensibly tricky about Beckett's photographs. They're straightforward, in the clinically objective tradition of photographic portraiture that runs from August Sander through to Thomas Struth and Rineke Djikstra.

It's the setting that is the source of their uncanny power.

Beckett went through god knows what bureaucratic hurdles to gain access to military bases in the US that are used for training troops who were soon to be deployed in Iraq. To that end, they fabricated whole Iraqi towns, and employed Americans - both civilians and soldiers - to dress up and engage in role play in various training exercises.

11252011_25pattismith1.jpgThe situation could hardly be more loaded, more culturally and psychologically complex. But Beckett, to her credit, has resisted the urge to "go to town," as it were, with her extraordinary material. She has opted instead for a very pared back and cool aesthetic, taking frontal and more or less expressionless portraits of US citizens dressed up as Iraqi women, or soldiers traumatised by injury. Still lifes, too, of, for instance, raw meat on display in an "Iraqi" butcher shop.

It's all incredibly strange and disconcerting, and one is caught between the impulse to marvel at what Becket is letting us see (This is what they do? How they prepare? It's like a theme park, an exotic reality TV show set!) and to marvel at the way she reveals it: coolly, evenly, without any editorializing of any kind. 

The result is a kind of double awareness that's not so very far removed from the awareness you get in Rembrandt's great portraits of local Dutch denizens (including himself) dressed up as ancient potentates or Biblical saints, or of Velazquez's real models dressed up as figures out of Greek mythology.

Like those great artists, but in an electrifyingly up-to-the-minute context, Beckett's photographs convey a dizzying sense of falling through fictions. Where does game-playing begin? Where does it end? You can't say for sure. But amid so much fakery, being employed as a vaccination against an imminent overdoes of reality, those eyes staring out at us have an extraordinarily heightened claim on us.

Claire Beckett. Matrix 163. Simulating Iraq. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, through March 4.

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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