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New Exhibit  Examines US Influence on Artists - 2003-07-11

Since its founding, the United States has been a magnet for artists around the world. A new exhibition in New York City examines how the United States has influenced contemporary international artists.

The exhibition, The American Effect, features art by international artists, created from the early 1990s up to the present. Larry Rinder, the curator of the exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, says all of his selections were based on artistic quality, not point of view.

"This is an art exhibition, first and foremost," he said. "And I think each of these exhibitions is a great work of art. As it happens, once the decisions were made there emerged a fascinating spectrum of opinion and point of view. And also a range of subject matter that touches on everything from economics to culture to politics to psychology to military issues, are all present in this exhibition."

About 50 artists and filmmakers from 30 countries around the world are participating in the show. The exhibition includes a wide range of media, such as drawings, paintings, photography, and internet and video art.

The exhibition includes several works of art created in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on United States. But Mr. Rinder says it is the United States' role as the world's lone superpower that inspired much of the work.

"America has become the figure of global imagination, almost an archetype of figure in the mind of people around the world that symbolizes variously, power, authority, opportunity, and freedom, and so forth," said Larry Rinder. "And that this role that it plays, psychologically, I think it has become very personalized on the part of many artists, around the world. Artists, who have never come to the United States, now have almost taken ownership of the image of United States. And they feel free to manipulate it as a means to express their personal psychological drives."

One work of art that serves as a psychoanalytical instrument is the Dream Machine by an artist who calls himself Sergei Bugaev Afrika. He lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. His Dream Machine consists of centuries-old Russian chests placed along a wall with U.S. flags peeking through. In the foreground, a bed made of titanium steel is combined with carpets covered with images of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

"While the person is slowly falling asleep, the quality of image will be more and more blurry, and the flags will become parts of the ornaments of this boxes," he said. "That's what I was somehow trying to get America is not anymore a country, or a land. It's a mental state where a lot of meanings like freedom, democracy. A lot of things were combined as a part of this ornament."

The American Effect exhibition also includes artwork dealing with political, social and cultural issues related to the United States.

Olu Oguibe's drawings portray an imagined 19th century British traveler to the United States. Mr. Oguibe left his native Nigeria in 1989 for England, and moved to New York City about eight years ago.

"I think what I was doing in the piece itself goes beyond America," said Olu Oguibe. "I am looking at how individuals perceive all the cultures. And how they transmit information back to their own societies. In this particular instance I chose to use an English protagonist to reflect on America, so as not to present a particularly personal idea of America."

Some of the work is critical of the United States. But Emily Phillips, a New Yorker, says controversy contributes to the exhibition.

"The first half of it was so much humorous," he said. "And not a searing criticism as I expected it to be. Towards the second half of the exhibit definitely it was critical. I didn't find it offensive because for the most part I agree with the sentiments."

Elizabeth Connor, a visitor from the West Coast, thinks art should convey an opinion. "It's really varied, it's strong, it's opinionated," said Elizabeth Connor. "And I think it's a good thing for us who live in this country to see it, think about."

John Beaumont, an English instructor who often uses art as a teaching tool, is particularly impressed by a series of life-size sculptures by Senegal-born Ousmane Sow. The series, the Battle of the Big Horn, depicts a battle between U.S. troops and Native American Indians in which all the troops died.

"I am really impressed with strength, and larger than life and the vulnerability of the figures there," he said. "And how much sort of power and determination they show even to the point of violence. And I see that as a certain type of American spirit."

Mr. Beaumont brought his class of international students from Columbia University to The American Effect"exhibition as part of a class project to relate their own experiences before they came to the United States.