NEW YORK — Ambition can count for a lot in a museum exhibition, and “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” has ambition aplenty. It can also make for considerable scattiness. That “everything” in the title isn’t meant literally, but close enough. There are 70 works, from 30 artists, in multiple media. The aim is to indicate and represent — since it’s impossible to define — a sensibility of doubt and suspicion that for centuries has colored how many people assume the way the world works, and that coloration is very dark. It has grown all the darker over the past half century or so, the show’s locus.
“Everything Is Connected,” which runs through Jan. 6 at the Met Breuer, is divided in two. The first half consists of works relating to specific political events, issues, leaders: art as a form of political commentary. An Emory Douglas collage, for example, shows superimposed on a background of New York Times stock tables a cut-out photograph of Gerald Ford, then the president, connected by dotted lines to a drawn hand covered with the logos of major corporations. Follow the money becomes follow the dotted lines.
Historically, the right has been more given to conspiracy theories than the left. Here it’s all portside, with a heavy emphasis on the ’70s and ’80s. Expect to see many of the usual suspects: Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan. They seem a bit quaint, actually, in the current climate of smirking malice and muscular ineptitude. Vastly more effective, both as art and accusation, are two examples of Mark Lombardi’s taxonomies of sinister affiliation. The spidery pencil tracery of connections among agents of influence, illegality, or both is at once visually delicate and ethically damning. They don’t so much connect the dots as indict them.
The second half consists of pure — or very impure — imagination. More thematic in nature, the works owe less to politics, per se, than to paranoid fantasy. The most impressive, Jim Shaw’s bravura 2006 installation, “The Miracle of Compound Interest,” is like a stage set for centuries-old fever dreams. Shaw brings together Wagnerian anti-Semitism, Masonic imagery, supersize cobwebs, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and — here’s where things get really wild — the classic film noir “Out of the Past” (1947). It’s the movie where Robert Mitchum says to Jane Greer, “Baby, I don’t care.” That is not a sentiment any conspiracist would recognize.
“Miracle” is the second-most astonishing work in the show. Jane and Louise Wilson’s four-channel video installation “Stasi City” is separate from the exhibition proper. It shows a few blocks away, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which the Met Breuer is a satellite.
That’s Stasi as in East German Ministry for State Security. Geopolitically, the location of the installation has things backward, since East Germany was a satellite of the Soviet Union. That’s all right, though, since backwardness — also upside-down-ness, inside-outness, especially through-the-looking-glass-ness — is what gives the video its capacity to astonish.
In 1996, the Wilsons (they’re twins) filmed inside the now-empty Berlin headquarters of the Stasi. That organization amounted to a state-sponsored conspiracy against the citizens of the state. No Eastern Bloc secret police were as effective, or pervasive. That knowledge makes what one watches for the next five minutes all the more disorienting. The offices seen are as nondescript, and as unnerving, as rooms at a crimes-against-humanity Holiday Inn: a hostelry for forgotten facts and expired accusations. Check-out time is never.
We hear the percussive rumble of machinery, like a latter-day version of the opening of Fritz Lang’s “The Testament of Doctor Mabuse” (1933). Semi-hideous office furniture (décor by Thelma of Thuringia?) alternates with state-of-the-art obsolescence: monitors, electronic consoles, automated file carousels with empty shelves, whirring open-reel tape recorders. The flow of images on each of the gallery’s four walls is independent of one another, adding to the sense of dislocation. The emptying-out of information feels vaguely threatening.
The Stasi is gone, but a gunmetal scent lingers, like the smell of cordite on a battlefield. William Carlos Williams’s great injunction, “Say it, no ideas but in things,” finds a profoundly unsettling expression, and what awful, barren, and banal things these are — but no less awful, barren, and banal than the ideas they represent.
Conspiracy can be fact. It can be fiction. Always it is an idea. Imagination drives art. That’s such a truism it’s not worth stating. Imagination also drives so many beliefs about conspiracy, and that’s something very much worth stating. In that intersection of two realms of imagination lies the great challenge “Everything Is Connected” faces. Conspiracy, except on those rare occasions when subpoenas are issued, is asymptotic: The x-axis of supposition never meets the y-axis of proof. (Or maybe that should be why-axis.) Such indeterminacy leaves a lot of room for the imagination. Imagination is where paranoid style and aesthetic practice can meet. At the Met Breuer they do.
Conspiracy is at once an accusation and evocation. No matter how specific the details of a supposed conspiracy might get (Zapruder frame numbers, Area 51 coordinates, Davos seating charts), they’re never specific enough. Conspiracy is like the horizon pursued by the man in the Stephen Crane poem: “I accosted the man./ ‘It is futile,’ I said,/ ‘You can never —’/ ‘You lie,’ he cried,/ And ran on.” Put another way: You can’t prove a negative; you sure can run with it.
The canniness of the Wilsons’ video lies in how much more powerful it is for showing what is no longer there. Absence creates its own, vaster presence. The same video shot before the fall of the Berlin Wall is unthinkable, for obvious political reasons. It would also be unbearable.
Conspiracy, being inherently verbal, better lends itself to text than image. The text can be a forgery (“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”), a monstrosity (the Warren Commission report), even speculative narrative (the collected works of Philip K. Dick). Literature, very broadly construed, is so much more effective here than the visual arts, no less broadly construed. Conspiracy, by its very nature, is hidden, or it’s a failed conspiracy. The great masters of the paranoid style in American fiction, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, have no equivalent in the visual arts. Presumably, they couldn’t.
DeLillo’s most direct engagement with the conspiracist mind is his 1988 novel, “Libra,” about the Kennedy assassination. That event and its endlessly argued over aftermath are to the realm of conspiracy what the discovery of perspective was to the Renaissance. Wayne Gonzales’s acrylic on canvas “Peach Oswald” offers the killer as color. (Or, the conspiracist objects, that assumes Oswald was the killer.) The portrait is a bit Warhol, a lot Alex Katz, and creepy through and through. The creepiness is owing to the painting’s bright good cheer. The absence of shadows may be a statement, but it also bespeaks a sort of limit to modulation that DeLillo doesn’t have to deal with.
A general sourness fills the galleries. In fairness, sweetness in this context would be alarming. The occasional irruptions of wit are thus much welcome in the hot-house atmosphere of so many sinister associations. Shaw’s pair of “Martian Portraits,” photographic diptychs showing human and alien before-and-afters, are pretty funny.
Sue Williams’s oil and acrylic on canvas “All Roads Lead to Langley” may be the title of titles here. It’s from 2016, which does elicit a conspiracist sort of doubt: What took her so long? And if you don’t know what “Langley” refers to, well then, I’ve got some real estate in Dallas with Dealey Plaza access you might be interested in. Where everything is connected, nothing is off the table.
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED: Art and Conspiracy
At Met Breuer, 945 Madison Ave., New York, through Jan. 6 (“Stasi City,” at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave., through March 31). 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-breuer
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.