Review of the exhibition “ Babylon to Baghdad ” (Los Angeles)
Sculpture Magazine, March 2007
Review by R.C Morgan
Since the outset in the Iraq War, Robert Reynolds has been asking himself: “ How can I even begin to understand the ancient civilization of Assyria and Mesopotamia?” This question intensified when he visited the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in June 2005. This was the first time that Reynolds had seen the breathtaking Ishtar Gate, with its turquoise blue tiles encompassing the repeated profile of a stalking lion. Simply put. The Ishtar Gate, which was constructed around 575 BCE as the eight inner entrance to Babylon, is one of the great monuments of world history. Upon returning to his studio in Southern California, Reynolds began to apply blue glaze on hundreds of unique tiles, carefully including erosion and chips to the edges. When the tiles were taken from the kiln, they appeared to replicate the current condition of the gate as seen at the Pergamon. However, Reynolds’ version is different in one respect: he reduced the dimension of the tiles by 50 percent. He made the changes in order to cover every portion of a generic American automobile frame that he had constructed out of wood. The result are utterly confounding: a 50’style sedan covered on all four side s with the lions of Nebuchadnezzar II, with tile images of the Ishtar palms decorating the roof. Reynolds worked around the clock for eight-month period in order to produce this incredible Ishtar’s Chariot.
In the meantime, he decided to make a second car of the same approximate size and style in polyurethane plastic wrapped around a steel support. Suspended from the ceiling, Spirit Car would offer a counterpoint to Ishtar’s Chariot, which would be stationed on the ground. The stark difference between the two is intentional. Whereas the Ishtar’s Chariot references the noble history of Babylon, the Spirit car makes a tragic statement about the present situation in Baghdad.
Reynolds also constructed other works by ancient Babylonian civilization, including a tile replica of a freestanding walking dragon. The harnessed Mushussu appears to pull an IED missile adorned with a copy of the famous wounded lion relief. In addition to this work, Reynolds’ recent exhibition “ Babylon to Baghdad” included two circular floor arrangements of stones in which nein letters spell out the word “ Democracy” in English and in Arabic (The second version is ironic since there is no word for “democracy” in Arabic). In addition Reynolds installed an environment of multicolored neon signs signifying bars and street clubs as they might appear in Baghdad once “democracy is restored.
“Babylon to Baghdad” was important not only in reference to war and death – a topic that has become increasingly relevant among artists - but also in relation to art and life. Reynolds has created a meta-narrative of light and dark, simultaneously ironic and tragic. In the existential sense, his statement is absurd, but, even so, “Babylon to Baghdad offered a powerful and exemplary metaphor of global struggle, going far beyond present-day topical issues. Ishtar’s Chariot rides through time and history as a symbol of human achievement and destruction. But, most of all, it carries the potential to mold a historical trajectory that offers the realization that nothing stays the same, that what it is true today will not necessarily be the truth we recognize tomorrow, and that the Babylonian past is, in effect, a record of the repository of change and a direct challenge to the conflict that constitutes our reality in the living present.
ROBERT C. MORGAN
Contributing Editor, Sculpture Magazine
More on Robert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan has a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. As an art critic, he has written and published literally hundreds of articles and reviews in a wide gamut of international magazines and professional journals. He writes for Art News (New York) and Art Press (Paris), and is Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine and Tema Celeste (Milan). He has authored catalogs and artists' monographs for various museums and galleries throughout the world. His books include Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth Press, 1998), Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman (both Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000 and 2002), Alain Kirili (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Vasarely (George Braziller, 2004). Selected exhibitions that he has organized as an independent curator include Allan Kaprow (1979), Komar and Melamid (1980), Six Artists. The Visual Score (1985), Max Ernst: Late Prints (1989), Logo Non Logo (with Pierre Restany, 1994), Women on the Verge (1995), Diversity (with Peter Selz, 1997), The Gesture (2002), Samadhi: The Contemplation of Space (2002), Art and the Cinematic Vision (2003), and Clear Intentions (2003). He was selected as a curator for the past Lodz Biennial in the Fall 2004. In 1999 he was given the first Arcale award in art criticism (Salamanca) and was selected as a juror for the UNESCO prize at the 48th Venice Biennial. He lives and works in New York where he teaches at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. He is currently finishing on a book on the interpretation of Eastern philosophy and the emergence of transcultural art.