We Could Be Heroes: The Mythology of Monsters and Heroes in Contemporary Art @ Brigham Young University Museum of Art 03.11

Posted April 1, 2013 in ,

This de-sexualized working mother embodies the hero archetype in the We Could Be Heroes Exhibit.

I pull up to the parking lot of BYU’s Museum of Art (MOA) in Provo, Utah. I roll down my window and am greeted by an attendant: “Are you a student, or the wife of a student?” he says. The question is rather simple, but it strikes me. “No, just seeing the museum,” I reply. He directs me to a spot near the entrance. I am in Provo, the only city I’ve ever felt out of place for being 22 and single. 

Some Salt Lakers steer clear of this quaint college town just 45 minutes south of SLC. Personally, I’m drawn to its chaste charm, its cheap food and its kind, conservatively dressed population. Furthermore, the MOA is perhaps my favorite museum in the state, partially because it’s free, partially because it boasts a variety of world-class collections of art. Its exhibits are dynamic as they are diverse. Plus, it has the absolute best gift shop of any museum I’ve ever visited. 
I find the Curator of Contemporary Art, Jeff Lambson, waiting for me near the gift shop. I check my coat, and we are on our way. He is giving me a whirlwind tour of the MOA’s current exhibit, “We Could Be Heroes.” Lambson, a self-proclaimed comic fanboy enthusiastically showed me around the impressive albeit overwhelming exhibit hall. “To the left are monsters. To the right are heroes. Which way should we go?” I respond, saying that we see the Heroes first. 
The exhibit isn’t simply about monsters and heroes—it’s not just a collection of Supermans and Lex Luthors. It explores how these complex mythologies have been interpreted by artists and culture-makers, politicians, and civilians. Lambson articulates, “As organized religion is waning, as small communities are waning, we increasingly get our values and our information from this broad, global society because of the Internet … [but] we are still fascinated by the story of good and evil. And, we still want good to win.” Moreover, the exhibit showcases the works of local, Utah artists in the context of national and international art. What’s being done in the Beehive State is relevant to what’s being done in other parts of the country, and the world. Lambson also emphasizes that the museum isn’t “taking any stances.” It is simply presenting a series of perspectives that the viewer, in turn, can interpret and draw conclusions from. 
I notice a speaker overhead and suddenly, a video begins. The artist, Tyrone Davies, is a U of U graduate. Lambson adores this piece and notes that it neatly sums up the whole show. It’s titled “Battle Brigades.” The footage portrays a fictitious government cloning project gone awry. After a man proves his superhuman athleticism and intellect, the government clones him in order to create a super army modeled after him. They send this army to battle, unprotected because the clones are considered machines, not men. Davies includes CNN footage from the War on Terror in addition to animated clips, giving certain parts of the video a game-like appearance. His oeuvre explores our hyper-dependence on technology and our colonial obsession with expansion. Furthermore, it forces the viewer to think about the status of solider and the militarization of society at large. 
We continue walking to the right until we are safely situated in the hero sector of the exhibit hall, where I spot one of my personal favorite pieces: “House Games (Washing, Cooking, Laundry)” by Elzbieta Jablonska, a Polish artist. In the photograph, she sits with her son in their kitchen. They stare blankly out a nearby window. Dressed in a Superman (not Superwoman) outfit, she holds her child tightly. Lambson notes that Jablonska always wears male-superhero outfits in this series, as female superheroes are always in sexualized guises and heels. The piece explores the role of women in modern society. She taps into the tradition of female domesticity, and then perverts it. Zmywanie, gotowanie, pranie. Washing, cooking, laundry. These words appear on her oeuvre, reinforcing the repetitive natural of domestic tasks. Yet, she is Superman, she is an unsung hero of the quotidian struggle, as are all mothers. Today, especially, as women are expected to “do it all,” to have careers and be primary caregivers, this piece rings true and offers a profound interpretation of the re-envisioning of the female role.  
“The monster is in the eye of the beholder,” I thought to myself as Lambson and I approached two images from Dulce Carmen Pinzon Barbosa’s series on illegal immigrants. The two photographs: “Bernabe Mendez from the State of Guerrero works as a professional window cleaner in New York. She sends 500 dollars a month,” and, “Luis Hernandez from the State of Veracruz works in demolition in New York. He sends 200 a week.” These are part of Barbosa’s collection in which he asked Mexican immigrant workers to dress up in superhero costumes at their respective jobs. On a basic level, the photographs are comical and absurdist. Spiderman is carefully washing windows, the Hulk is nonchalantly drilling with a jack hammer. The images themselves are photojournalism artified, tapping into the tradition shared with more than a century of other photographers. In these images, we see people who are immigrants at work. The viewer is transformed into a voyeur, secretly observing the lives of the largely unseen. Suddenly, with a simple change in costume, the invisible is rendered visible.  
I left the museum feeling enlightened yet troubled. It frightens me to think how profoundly complicated the seemly simply binary of good and evil has become, or perhaps has always been. Just as I struggle to understand religious faith, I struggle to understand faith in national heroes, whether fictitious or actual. I don’t believe in Batman or Abraham Lincoln. But for all of the difficult questions this exhibit asked of its viewers, its richness and its depth helped me better understand the necessity of these myths. We, as humans, need to think that there’s something/someone out there protecting us. We need to believe that there is a force of pure goodness to combat the pure evil we can see in our world. 
The We Could Be Heroes exhibit will be open up through this Saturday, April 6, so make sure you make it to the BYU campus this week to check it out!


This de-sexualized working mother embodies the hero archetype in the We Could Be Heroes Exhibit.