It will gradually become apparent that at particular moments when there is within a society a crisis of belief…the sheer material factualness of the human body will be borrowed to lend that cultural construct the aura of ‘realness’ and ‘certainty.’
(Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, 1985)
Suffering from Realness explores the politics of representation — and the ways in which artists use the body to grasp at and re-center the “aura of realness” in an age of uncertainty. The title for the exhibition is borrowed from the song “Ni**as in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye West in which West raps: “Doctors say I’m the illest / ‘Cause I’m suffering from realness.” This prophetic lyric ended up signaling the musician’s spiraling ego, over-the-top public behavior, and mental health issues. But the phrase also begs the question, “What exactly is realness?” In her most political group exhibition to date, curator Denise Markonish explores the fluidity of identity and the media rituals performed to tell the narrative of “realness.”
Realness in the 21st century is an increasingly complicated concept. In 2016, British filmmaker Adam Curtis directed HyperNormalisation, which is accompanied by the following tagline: “Our world is strange and often fake and corrupt. But we think it’s normal because we can’t see anything else.” In the film, Curtis traces society’s descent into — to borrow Stephen Colbert’s term — ‘truthiness’ and the systematic confusion it has created, from the Reagan to Trump administrations. The film outlines how, since the 1970s, corporations and politicians have increasingly gained power over the “real world” by creating a “fake world” that they can easily stabilize and control. Examples range from various financial crises to the use of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as a public relations pawn by the United States. In the last two years, absurdity has been amplified further as xenophobic behavior has reached a new extreme. Artists are increasingly probing the notion of realness, using art to create moments of political resistance while also trying, difficult as it may be, to forge paths towards reconciliation.
The artists whose work comprise Suffering from Realness examine the human condition from all sides, creating works in various media that are both personal and universal, addressing racism, violence, gender equality, the politicized body of wartime, the anxious body, the complexity of responsibility, and the future. Ultimately, the exhibition endeavors to provide a sliver of optimism, to show how tenderness and collective action can lead to a new form of realness, one tied less to uncertainty and more to liberation. No longer bound, we can “resist or move on, be mad, be rash, smoke, and explode” (Morrissey, Hold On to Your Friends), and ultimately, find hope in something lasting and real.