A Victim’s Vindication: Pierre Huyghe at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens 12 February — 8 April 2001

(Authors note: This is one in a series of reviews of what is going on in contemporary museums of art. Like many of you I go to a contemporary art museum with an excited expectation that I am going to see today’s best living artists. Please keep that in mind after your read these reviews as it might seem that I purposefully sought out isolated freak shows–nope, just visiting the most respected museums of contemporary art and reporting what I see.)

The recently-established National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens gives us a look inside media manipulation with Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory. It is a documentary-like presentation about a notorious 1972 bank robbery in Brooklyn. The audio-visual installation, on loan from the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Pierre Huyghe's The Third Memory

The Third Memory contains side by side two synchronized video projections that last about ten minutes, and reference materials and clips. The video projections juxtapose Huyghe’s reenactment/documentary-like reconstruction of a bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn, New York in 1972, and footage from Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a movie about that robbery. In Huyghe’s work the actual robber, John Wojtowicz, many years older and out of prison, retells, acts out, and analyzes the robbery on the sets used in Lumet’s movie. About The Third Memory Huyghe says it is “…the story of a man who was robbed, who was dispossessed, of his own image … the “author of an action” is given the opportunity to “speak up…in order to regain his place at the centre of the plot…”

The film sets are minimal in design, with floor to ceiling glass windows, sleek countertops, and shiny metal surfaces. The projected images almost mirror one another as they cover what happened on that day in the bank. The audio comes only from Huyghe’s work as Wojtowicz tells his story as he “remembers” it. With the bravado of the insecure, Wojtowicz goes through the events, ending the presentation with a description, which differs from the other accounts, of the execution-styled murder of his eighteen year old accomplice, Sal Naturale, by the FBI, acting on orders from Washington.

Included in the exhibition are displays of enlarged copies of magazine and newspaper articles, a movie poster, and a video of a talk-show program. Though the latter are merely referential documentation, their significant inclusion in the exhibition creates a layer that is more interesting than the reenactment.

There is a clip of the Jeanne Parr Show (January 25, 1978) features Wojtowicz from his prison cell and, on the CBS set, Wojtowicz’s ex-lover, Ernest Aron, who has undergone a sex-change operation and has become Liz Eden. Both parties relate the intimate details of their unfulfilled lives. The camera angle on Wojtowicz gives prominence to a Pepsi can at his elbow. Wojtowicz looks directly into the camera, and tells us that he did the robbery for Aron/Eden so that she could get the sex-change operation. She tells us that essentially she has everything she wanted but, inexplicably, she is still suicidal.

There is a display of the front and back pages of the New York Times, August 24, 1972, features pictures and articles about the robbery and large headshots of Nixon and Agnew with articles on their reelection campaign. Nixon’s nationally-televised speech at the Republican National Convention was cut off for the news flash covering the Brooklyn robbery. Is it possible that the President would order the execution of the robbers because of his interrupted speech?

On the front page of the Daily News, August 23, 1972, in huge bold type is the headline about the robbery. Also on the front page is a surreal-looking half-page photo of President Nixon and his family being greeted by admirers at the Miami airport. Among the several signs held up is one that says, Youth for Nixon.

The article about the robbery in Life magazine, September 22, 1972, is reproduced in its entirety but also included are half-page hard-sell advertisements for cigarettes, a shrinkless cotton material, and a miracle corkscrew reminding us everyone is selling something. The article is written in the form of a screenplay and it prophetically compares the “rugged good looks” of Wojtowicz with Al Pacino. In hindsight one wonders at the professionalism of the Life editors.

Displayed is a copy of one of the versions of the scenario for Dog Day Afternoon (January 16, 1974), initially co-written by P.F. Kluge and Franck Pierson. Kluge was one of the co-authors of the Life article.

There is the movie poster from the Dog Day Afternoon, which announces, “…the bank was like a circus sideshow…And it’s all true.” And from High Society magazine, November 1980, there is a glamour picture of Liz Eden.

In the universe of The Third Memory, the advertisements, the politicians, the movies, and the magazines promise us an exciting, rewarding life, a life filled with “spectacle“, yet everyone is out to outmaneuver everyone else. The consequences of this manipulation are etched on the body of a suicidal transsexual who hallucinates about the perfect existence and it inspires a holdup man to shout, “I want people out there, I want reporters out there, they’re what’s keeping me alive.”

The irony is that all these people looking for fulfillment in being (in)famous, in turn become the manipulators of the media. All art is a metaphorical self-portrait of it’s creator(s) and postmodernism is an anti-value movement. For all the spectacle of international museum shows it doesn’t make up for the emptiness that is fame-chasing Pierre Huyghe.

Michael Newberry

Revised 1/15/2020 Idyllwild, California

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