Nature of Mass Destruction: Mark Tribe’s “Rare Earth” at Momenta Art

"Grunder Hill Road," by Mark Tribe, Archival pigment print, courtesy of Momenta Art

Quite often, we think of activism as a noisy affair: rhetoric projected over loud speakers, canvassers on the streets, campsites pitched in public parks. But the activism of performance artist Mark Tribe—or at least the breed that currently occupies the galleries of Momenta Art—is much quieter in nature. In Tribe’s solo exhibition “Rare Earth,” it is the silence of the image that activates one’s political nerve.

At first glance, “Rare Earth” looks to be a collection of landscape photographs. Each still image, of which there are eight, has been culled from a contemporary, first-person shooter video game, enlarged, and printed on archival paper. The result is a room full of images that do not directly reference any existing landscapes, but a commercial, virtual imaginings of the natural world. It is against these landscapes that adolescent fantasies of violence and death are played out through video-game controllers.

"Bottsford Hollow," by Mark Tribe, Archival pigment print, courtesy of Momenta Art

One could spend time describing the details of each image—the lush, vibrant overgrowth of the forest floor, the speckled sunlight that leaks through the leaves—but that would be besides the point. Because each work isn’t about the natural beauty that inspired the image, but rather the deception of the image’s artifice. The closer you look, the clearer the fallacies become. The sunlight is too ethereal, the mossy floor too untouched. (Indeed, I found myself wishing Tribe has exploited such discrepancies even further.) Needless to say that when looking closely, such a revelation is a powerfully disenchanting one.

This concept of the serene as a façade for the sinister spills over into the next room, in which a single-channel video of another similarly lush landscape is projected onto the wall. The video is one long, practically motionless clip that Tribe shot in upstate New York. The image is idyllic and peaceful, resonating historically with the 19th century paintings of the Hudson River School. Yet such pastoral naïveté belies a hidden violence, as the press release informs that the land we see is in fact owned by the US military, used primarily as a training camp for young soldiers before sending them abroad. In Tribe’s video we cannot see evidence of such activities, but once the context is clear, the boundaries between the fantasy of violence and the reality of its destruction are effectively blurred.

Such aesthetic interrogation is something Tribe, currently a professor at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, has always sought to achieve through his artistic practice. Best known for his “Port Huron Project” (2006-2008), for two years Tribe traveled around the country restaging the legendary speeches of New Left leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, and Caesar Chavez. In another project, “The Dystopia Files” (2009-2011), Tribe compiled film clips of the interactions between protestors and police—some episodes peaceful, others more violent—into a feature-length documentary film. For Tribe, whose work functions both inside and outside the gallery walls, protest and performance seek a similar goal: a reconfiguration of pubic space in an effort to activate awareness.

“Rare Earth” runs through June 18 at Momenta Art, 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick