According to Margolles, Mexico's appalling violence is the only subject worth addressing-in her own art at least. She has scandalized both her countrymen and the international art world on a number of occasions by confronting the problem of violence in her homeland with brutal directness. This she did most notably in 2009, when she represented Mexico at the 53rd Venice Biennale with the eerie installation ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?). The installation featured human blood, glass from shattered windshields, and other materials scavenged from behind police barriers in her home state of Sinaloa (birthplace of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is, according to U.S. intelligence, "the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in the world").
Far more affecting than some of her early performances with dead animals or the videos and photographs she shot inside morgues, Margolles's Venice installation eschewed actual representations of violence for a sepulchral display that one interlocutor admiringly referred to as a "temple of blood."8 Serving in a sense to give political life to the anonymous dead, the installation quickly became both an international succès de scandale and a national diplomatic debacle. It's no secret today, three years after the fact, that many of those who supported Margolles's Venice pavilion within Mexico's official cultural sphere were dismissed on express orders of the government of President Calderón. One presumes that Mexico's ongoing orgy of violence was not what the power suits wanted to talk about—and certainly not in public, with the rest of the world listening in.
Nina Berman, perhaps the best known of the international photographers who are liberally mixing conventional esthetics and documentary practice, has taken pictures of Iraq war veterans, Tea Party activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters. Producing neither standard-issue photojournalism nor art portraiture of a traditional or postmodern variety, Berman portrays her subjects with a special canniness. She examines how individuals define themselves in the larger social sphere-through their clothing or domestic environments, for instance-and, in a related vein, how ideologies or social hierarchies are mapped onto subjects. She has been quite explicit in characterizing her artistic stance: "I say I'm a political person, and that my work is political, although I'm not saying what that politics is. I'm just saying that [the work] lives in a political world."9
For the Irish photographer Richard Mosse, "Art has the potential to reflect our difficult world, shifting the way we see, the way we understand, and can have a cumulative and profound effect on consciousness."10 Mosse evokes the intractable conflict in eastern Congo with Conrad-like complexity, employing the hot pinks and fuchsias provided by Aerochrome, a disused infrared film once developed for surveillance by the U.S. military. His landscape and portrait photographs, often shot with an obsolete wooden field camera, are at once realistic and hallucinatory. They are essentially vibrant, gorgeous pictures of hell on earth.
Captured visions of a real-life nightmare that has been notoriously hard to fathom, Mosse's frankly esthetic images problematize photography, deftly turning his medium's falsehoods (the red appearance of green hills and valleys, for example) into human certainties (those very pastoral-looking landscapes are the setting of massacres and hide actual blood underfoot). Mosse's work reveals what remains invisible to photographers who record only what the camera sees with its "naked lens." Expanding out from conventional realism, his efforts to represent the unrepresentable break through the apathy often associated with photographs of unrelenting misery. According to Mosse, art "can help us begin to describe, and thereby account for, what exists at the limits of human articulation."11
While artists have long sought to reveal socio-political truths in their work, today they can disseminate their messages with unprecedented rapidity and reach. This is demonstrated best by Ai Weiwei, who has successfully resuscitated the figure of the public intellectual in a plugged-in, global guise.
Using art as his bullhorn, Ai has challenged the Chinese government on everything from its corruption to its lethal AIDS policy to its responsibility in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2006, he went online to widen his audience. When his blog was shut down in May 2009, Ai turned to Twitter and microblogging. Still, the 2,700 posts on his former site make up what curator Hans Ulrich Obrist called "one of the greatest social sculptures of our time."12 A challenge to contemporary art's often hidebound ways of constructing and circulating meaning, Ai's blog also proved a demonstration—in an era that soon saw the Arab Spring and the efforts of Occupy Wall Street—of the genuine social utility of the Internet.
Ai's arrest by the Chinese Communist authorities on Apr. 3, 2011, at Beijing's Capital International Airport, leapt off the pages of the art press and into the 24/7 international news circuit. Already an art star, a recognized architect (he helped design the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics) and a longtime outspoken dissident, Ai suddenly became a cultural symbol of sorts. Today, his story serves to bring a number of apparently opposing ideas into a comprehensible whole: East and West, communism and capitalism, freedom and repression, art and politics, change and status quo. His difficulties are understood by the public—as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's plight once was—to represent the need for the expansion of freedom around the world.
The artists discussed here represent only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ironists, snipers, agitators and provocateurs who are currently bringing an artistic conscience and cunning to local and global politics. Their various styles and concerns, in turn, provide ethical challenges for the future-for tomorrow's unsentimental and uncynical artists, that is, and the societies they will look to transform.