The Center Holds: Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Accidental Gulf Nativism

Every first of May, as people around the world take to the streets to commemorate labor struggles, members of France’s Front National party (FN) converge at the base of a gilded Frémiet statue near the Louvre for their own counter-celebration. The monument, which depicts national heroine Joan of Arc, was commissioned by Napoleon in 1874 to bolster morale following a crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Joan is shown on horseback, holding aloft a flag and armored for battle. Her image has come to be appropriated by the far right as a patriot who was martyred as she fought to defend her country against foreign intervention: a perfect symbolic confluence, in short, of the xenophobic nativism that the party of Marine Le Pen traffics in today.  

Copies of the statue can be found in Nancy, New Orleans, Portland, Philadelphia, and Melbourne. And now her image has been commandeered again by appropriators par excellence, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), to form the eponymous installation in their first Middle Eastern show, The Second Coming, at Dubai’s Leila Heller Gallery. The show takes its title from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’s poem of the same name, itself one of the most mined works in the English language. Consider the lines “Things fall apart” or “Slouching towards Bethlehem,” which became immortalized as the respective titles of Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel and Joan Didion’s 1968 collection of essays. Yet here the gleaming musculature of the horse and rider give way to a rough-hewn beast with a textured surface that seems to drink up surrounding light rather than reflect it. The roman-nosed muzzle of Frémiet’s sculpture now suggests the slightly concave or “dish-faced” profile and body shape characteristic of Arabian horses. Joan of Arc’s head has been replaced with an everyday rotary fan, while a loudspeaker on the horse’s head, and a dilated speaker in its ass, sonorants Yeats’s poem. A Debussy piano sonata tinkles in the background, perhaps to assure us that this is France.

The anonymous collective members of BHQF have never been accused of subtlety. The “Bruces” (by their nomenclature) purport to represent the estate of a fictional painter who died on 9/11, and describe their Baudrillardian brand of cogent social and artworld critique as an extension of his life work. Their wide-ranging, waggish practice, which spans inflatable union rats to tongue-in-cheek art historical pastiche, incorporates institution-making as a medium – most notably in their pedagogical arm, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU). From 2008 to 2014, they staged a biannual “Brucennial” to coincide with the Whitney Biennial (in which they showed in 2010), cementing their reputations as downtown darlings. Notably, for an ostensibly all-male collective, the 2014 Brucennial featured exclusively women, a baton that would later be carried by the Whitney Houston Biennial. BHQF were founded in 2001 (following the watershed moment – 9/11 – that composer Karl Stockhausen infamously, perhaps callously, described as the first great work of performance art of the 21st century). This is institutional critique as spectacular entertainment, and they appear to have a lot of fun with it.

True to broad-strokes form, the imagery in the eleven hazy paintings that round out the Second Coming hews very tightly to the show’s titular promise. “Turning, turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” Yeats’s poem opens and, right on cue, tonal bluish-grey, drippy oils depict peregrine falcons – the national bird of the UAE – whirling in midair, as if caught in a dusty vortex. Two such canvases, which take on the sickly greenish quality of air that precedes a sandstorm, are particularly seductive in telegraphing the febrile, tense seconds between a flash of lightening and the rumble of thunder – except here, as in the FN’s analogous whipping-up of hysteria or Baudrillard’s mediated Gulf War, there’s no actual storm in sight. These falcon works are interspersed with paintings of pigeons, done in the same style. Unlike the falcons, each one soaring gracefully about its own canvas, the pigeons are shown always at ground level, clustered and tired and huddled en masse: rats with wings.
Yeats wrote The Second Coming as a response to the great horrors of his time: the First World War, as well as Ireland’s Easter Rebellion. Accordingly, the poem splices imagery of conflict and destabilization with Christian mysticism. The Bruces, in turn, discard the occultism and step out of the fog of war to consider its consequences: namely, the so-called “migrant crisis.” Its actors appear here as birds: the globalist dream/nightmare of bodies, labor, refugees – untrammelled by borders. They are “either pest or predator” in the Western imaginary, according to the show’s press release (which also gestures somewhat vacuously to Europe’s imperial legacies, even as it blithely reproduces a parallel history of depicting foreigners as animals, as vermin). Unfortunately, the Bruces shy away from considering such complicity in any great depth, instead choosing to paint immigrants as avian opportunists, circling a gilded monument to capital. Is it, perhaps, a self-reflexive wink of mea culpa, coming from a collective whose origins are rooted in a critique of the art market? It’s hard to tell.
Taken as a whole, the deployment of desert imagery feels like a smirked lampooning of contemporary art from the Gulf (it doesn’t help that the gallery’s program is particularly associated with this brand of bombastic, blingy fair fodder). In this, the show recalls the Bruces’s previous sendups of art history, notably their 2013 Brooklyn Museum retrospective. Only now, it reads as entirely unintentional. Because, although the location of The Second Coming may be a simple market strategy rather than a measured reflection on context, this show is in Dubai: a city in which only around 5% of residents are citizens. Against this backdrop, BHQF’s resonate more strongly than they likely realized. The UAE has no immigrants, only “temporary workers,” and a corporatized opacity of labor and attribution that far surpasses the Bruces’s own. Joan of Arc begins to look a lot like the popular depiction of the Emirati, under demographic and cultural threat from the millions of foreigners that comprise its workforce.
Still, the show looks best when taken as a mirror of the Gulf art scene, even if the image is somewhat blurry. It restages the manufactured, self-orientalized Lawrence of Arabia-style nostalgia for a pre-oil Bedouin pastoral, particularly pervasive among Saudi and Emirati artists: a seemingly accidental adoption of a reserved-for-citizens visual vocabulary – the assemblage of falcons, horses, and arid landscapes that coalesce as the Gulf citizen’s Joan of Arc. It’s an explicitly – even aggressively – commercial show (though if selling paintings of falcons to Khaleeji collectors is what now funds the very worthwhile work the BHQFU does, so be it).

Unfortunately, the Bruces don’t seem to be having fun anymore. If anything, the erstwhile enfants terribles have now become sheepish dads, glad to be selling but kind of embarrassed to be there. The funny thing about the phrase “the center cannot hold” is that the center always seems to.

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