In a dark room, above your head small figures whirl in the flickering illumination of a strobe light, and as they whirl they give the optical illusion of changing from putti (love gods or angels) into helicopters and back again. The figure that bestows love becomes the figure that bestows death.
Greg Barsamian's "Putti" is an appropriate image for "Beyond Glory: Re-Presenting Terror" at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, for over and over this show not only re-presents the subject but reorders our thoughts on terrorism: what it is, where it comes from, what its instruments are.
"Putti," for example, makes us realize how the violence of the world becomes part of our consciousness. The helicopter is equally an instrument of rescue and life, but we have seen it used so often in the context of war that we immediately identify it in this context as an instrument of death.
We tend to think of terrorism as isolated acts of violence by individuals outside of the law and normal society. But this show changes all that. Mary Lum's series of drawings and texts is one of the more modest works among huge wall pieces, installations and videos, but in its own way one of the more effective. It combines things that we ordinarily label as terrorist activities (an IRA attack on 10 Downing St.) with things that we less often give the name, perhaps because they're closer to home (the Florida burning of the house of a family who want to send their AIDS-infected children to public school) with government acts (South Africa cracks down on townships, the United States bombs Iraq).
Deborah Small's "Atrocities Management" combines pictures of torture, including electric shock and beating, with depressingly familiar government jargon: "Reports are difficult to confirm"; "these are isolated incidents"; "we deplore this regrettable excess."
Other works probe the mentality of terrorism. Fred Riskin's "The Assassin and the Holy Ghost," another series of pictures and texts, creates a hypothetical professional assassin (not Oswald) who killed President Kennedy, and gets inside his mind. When he thinks of the actual moment of committing the act as a kind of religious epiphany, it's quite terrifying. Leon Golub's "Mercenaries 1" shows a pair of soldiers bearing a pole from which dangles a bound-up body -- just like hunters with a deer.
This is meant to be an ugly show, and it is. It does its job even without the video component, which I did not see -- 13 works lasting from 5 1/2 minutes to an hour. They no doubt add another dimension entirely. During the show, the institute will show one a day on a rotating basis, and two each Wednesday evening at 7, beginning tomorrow.
The exhibit continues through March 15 at the Fox (Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues) and Mount Royal Station (Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street) buildings. Call (410) 225-2300.