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Juli Carson: Art as Political Construct


Liz Goldner

Juli Carson avows that art can save the world and that art exhibitions benefit from the inclusion of political perspectives. She manifests these beliefs and passions as UC Irvine’s Professor of Art, Director of its Critical and Curatorial Studies Program, and Director of the school’s University Art Galleries (UAG). Since commencing at UCI in 2004, she has combined her curatorial skills with the research responsibilities of a humanities professor to display in the UAG more conceptual, more receptive to new ideas, and more interdisciplinary exhibitions than were previously shown. She utilizes the galleries for innovative shows that include text, photography, film, and performance to advance politically oriented themes.

“A Performative Trigger: Radicals of Irvine,” 2015, installation view

Carson explains that the UCI art department has afforded the UAG a more radical position than most other art galleries — both within the UC system and beyond — because it is self-governed by a very progressive, forward thinking faculty. Most university art galleries are run by staff and dean’s administrations, but the UCI structure is modeled on the academic science lab model in which a professor runs the lab, while engaging students, guest curators, and artists in experimental research. “Our research happens to be art, which is then presented to the public,” she says.


Carson describes her self-motivated and UCI-assigned goals and achievements. Her aesthetics practice, supported by her department, combines art, theory, and politics. With these elements serving as a philosophical framework, she encourages critical thinking regarding race, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Panos Aprahamian, “Thresholds of Resistance,” 2021, Google maps collage

The UAG also exhibits a wide variety of artists and curators — individuals whose work transcends traditional artistic boundaries. “And we promote dialogues between UCI residents and local to international art communities through colloquia, conferences, artist lectures, and theme-based film series,” Carson says, with many of these events open to the public.


“These efforts help us clarify our ethical, philosophical, moral, and social postures to create a more benevolent society,” she says, resulting in dialogues between artworks and the history of the world and of art. The UCI galleries have indeed created exhibitions that move art and artistry toward altruistic purpose locally, nationally, and internationally.

Michael Moshe Dahan, “Yes Repeat No, Act 1,” 2021, film still. Image Credit: Julie Rea

How did Carson become such a driving force at UCI? Interviewing her at the bucolic Irvine campus, she talks about her early mentoring by her family and community, leading to her humane attitude and mission. She grew up in a politically liberal family with a scientist father who served as chair of the Newport Beach Democratic Party. The 60-year-old Carson fondly recalls a childhood of engaging in Democratic Party fundraisers at her home, attended by Pat Brown, Jerry Brown, Linda Ronstadt, and other erudite guests. “My Dad was involved in the Nixon impeachment,” she says. “And my mom made me watch the Nixon resignation when I was only nine-years-old." Her parents encouraged and nurtured her intellectually, philosophically, and politically, a paradigm that she imparts to her students today.


Carson attended Corona de Mar High School in Newport Beach, where many students were children of undocumented workers with whom she was friends, and where she took college classes. As a UCLA undergraduate, she studied art history, musicology, and film theory. She received a master’s degree from Hunter College, and a PhD from MIT in 2000 in psychoanalysis and philosophy, also studying science and music.

“Beirut Lab 1975,” 2019, installation view, University Art Galleries, UC Irvine. Photo: Jeff McLane

Since starting at UCI four years later, Carson has mounted many experimental, politically oriented exhibitions. Her October 2015 "A Performative Trigger: Radicals of Irvine," featuring conceptual and performance pieces by Nancy Buchanan, Alexis Smith, Barbara T. Smith and other department affiliates, included Chris Burden’s performance “Shoot” (1971) in which he had an assistant shoot him in his arm. Carson wrote, “’A Performative Trigger’ is both a tribute to Burden (who died earlier that year) and homage to our first illustrious students who founded the university art department's international reputation for experimentation and innovation. The importance of this historical material formed the basis for a literature about alternative artworks and documented revolutionary performance work by UCI artists."


In November 2019, Carson, inspired by her 2018-19 tenure at the American University of Beirut as Professor of Art History and Curator, co-curated “Beirut Lab: 1975 (2020),” which conceptually exhibited several artists’ painful memories of Beirut’s Civil War. “The exhibition was a cautionary tale for Americans, for we too are experiencing the kind of vociferous cultural tribalism — characterized by a paranoid disregard of those we deem ‘other,’ that drove Lebanon to war with itself in 1975,” Carson wrote.


In December 2021, she presented “Revolution Everywhere: Thresholds of Resistance” and “The Messiah Triangle.” The former, featuring large-scale film and photographic installations, was created by millennial artists who lived among revolutions in Beirut, Lebanon and Hong Kong, who mined for the show their memories of those traumatizing events. One participant, who lived in Lebanon during its civil unrest — and who gave birth to her son on August 4, 2020, the day of Beirut’s Port Blast — wrote as part of her installation, “The sound of sweeping glass permeates the neighborhood. The port is on fire again.” According to Carson, the exhibition alluded to the hope for a better world and to healing, as the artists repurposed dystopia into beauty.

Yael Bartana, “Malta Germania,” 2022, still from video

Michael Moshe Dahan’s black and white film “The Messiah Triangle” exposed the toxic relationship among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The film’s didactics explained that the three religions’ messianic impulses have resulted in history's largest, most enduring, and most violent religious and nationalist wars.


The three-channel film, “Malka Germania” (“Queen Germania” in Hebrew), exhibited in early 2022, created by Israeli native Yael Bartana, references our personal and collective trauma about war and subjugation. The film’s elegant, androgynous Malka, who morphs into a Messiah, roams or rides a donkey through a German forest and along railroad tracks — images evocative of the Holocaust. She approaches historic and political landmarks, including the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Victory Column, Wannsee, and the Tempelhof Airfield, often accompanied by a gentle camel that echoes her demeanor.


The film compels us to look beyond ourselves to the history of fellow humans who have been subjected to persecution, and beyond that to those who have evolved into predators. It becomes a metaphysical journey for those willing to examine their personal, familial, and ethnic histories as metaphors for and reflections of the larger world’s legacy of war and domination. “Malka Germania” epitomizes Carson’s pioneering exhibitions produced over the past two decades, many of which, Carson explains, “provoke intelligent debate on the subject of art in its most expansive poetic and political definition.”

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