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Viewers Enter a Masterpiece in New Installation
Wafaa Bilal and Shawn Lawson, Bar at the Folies-Bergère (after Manet), 2003.
Digital video and mixed media. Stephen and Nancy Einhorn Collection.
Image courtesy of the artists.

MILWAUKEE, WI.- Museum-goers are invited to step inside a world-famous painting as the Milwaukee Art Museum presents an exciting new interactive installation amidst the renowned masterpieces in its galleries of European art. On view through July 2008, Bar at the Folies-Bergère (after Manet) is inspired by one of the most popular and debated faces in the history of modern art. The work has been developed by Chicago-based Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal.

Suzon, the barmaid portrayed in Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), morphs from a painted figure into an animated, responsive “real person” in Bilal’s high-tech redux of this definitive classic of early modern painting. Employing a false wall, a hidden camera, a projector, and a series of unseen computers to create a digital image that looks just like an oil painting, the work places the image of the viewer into the painting’s mirror, right behind the bar. From this perspective, visitors can interact with the suddenly reactive Suzon, who responds with a variety of moods based on their movements and gestures. Kind viewers can elicit a smile and a wave from her, while more aggressive participants sometimes provoke her to walk right out of the frame.

“We are very interested in having the viewer trigger the work,” notes Bilal, who created the work with the help of artist Shawn Lawson. “We never give instructions. We want people to figure out for themselves what this is all about. It’s not just about the piece anymore; it’s also about having fun and seeing your reflection in that mirror.”

Generously lent to the Museum by Stephen and Nancy Einhorn, Bilal’s work will share a gallery with famous paintings by artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Augustine Rodín. Laurie Winters, curator of earlier European art at the Museum, coordinated the display.

Wafaa Bilal was born in Iraq in 1966. Persecuted for creating art that opposed the government of Sadaam Hussein, Bilal escaped to a refugee camp in Kuwait during the Gulf War, and arrived in the United States in 1992. He studied visual arts at the University of New Mexico before relocating to Chicago, where he is currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute. His art is of a political nature that speaks to oppression of the human spirit, including that of women who are bound by the rules of culture. Recently, Bilal spent thirty days in self-imposed confinement at Chicago’s FLATFILEgalleries, for an installation/performance piece called DOMESTIC TENSION. Commenting on the constant dangers currently imposed on Iraqi citizens, Bilal was exposed to fire from a high-velocity paintball gun controlled by visitors to a public website, twenty-four hours a day, for the duration of the confinement. During that time, the website attracted 80,000,000 visits from 130 countries, and the gun was fired some 60,000 times.

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