In his statement introducing Global Navigators, curator Murray Horne writes: "We navigate with ease today with online directions and satellite signaling." Can these words truly come from someone in Pittsburgh — a city so geographically confusing that navigation by GPS is virtually impossible? Seriously though, digital media have certainly altered the way we travel, explore and understand our planet.
As part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Distinctively Dutch Festival, Global Navigators shows the work of eight contemporary artists who live in the Netherlands. Shared among three different spaces — Wood Street Galleries, 707 Penn Gallery and Space — the exhibition presents work that investigates the idea of geographic exploration, both physical and virtual, in an attempt to "embrace and extend the historical context of Dutch exploration, charting a contemporary expedition with new media across emerging globalization."
The exhibition is ultimately a strange mix of pieces that fit together only loosely. It's kind of a stretch to connect Marnix de Nijs's "Physiognomic Scrutinizer" to the general theme. The piece, which mimics a security checkpoint, functions more as a critique of cultural norms as it snaps a picture of the viewer and matches his or her facial features with a person of some notoriety from a pre-selected database.
Mark Boulos' "No Permanent Address" is a slightly better fit, as it examines the way ideologies cross borders. But this video installation is more about the persistence of a particular political philosophy than any kind of territorial navigation. Boulos' process could be considered a type of expedition, as he lived for months among the New Peoples' Army, a group of Maoist guerillas in the Philippines. But rather than function as a travelogue, the film seeks to present the human side of insurgency.
Like Boulos, Guido van der Werve also traveled to a remote spot fraught with hardship and an element of danger. For "Nummer negen, The day I didn't turn with the world," he stood at the geographic North Pole and slowly rotated in the same spot for 24 hours. His short video is both wistful and whimsical. Accompanied by a musical score that he composed and performed, it documents his endurance performance in time-lapse and functions as a meditation on time and geography. Van der Werve's other video, "Nummer acht, Everything is going to be alright," is more successful at achieving a dramatic tension that verges on slapstick. In it, a lone figure trudges across a frozen landscape, followed alarmingly close by a hulking barge that slices through the ice behind him.
Van der Werve uses landscape for visual effect, something painters have done since antiquity. But the term "landscape" actually derives from the Dutch word "landschap," and in the 16th century, artists began to consider the landscape as its own subject matter, mostly because a growing Protestant middle class was seeking non-religious art. For his piece "Horizons," Geert Mul uses digital reproductions of landscape paintings from the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Rotterdam, to create an interactive projection. The movements of the viewer cause the vistas to change and the images to expand and contract along a shared horizon line.
For "Unleashed Content," Peter Bogers compiled an entirely different sort of visual catalogue. His video installation interprets the exhibition theme broadly by "navigating" online. The result is an astounding amalgamation of video documentation showing private lives now made public. On a grid of 36 videos connected to 36 speakers, both extraordinary and mundane activities play out across cultures. For example, Bogers types "flip flop slap" into an online video archive, and the search results fill a grid of 36 images, each focusing on a different woman's feet as she casually slaps her flip-flop.
Whereas Bogers' piece encompasses ideas of "global culture," Gerard Holthuis' "Hong Kong (HKG)" relies on the specificity of a very particular place and time. Filmed when there was still an airport in Victoria Harbour, this short contemplative work shows airplanes gliding like great white sharks above the buildings and mountains of Hong Kong. The subtleties of this grainy black-and-white film, unfortunately, get lost amidst the ambient noise and glare of the crowded show at Space. In fact, there are only two sculptural installations in the entire exhibition that don't have some kind of video and audio component. Folkert de Jong's "The Balance: Traders Deal," shows four unsavory characters perched atop barrels and pallets offering trinkets, a clear reference to Dutch exploration and colonialism. And Karen Sargsyan's inscrutable Baroque tableau includes figures made from cut paper whose expressions and gestures read as either exuberant or defeated.
The exhibition as a whole is an eccentric mix, but it offers an interesting interpretation of how the concepts of navigation and exploration have changed in the digital age.