Inventing the Modern World is the ambitious decorative-arts show at the Carnegie, but its title might just as easily apply to The City & the City, currently at Wood Street Galleries. A key component of the latter is a clearly and proudly fictionalized, though highly substantive, history. A pairing of the two enterprises is instructive.
The Carnegie exhibit shows works of decorative arts from World Expositions between 1851, the first true World's Fair in London, and 1939-40, the New York World's Fair, the last of the genre to emphasize the decorative arts. The exhibit is co-curated by the Carnegie's Jason T. Busch and Catherine L. Futter, of the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Certainly, few institutions could match the Carnegie's expertise and imprimatur in gathering such rare and compelling objects. Whether your taste runs to August Herter's astonishingly be-crocketed Gothic bookcase of 1853 or Jutta Sika's presciently restrained modernistic tea service of 1903, you have a profusion of choices in aesthetics and a well-spring of information about obscure craft techniques. The small, hands-on panels explaining material and process are particularly instructive and admirable.
Yet history, the slightly shopworn aphorism goes, is written by the victors. That applies to the marketplace as much as the battlefield. Accordingly, key questions go unanswered here. How, leftist critic Walter Benjamin asked elsewhere, does a given object stand "in relation to the social relationships of production of its time?" Not nearly as comfortably as your factory-molded but hand-polished cloisonné vase would have you believe.
Industrialization was a great struggle either to bring the great comforts of modernity to the masses or to take them away, depending on which combatant you ask. So, while each of the objects in Inventing the Modern World is, in divergent ways, beautiful, each one also came with a new way of employing people — most often, fewer of them at lower wages. But you'd never know that from this exhibition.
That's why The City & the City is especially instructive. The show features artwork by British writers otherwise known primarily for their texts; it was curated by writer Justin Hopper, who recently left Pittsburgh for England. Sure, the exhibit's different components engage the acts of viewing and ruminating upon urban experiences with imaginative variations on media. Here is Chris Petit, Emma Matthews and Iain Sinclair's immersive, four-screen video of Rio de Janeiro, notable for its views, which are pedestrian both literally (i.e., street-level) and figuratively. And there is Rachel Lichtenstein's "Sight Unseen," a collection of delicately assembled dream-like objects in precious velvet-lined boxes. Material and esthetic pleasures here depend on the accumulation of sensibilities and observations (and associated literary texts, as a September reading at the gallery demonstrated), rather than on technique and wealth.
Perhaps the most trenchant and critical of the displayed works is Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy's "Greenwich Degree Zero" (2008). The piece reimagines an event of 1894, in which anarchist Martial Bourdain blew himself up near the globe-defining Greenwich Observatory.
What if, the piece asks, he had detonated the bomb in the building? For one thing, publications of the day, from daily papers to political leaflets and manifestoes, would have chronicled the event, each in its own voice. Such documents, in the form of remarkable facsimiles with fictionalized articles seamlessly spliced into the format and content of the actual day, are placed on easels for easy reading. Nearby, grainy footage of a flaming observatory — obviously, but still convincingly, digitally altered — shows on a large screen. Amid these, the sole three-dimensional object is a pipe bomb, with powdered contents laid bare. This, too, is obviously simulated, but still metaphorically explosive.
Art, in Picasso's dictum, is a lie that makes us realize truth. London at the time was filled with anarchists, leftists and Marxists. They weren't simply too poor to shop for expensive decorative arts; they were actively hostile to any artifact of the expanding industrial order. They viewed such things as oppressive to the social and political interests of the working classes. Picasso might have added that art should not be in the business of concealing reality. That was certainly Benjamin's concern.
Suddenly (if it had not done so all along), the decorative-arts exhibition at the Carnegie appears to gloss over issues of poverty and protest with the seemingly willful myopia of the 1 Percent. The Wood Street show, by contrast, reminds viewers that newsprint and gunpowder formed the Modern World at least as much as precious objects ever did. Any assertion otherwise is quite an invention indeed.