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International Flight

For better and worse, the Carnegie International stays grounded

Approach the Carnegie International from the Sculpture Garden entrance, and you'll pass through a sort of airlock: a greenhouse built by German artist Carsten Höller that echoes the glass-walled building around it. At first, the plants inside seem on the verge of pushing their way out, a fertile energy appropriate in a piece that, Höller claims, synthesizes the smell of love. But those energies are kept carefully controlled; the plants are contained in pots, pruned by museum staff.

It's a contrast to the initial impression one got from the last Carnegie International, in 1999, when the Sculpture Garden was taken up by a synthesized geyser fashioned by Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson. Steam funneled into Pittsburgh's leaden autumn sky, while leaves from the garden trees descended into a rubber-lined pond built atop scaffolding. Like nature itself, Eliasson's work was untidy, and barely confined.

It is a cliché to say that a museum is a kind of hothouse, a climate-controlled environment designed to nurture life that might not survive on the outside. And yet in the case of the 54th Carnegie International, it might be a fitting metaphor. The processes at work are more restrained, and the playfulness of the previous exhibition -- which invited viewers to explore a 69-foot-long walk-in womb made of Lycra, or to play Ping-Pong over a moat at the table's center -- is largely absent.

To some extent, those differences reflect the wrenching global changes since 1999, a year we can now see as the last days of a decade-long American idyll. But the shift also reflects the cerebral approach of the curator of this year's International, Laura Hoptman.

Weeks before the show, Hoptman could honestly say, "I don't know what the hell this show is going to look like." Much of the work was created specially for the exhibit, but what emerged from that chaos is surprisingly austere -- even as Hoptman aspires to shake the very foundations of contemporary art.

Hoptman pulls no punches in her catalogue essay. Even the title, "The Essential 38," is a shot across the bow to po-mo theorizers for whom "essentialism" is a bad word.

Modernism's "art-for-art's sake" ethos led to sterile identity politics and agendas that were often opaque and exclusive. Hoptman, by contrast, sought out work that addressed what she calls "the Ultimates" -- questions whose answers are "considered unknowable, including the nature of free will, immortality, the existence of God." She approvingly cites cultural theorist Terry Eagleton ontoday's cultural discourse: Too much of it, Eagleton contends, "has been shamefaced about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering...and superficial about truth." For much of its history, art has addressed itself to such topics, but in recent years, Hoptman contends, art focused "on the micro over the macro." Thus its theoretical underpinnings are "less and less useful as tools for understanding our world."

Anyone who's ever slogged through the morass of contemporary cultural theory can't help but cheer such sentiments. How much they explain about this exhibit, however, is open to question. Mangelos, a Croatian artist and theorist whom Hoptman deploys as one of three spiritual godparents in this exhibit, once famously uttered, "there are no profound thoughts, only functional ones." Mangelos groused, "[T]he world has changed while art is stuck at the beginning of the 19th century," while Hoptman's grievance is nearer the opposite: The world has changed and art should revisit some of its 19th-century rationale.

It's certainly true that we could use art that explores the mysteries we share, rather than merely fetishizing the differences between us. But when art has spoken most explicitly to the ideas Hoptman seeks to address, it's done so in a language that viewers felt they could grasp. That's not always true in this show.

Tomma Abts' small abstractions, for example, feature zig-zags and geometric shapes folded back upon themselves -- a kind of Modernist ideal that hasn't had much to say for decades. The sculptures of Eva Rothschild feel similarly chilly. These constructions of wooden frames and glossy triangular planes perforated with holes barely stand up in any sense. Can we really discern ultimate questions in Rothschild's polished, perforated surfaces? Or do they reflect only our puzzled faces?

With its painted-over and shattered mirrors, Jim Lambie's installation similarly makes reflection difficult. His mirrored purses hanging from dismembered chairs and shoes dripping paint have a rave aesthetic, as does the brilliant yellow mattress glued to the wall and the floor covered over in an eye-bending pattern of black tape. Yet try as I might, I end up feeling like I do about actual raves: It's somebody else's idea of a good time, and one that leaves me with a headache.

Ironically, many of these works don't look as fresh as the decades-old work exhibited by another of the exhibit's spiritual godparents, Lee Bontecou. A polyglot sculptor and painter, Bontecou's work blends abstraction and figuration, borrowing equally from the shells of insects and the carapaces of fighter-jet engines. Her densely woven images, and delicate yet bristling sculptures, suggest strange hybrids of the mechanical and the organic. Especially in an age where science is pushing the boundaries of life itself, this retrospective of Botencou's work radiates an immediacy many of the exhibit's younger artists lack.

The disconnect between art and the viewing public is almost as old as art itself, and shouldn't necessarily be avoided. Some purely abstract work, after all, is quite appealing, such as Mark Grotjahn's luminous but subtle monochromatic paintings. But it is sometimes hard to reconcile Hoptman's universalist ambition with the somewhat cloistered feel of some of these works. As her essay sniffs, "During the past twenty years, an abiding interest in the most prosaic aspects of daily life has served as a strategy for making art relevant to a broader, less elite audience." For better and worse, that's not an accusation likely to be made against much of the work in this show.

Take Senga Nengudi's sculptures fabricated from pantyhose, stuffed with weights and pinned to the walls and floor. These are elegant pieces fashioned from humble materials; delicately suspended from walls yet bulging with scrotal sacks, they are also somewhat wry assertions of female empowerment. But it is hard not to look at them without recalling the gallery-sized sculpture of Ernesto Neto in the last International, similarly sheer and bulging constructions large enough to walk through. The experience of this exhibit's works is less interactive, less "phenomenological," to use Hoptman's term. If Hoptman sees art playing a more traditional role, a similar fate is in store for the viewer: We experience these works not as participants, but as more passive observers.

The result is there's not a lot of fun in this exhibit. An exception is Katarzyna Kozyra's video installation, "The Rite of Spring." Here, digitally animated still photos of old people engage in a comically disturbing dance to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Their genitals have been digitally (I hope) swapped, creating an oddly androgynous, and paradoxically sexless, fertility ritual. But when compared to installations in previous internationals, most of the artworks here are less "experiential," Hoptman herself told me. "Being a contrarian," she added, "I thought it would be interesting to look at the kind of work that isn't necessarily the opposite but attracts the viewer on a spiritual or philosophical level."

That aspirationis most fully realized in the work of comic-book artist Robert Crumb.

Purists may turn their noses at Crumb's inclusion here. But Crumb, who designed the International's posters, is the exhibition's most public face. It's a savvy choice for the International, and not just because his images look like more fun on a T-shirt than, say, the visualized theorizing of Mangelos. Crumb has, as Hoptman told me in an interview, "struggled against the worst nature of man" -- his own rampaging sexism and less manifest racism, and his all-encompassing neuroses. He asks "ultimate" questions, not least of which is "How did I get to be such a DAMN FOOL?" (the title of one of his comics). And he does so with skillfully rendered drawings that have outraged, amused and challenged readers since the 1960s. Generations of genre painters could scarcely boast of more.

Yet much of Crumb's work, too, is entombed in glass display cases, sealed up like a hothouse flower. Even Crumb -- manic, twitching, compulsively Promethean Crumb -- finds some of his genius stuffed back into the bottle here.

The International does include artists like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who pick up where Crumb leaves off. And not just because the exotic dancers in diCorcia's 6-foot-tall photographs might well attract Crumb's lecherous eye.

diCorcia's camera arrests these dancers suspended in the midst of pole-dancing routines -- their bodies hanging in mid-contortion to the point where they almost cease to be sexual and become studies in the human form. (Hoptman cleverly places these photos in the Hall of Sculpture, near permanently installed reproductions of old Greek statuary.) An existential emptiness permeates these photos, as if these women aren't dangling from a pole so much as hanging by a thread.

But perhaps the most successful works are those that don't hew too closely to Hoptman's premises. Jeremy Deller's shopping bags concern the strange interaction between the eternal and the everyday, yet they explicitly partake of the "prosaic aspects of daily life" Hoptman's essay tries to point beyond. Deller designed 5,000 bags, each inscribed with a Bible verse instead of the name of a department store. The gesture has something in common with the famed "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelet: The bracelet turned a fashion accessory into a statement of faith, while Deller's bags reverse the process. Yet in this gesture is a haunting sense of futility: How can we reconcile our spiritual yearning with the mass-marketed banality of our surroundings.

Rachel Harrison's series of "Perth Amboy" photographs are much less effective at making a similar point. The photos document a procession of worshippers drawn to an otherwise-nondescript New Jersey home, where a vision of the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared in a window. Visitors are shown touching the window until their fingerprints are all that remains of the image: The fervor of the devotees has erased the object of their devotion. As with Deller, there is a poignant sense of the human need to find something to believe in a cookie-cutter landscape. Sadly, the photos are just not very interesting to look at. Even once you understand the spiritual questions at stake, they're still just photos of people's hands pressed against a window.

Anne Chu's sculptures put one in mind of the legions of terra-cotta warriors buried in the Chinese city of Xi'an, but they too speak to more universal spiritual needs. With their fangs and morning-star arms, they ought to be forbidding. But these monsters are not especially monstrous. Their misshapen bodies are perforated with holes; they are costumes to be climbed into, puppets that require a hand to animate them. And their ancestry is difficult to trace. Are they the creatures we feared were beneath the bed when we were children? The descendents of forest spirits our ancestors told stories of around campfires? Or are all the monsters we imagine somehow related? Chu suggests they are, and that we are all related for having once feared -- or worshipped -- the same things. If it's possible to be nostalgic for old fears (and in a post-9/11 world it is), these images, from dreams we no longer have, are oddly consoling.

More current nightmares haunt the diminutive sculptures of Isa Genzken, though she too uses icons familiar from childhood. In fact, her tiny vignettes resemble nothing so much as the bedroom floor of a child trying to work out a trauma. Plastic army men die defending plastic cups, toy chainsaws are tucked inside purses. Genzken has used this approach to probe the scars left by the 9/11 attacks: Her toys suggest images of collapse, familiar forms twisted back on themselves and made obscene. An unsettling commercialized militarism (or is it militarized commercialism?) is pervasive throughout, and looming over one of these assemblages is a photo of the entrance to the World Trade Center.

Chiho Aoshima's 108-foot-long mural -- composed of a series of wallpaper-like panels glued to the museum's walls -- depicts not just disaster but a blithe indifference to it. Using the conventions of Japanese animation, Aoshima depicts catastrophes up and down the scale, from three-car pileups on highways to the worst global-warming nightmares: tidal waves and cyclones, erupting volcanoes and cities aflame. Yet this apocalyptic landscape is dotted with the doe-eyed nymphs common to Japanese comic books and films, blissfully uncomprehending of the doom unfolding around them. From the legend of Godzilla to anime films like Akira -- whose aesthetic Aoshima's mural shares -- the Japanese seem to appreciate that disasters make great footage. (In this attitude, of course, they are much like Americans.) Her lurid but illumined mural suggests that we are like one of her pleasure-seeking nymphs: surfing down the side of a tsunami.

It certainly feels that way at times: We are surrounded by terror warnings and nightly updates of vague, but imminent, disaster. And yet our president tells us to go shopping.

This year's International, the first since the 9/11 terror attacks, had a unique opportunity to confront such issues head-on. And yet other than its aura of grim seriousness, it's hard to see that such considerations affected the show much. This year's exhibit, for example, contains exactly the same number of artists from the Muslim world -- one -- as the International did in 1999. The world is divided like never before over the "ultimates" that interest Hoptman: questions about God, humanity, good and evil. Yet we will hear only a lone voice, that of Turkish filmmaker Kutlug Ataman, from the part of the world where such issues are most pressing.

Ataman's work, "Kuba," offers dozens of TVs for viewers to sit before and watch interviews conducted with residents of an impoverished Turkish neighborhood in Istanbul. The residents speak of a community both united and divided by religious and ethnic clannishness, a community in which freedom and lawlessness are flip sides of the same coin. We Westerners, meanwhile, witness all this the same way we always have: sitting in chairs, looking slightly down on the foreigners we see on TV.

Ataman is the first artist viewers will see in the exhibit proper, but it turns out to be a bit of a false start. The exhibit drops such perspectives in a hurry. Instead, we see Eastern European artists like Neo Rauch, anartist born in the former East German. Rauch uses the Socialist Realist conventions of the Soviet Era topick over the ruins of the Cold War. The ideological battles of today, meanwhile, get scarcely more attention.

Does Hoptman feel that's a mistake? "Absolutely not," she said flatly weeks before the opening. Curating a good show, she says, is "not about picking one [artist] from Category ‘A' and one from Category ‘B.'" There is a danger, she notes, in taking a Benetton approach: commodifying cultural differences and packaging them to suit popular taste.

Dogmatic art driven by, say, the horrors of 9/11 or American foreign policy might well have been empty-headed. As Paul Chan, arguably one of the most politically engaged artists in this International, told me during a brief stay in town, we have enough dogma and certainty to last us a lifetime -- or kill us all. "One of the functions of art is to confuse you," he says. By contrast, the crusading certainty of George Bush is "what makes him so appealing. Why else would you vote for him? When things are bombastic, people want easy answers. Our job is to slow things down."

Yet it is possible to make politically charged art without being merely political. Harun Farocki's films, for example, feature footage taken of, and by, cruise missiles and other "smart" munitions in the American military arsenal. The images are especially apt now, as much of the "war on terror" is being fought by remote control: computers relaying satellite images to self-targeting bombs. But Farocki is after bigger game. The very act of seeing, which makes art possible and thus helps make us human, has been digitized, mechanized and brutalized. Meanwhile, our own consumption of these images, offered for our delectation on CNN, has become disturbingly robotic as well.

Chan's politics are in clear view -- earlier this year, he created a guide to New York City for protesters descending on the Republican National Convention. But one of his works in this year's International is, at least partially, a critique of the left. "Now Let Us Praise American Leftists" features a rogue's gallery of political dissidents -- AIDS activist, "Hollywood leftist," Trotskyite. Using software developed by law-enforcement agencies to draw composite sketches, Chan reduces the face of dissent to a stereotype: Leftists are all men with moustaches, even the feminists. Just as Farocki shows how technology can paint its own landscapes with lethal results, Chan shows us that portraiture can be an instrument of power in the hands of government.

But if it's troubling to think of law enforcement stereotyping activists by their facial features, it's also disturbing that the left -- which has its own history of exclusion -- has often matched the stereotype. Chan's work reminds us that diversity remains an elusive goal...and that Hoptman's wariness about choosing artists by the numbers is regrettable, if understandable. Ataman's video installation, which won the International's Carnegie Prize this year, suggests a hunger for such perspectives. Yet we've missed an opportunity to learn more from a part of the world we hear a lot about, but very little from.

The difficulty of resolving such dilemmas may best be suggested by Julie Mehretu's three-paneled work "Congress." Its swirling loops suggest a huge crowd gathered inside an Olympic arena. But the flags in the rafters above are dissolving; crescents and Stars of David have been loosed from their banners, swirling in a maelstrom and mixing with the logos of TV networks and previous Olympic games. The real contestants in Mehretu's games appear to be not athletes or nations, but what writers Benjamin Barber and Andrea Schulz called "McWorld and jihad." Indigenous peoples and ways of life increasingly confront the globalizing, homogenizing power of Western culture. The old cultural forces are being uprooted, frantically circling each other and spinning nearly out of control.

Trying to capture some of those forces, to plant them so they take root, is the unenviable task of any exhibit surveying the global art community. The Carnegie International is a special case: Unlike the crowds attending similarly periodic surveys in New York or Europe, the audience for Pittsburgh's international is rooted, and not as cosmopolitan. The challenge is to create a world-class exhibit that appeals to locals too. Previous Internationals have sought to recruit heavy hitters, names already well established in the art world. That served Pittsburgh audiences who might otherwise never have seen such work, but art-world cognoscenti arguably found little new to pique their interest.

Hoptman's approach is different. "You don't have to put on the same fashion show in Pittsburgh that you did in Paris to prove Pittsburgh is Paris," she says. She's trying to show Pittsburghers, art-world insiders and even herself something no one has seen. I'm not entirely convinced she's succeeded, but her previous curatorial experiments, including a New York exhibit on drawing, pleasantly surprised critics. She may surprise art-world sophisticates yet again.

The rest of us, meanwhile, will likely find some exotic flowers blossoming in the museum's transplanted soil and closely monitored climate. But when we leave the hothouse at the end of the day, we may not need to be reminded to close the door.

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