Lucas Blalock belongs to a generation of artists, mostly in their 30s and from North America, which is exploring the component parts of photography in a time of dramatic technological change. The results of their investigations vary in form and genre: some work in an abstract vein; others tease apart representation through analogue and digital collage techniques; others exhibit objects that, to a conservative viewer, might only tenuously be described as ‘photographic’. Depending on how widely you wish to cast your net, artists as diverse as Walead Beshty, Talia Chetrit, Sara Cwynar, Jessica Eaton, Shannon Ebner, Sam Falls, Daniel Gordon, John Houck, Artie Vierkant and Hannah Whitaker can be brought together under this rubric of photographic experimentation. And they often are, by museums and galleries newly interested in an artistic medium no longer ghettoized by historical biases against it.
Blalock’s signal contribution to this dialogue-through-art is his explicit foregrounding of the role computers and digital processing play in the creation of photographs today. The word explicit is key. The labour that underpins many other photographs, especially those created for commercial or editorial use, is effaced in the final product; the goal is for viewers not to notice the airbrushing, the colour correction or the masking. In the photographs that first brought him widespread attention, such as those in his 2011 solo exhibition at New York’s Ramiken Crucible, Blalock reversed that priority, crafting ungainly digital alterations and exposing them to public scrutiny. It’s a simple premise that yielded profound results. In the last five years, Blalock has exhibited and published a large body of strange, and strangely compelling, photographs – still lifes, mostly, but also portraits and semi-abstract compositions – that encourage viewers simultaneously to decode what is being depicted and to ruminate on how that depiction is constructed.
This counters the transparent accessibility of most photographs today, which is augmented by their presence on screens and the ease with which we can modify them. In early interviews, Blalock referenced Bertolt Brecht and spoke of the ‘theatrical’ nature of his studio work, of how he liked to disclose his working process in order to complicate seamless viewing. In recently published conversations, however, Blalock has begun elucidating a broadened set of intellectual concerns that might best be understood through the term ‘friction’.
Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on Aperture.org. In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to aperture.org/blog. Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.
In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.
In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.
Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.
Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.
The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.
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[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]
SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?
BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.
SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?
BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.
SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.
BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.
SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?
BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.
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SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?
BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.
SHOLIS Near the water?
BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.
I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.
SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?
BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.
SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.
BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins(A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.
The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:
I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.
It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.
Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.
From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.
Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.
As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.
As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.
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[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]
DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …
SHOLIS … that you can walk into!
DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.
SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?
DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.
SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?
DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.
Belting’s arguments suffer particular damage in English translation because they hinge so directly on the word almost always rendered as “gaze.” In academic English for the past three decades or so, “gaze” has conjured up a whole series of associations that originate with Jacques Lacan and his ideas about the way that sight shapes thought (or “scopic regimes,” which sounds only slightly less outré in French than it does in English). To our collective misfortune, “gaze” and “the gaze” entered the Anglophone vocabulary through a translator’s effort to find the right English word to match Lacan’s “regard.” But “gaze” is not that word. Lacan’s regard meant an incisive look that has nothing whatsoever to do with gazing. “Gaze,” like “berserk,” is one of the marvelous Scandinavian contributions to the English vocabulary for mental derangement. It means an unfocused, mindless kind of looking, the kind of stupefied contemplation that brings to mind operative lovers doting on miniature portraits of the beloved, the rapt stare that Narcissus showered upon his own reflection, and stargazers turned upward obsessively to the heavens in the minds of their unappreciative contemporaries. A gaze is, indeed, the exact opposite of a pointed and precise regard, or an equally pointed and precise German Blick. Translators of Chinese and japanese have usually used the word “view” for this kind of intelligent looking—a much more appropriate description of the activity at hand, as our own English usage proves: we say “point of view” and “viewer,” rather than “point of gaze” and “gazer,” because gazing never focuses on a point, and we don’t go “gazing” at art, or “gazing for” someone, we go “looking.” Tellingly, Belting drops the misleading term for his own discussion of Al-Hazen’s optics and speaks of “seeing” and “glancing.”
By now, however, one translator’s unhappy choice in rending Lacan has become the byword for two generations of English-speaking scholars who would classify themselves as “critical” and “theoretical” while accepting, uncritically and with utter lack of theoretical sophistication, a grossly misleading term for one of their fundamental concepts.
For the rest of Rowland’s review, see the December 29 issue of The New Republic.
While in Chicago last week, I visited the exhibition “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-77” at the Art Institute. It’s a remarkable show. Although its argument about the role of Conceptual Art in bringing the photography “definitively into the mainstream of contemporary art” is debatable, it succeeds in several other arenas: first, as an exhibition of conceptually oriented objects that is neither dry nor didactic; second, as a sketch of the precedents available to the artists included in Douglas Eklund’s 2009 exhibition “The Pictures Generation”; third, as an eloquent testimonial to the importance of southern and eastern European art to the histories of Conceptualism (a reclamation project spurred on a decade ago by Jane Farer’s wonderful “Global Conceptualism” exhibition). “Light Years,” curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, is on view in Chicago until March 11, and I highly recommend it. The catalogue, too, is well done, and available for more than forty percent off at Amazon. For those who can’t visit, Witkovsky published a reconsideration of photographic abstraction in the March 2010 Artforum, the text of which is available here.
This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Alexander Gutke (Fundação Caixa Geral de Depoósitos – Culturgest, 2011). For more information on the artist and images of his other works, visit his page on the Galerija Gregor Podnar website.
On September 26, 2003, the Eastman Kodak Company declared, in a press release, that it would stop making and selling slide projectors by the following June. “In recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies,” the announcement noted. Alternative, of course, was a code word for digital, and for many people the decision represented yet one more nail in the coffin of analogue technology. Yet, as art historian Pamela M. Lee observed soon afterward, “Given its ubiquity in both studio and art-historical pedagogy, the modern slide projector… has played more than a supporting role in the visual arts from its inception.” Thus Kodak’s decision prompted a brief spurt of commemorative activity, including “Slideshow,” an exhibition held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in early 2005. Though not consciously a response to the Kodak announcement, Alexander Gutke’s slide-projection pieces Exploded View (2005) and Lighthouse (2006) stand out amid the stream of artworks and texts that it occasioned for their rigor, their austere beauty, and the conceptual complexity embedded in their seemingly simple execution. Like the staple technique of the art history class, these two works offer what can be termed a “slide comparison.” But, rather than juxtapose two images, Gutke’s artworks place two ways of understanding analogue projection technology side by side: Exploded View examines what a projector is; Lighthouse demonstrates what a projector does.
Exploded View appears to be a vivisection. Its eighty-one slides lay bare the innards of another Kodak Carousel projector. To create the work, Gutke had a technician slice apart a projector one slide bay at a time, a process that the artist documented in photographs. Each successive cut revealed more of the machine’s plastic, metal, and glass guts; each image projected onto the wall presents a different combination of wires, lenses, bulbs, small screws, and the body housing these elements. The images progress from representational to abstract and back again, as distinct elements of the projector’s body come into view and are diligently excised. (Since the carousel loops, the process never ends.) The precise articulation of the projector’s component parts calls to mind Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ultra-clear Neue Sachlichkeit-style photographs of industrial machines. Gutke’s images, tissue samples of an outmoded technology, could perhaps be used to reconstruct the machine.
Lighthouse substitutes lyricism for Exploded View’s quasi-scientific astringency, without lapsing into sentimentality. In this work, a rectangle of light is slowly rotated through 360 degrees, over the course of eighty-one slides. What begins as a flat plane of light resting on the surface of the wall seems to become an incision into the wall’s surface. At the carousel’s midpoint, the narrow sliver of light is ostensibly “perpendicular” to the wall onto which it is projected. As the slides progress, the “image” of light swings back into parallel alignment with the wall. Then the cycle is repeated. The work’s title evokes a tower erected by the coast, its searching beam of light aligning with the seafarer’s eyes once per revolution. But Lighthouse suggests other equally romantic interpretations. The light’s waxing and waning, for example, calls to mind charts of the lunar cycle.
Exploded View and Lighthouse are attempts to find intrinsic content in a machine that is usually subservient to the images dropped into its bays. Gutke demonstrates how the projector can generate meaning on its own, without the assistance of Tintoretto paintings or technical diagrams or family photos slotted into its carousel. One way this can be interpreted is as a subtle rejoinder to the inexorability of the switch from analogue to digital projection technologies. The works remind viewers that something particular and distinctive is lost in the transition. What basically is this insistence on medium specificity, other than a protest against supersession? If the Kodak press release announced the “death” of the slide projector, then perhaps Exploded View is less like a vivisection and more like an autopsy. According to this view, having explored the projector’s guts and found something estimable, Lighthouse, with its “voided” image, becomes the scene of resurrection. The images have fled to some great beyond, but the autopsied machine returns to life and exhibits its essential dignity.
The way Gutke isolates particulars about his chosen medium to highlight their specific properties has an art-historical precedent in the experimental and conceptual artworks created in the 1960s and 1970s using film, slide projectors, and then-new video technologies. Exploded View and Lighthouse recall works by Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, and others. Lighthouse, in particular, through its tracing of a circle, brings to mind Robert Morris’s infrequently exhibited film installation Finch College Project (1969). For that work, Morris instructed cameraman Robert Fiore to film a crew of workers installing and de-installing a grid of mirrored squares and a gridded black-and-white photograph on the opposite walls of a room. Fiore set the camera on a turntable revolving at one revolution per minute, and the finished work was projected into the same space; the projection rotated around the now blank walls at the same speed. But, whereas Morris’s projection relied on filmic imagery to create a palimpsest of past and present, Gutke’s work deploys a contrived, though plausible, “function” of the slide projector to create a palimpsest of real and fictional space. Lighthouse and Exploded View are works in which the seemingly direct efforts made by the artist produce uncanny, manifold effects.
The slide projector’s historical antecedent is the magic lantern, which is generally thought to have been invented in the mid-seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaen Huygens. The relationship of this device to death and to haunting was noted early in the lantern’s history. A 1671 description of the lantern in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae was accompanied by illustrations depicting projections of a soul in purgatory and a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe. (Huygens’s device, used to entertain elites and royals, was called “the lantern of fright.”) The “phantasmagoria” magic lantern show would remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. Gutke’s focused explorations of the slide projector ostensibly remove the “magic” from this magic lantern–like technology. There certainly seems to be nothing hiding behind Exploded View. Yet something ineffable and entrancing remains.
One might contend that what lingers is mere nostalgia for an obsolescent technology, though it’s hard to see how these two artworks are nostalgic. Art historian T.J. Demos has observed that a slide projection, by “locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.” This observation is astute, but does not seem to account for the particular effect of Gutke’s two slide-projection works. It seems to me, rather, that the enduring power Gutke confers upon the humble Kodak projectors arises from a tension between finitude and infinitude. Gutke’s exploration seems to have reached a logical conclusion (and is therefore finite) yet in doing so it highlights something endless: the circular carousel’s loop. His incisive reduction of the slide projector to its barest essences—what it is, what it does—coexists with the recognition of the machine’s ability to imply ceaselessness. And it is precisely this sense of perpetuity that counters any fatalism about the death of the medium. At the moment of the slide projector’s ostensible “death,” Gutke has invested the humble contraption with a dignified sense of life.
My appreciation of the Los Angeles–based art critic Bruce Hainley has appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The publication of a slim collection of Hainley’s writing occasioned the essay. It is the fifth installment of Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s experimental periodical Pep Talk. Here’s an excerpt of my piece:
I became aware of Bruce Hainley’s writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine’s review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove’s Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review’s venom was poisonous and worked quickly: “The gimmick behind the project … was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous.” On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: “Yeah, right.” I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley’s indictment was thrilling.
Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic’s byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley’s occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley’s mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, “I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything.”
To read the rest, click here. To cut out the middleman and read Hainley’s writing, I suggest browsing the archives of Artforum and Frieze magazines, where he has published a large number of reviews and essays over the past fifteen years.
Review of the 2011 Yokohama Triennale published online at Art Agenda on September 13, 2011. The exhibition remains on view until November 6, 2011.
Organizing an international biennial or triennial exhibition is, in principle, a thankless task. Your two main audiences, locals unfamiliar with recent artistic developments and globe-hopping art citizens eager for new discoveries, have opposing needs and desires. Apportioning artworks among multiple venues, securing the funding to meet an outsized budget, and coordinating the corporate, political, and cultural bodies with a vested interest in your efforts all present significant challenges. Add to this, however, the widespread devastation of a three-fold tragedy—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant crisis—and one would have forgiven Yokohama Triennale 2011 artistic director Akiko Miki for walking away from her project. That she and her colleagues not only persevered but also managed to coordinate an impressive display of art spanning several centuries is, irrespective of one’s opinion of the show, worth commending.
This is the fourth edition of the triennale, and the first to make the Yokohama Museum of Art its primary venue. Titled “Our Magic Hour,” the show focused upon an ability to see the wonderful in the everyday that has long been popularly ascribed to artists. The magic invoked is not one of mysticism, but rather of the temporary suspension of disbelief: artists see things differently than you and me and can show us what that seeing feels like. Such a broad theme can encompass a wide variety of art, and, indeed, the show ranged from conceptually inflected video installations to ukiyo-e woodblock prints to ghost-themed movie posters.
The opening galleries engage a notion of wonder in a literal manner. The first artwork one encounters beyond the museum lobby is Aurélien Froment’s video Théâtre de poche (Pocket Theater) (2007), which depicts the artist performing a series of sleight-of-hand tricks against a black background. To either side of this gallery are minimal installations by James Lee Byars, Wilfredo Prieto, and Motohiro Tomii that invoke, with varying success, the viewer’s astonishment at the properties inherent in simple materials. Byars’s juxtaposition of five crystals and a silent performer conjures an atmosphere at once somber and strangely weightless. The works by Prieto and Tomii play with our notions of value by arranging humble materials—cubic zirconia, thumbtacks—such that they appear cherishable. However, the “trick” in Prieto’s circular floor arrangement, that one of the thousands of shiny objects really is a diamond, almost spoils the effect. Nonetheless, these rooms are a useful primer in seeing the way Miki and her artists would want us to, and the attentive viewer is rewarded in other galleries with hard-to-find surprises, such as Still White, Corridor (2011), an installation between two galleries for which Atsushi Saga has polished a wall to a subtle sheen.
In other rooms, however, these small didactic tricks seem overly simple or even somewhat manipulative. Take, for example, a number of mid-twentieth-century Surrealist paintings from the museum collection hung side-by-side early in the show. All of them depict stairways, and once one discovers this formal alliteration, the paintings’ other qualities recede into the background. (These canvases, like other works from the museum’s collection, are laboriously integrated into the Triennale. They would have been better served by being presented as a separate-but-related exhibition.) Elsewhere, a large room is given over to Massimo Bartolini’s whimsical sculpture Organi (2008), in which a series of pipes, arranged like scaffolding, have been transformed into musical pipes, with a small music box placed on the floor pushing its notes through them and out into the room. It is a remarkable feat of hare-brained ingenuity, and its placement in a roughly circular, high-ceiling room makes one think of chapels. But, just in case you hadn’t made the connection on your own, several large-scale collages of multicolored butterfly wings by Damien Hirst, shaped like stained-glass windows, line the wall on either side. Perhaps complaints about the literalism of these installations sound like the carping of a professional who believes in his own sophistication. On the other hand, one also hopes that curators can trust non-specialist viewers to appreciate such details without having them communicated so directly.
At the outset, however, I suggested that art-world insiders are forever in search of the new, and this edition of the Yokohama Triennale presented to me several revelations. Whether the decision to include a greater proportion of local (i.e., Japanese) artists than is typical for such exhibitions was conceptual or logistical, I was particularly happy to encounter work by Keiichi Tanaami, Ryosuke Imamura, and Taro Izumi, as well as from the Koichi Yumoto Collection. Tanaami’s contribution is a series of short nonnarrative animated videos created in the 1970s. Their bright colors, collaged aesthetic, and surrealistic content call to mind Western counterparts such as Terry Gilliam, creator of animated Monty Python sketches. Small details such as an envelope bearing a Soho address testify to Tanaami’s familiarity with the psychedelic art then popular in the United States (and elsewhere). Imamura’s ingenious sound-art hybrid installations are in the tradition of cross-disciplinary elder statesmen like Christian Marclay. And Izumi’s accumulation of everyday objects, placed on pedestals of varying heights that crowd several rooms in the BankART Studio NYK, a second venue, were delightfully strange and evocative. So, too, is the Yumoto Collection, of which only a small portion is on view. It focuses on yokai, or ghosts, and includes movie posters, toys, traditional paintings and prints, and other ephemera, offering a welcome peek into vernacular Japanese culture.
The three-level BankART Studio, a nearby waterfront building, housed large-scale works by a range of well-known international artists. Here the theme of wonderment was somewhat harder to discern, but a handful of works stood out. Foremost among them was Peter Coffin’s utterly strange and spellbinding untitled computer animation, which I now think of as “3F,” for “Fruit: The Final Frontier.” The video, which presents an endless, never-repeating pattern, depicts eighteen semitransparent images of fruit accelerating towards the viewer at a leisurely version of warp speed. The images, succulent and oddly haloed, were created with the help of a specialist in 3-D medical scanning. At the other end of the technical spectrum is Henrik Hakansson’s Fallen Forest (2006), a DIY version of the “living walls” of foliage currently in vogue with certain interior designers and architects. Hakansson’s vertical surface of greenery, however, comes from simply turning large-scale potted trees on their side and inserting them into industrial metal shelving. Spotlights give the object an additional charm.
It’s worth noting that the disastrous events of March 11 not only affected the show’s production—making certain works logistically infeasible, say, or causing insurance rates to skyrocket. It also inspired some of the participating artists to devise new proposals as a direct response to the tragedy. The smartest of these is also one of the last visitors come across (if following the proscribed route through the venues). Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, known in the West for his haunting videos of men struggling to pull submerged rickshaws along the seabed, has here created a memorial video installation that also serves as a participatory public art project. Using GPS technology, Nguyen-Hatsushiba has plotted paths through Ho Chi Minh City, his current home, and Yokohama that, when drawn on a map, resemble cherry blossoms. Members of the public are invited to jog along the routes to metaphorically trace onto the surface of the earth these symbols of transience and renewal. The runs are themselves ephemeral and bring to mind the concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the pathos and impermanence of things. The artwork is moving but not maudlin, and at a moment when the labor of recovery means that permanent memorials are still far off on the horizon, it seems thoughtful and noninvasive. And, by virtue of the idiosyncratic paths that cut through the city like Situationist dérives, it also defamiliarizes Yokohama for its resident joggers, thereby involuntarily slotting them into the exhibition’s theme. One can imagine such a run, though tinged as it must be by the awareness of pain and suffering in the northeastern part of the country, as a magic hour indeed.