To get to the Whitney’s 8th floor exhibit Laura Poitras: Astro Noise, I stood in line for about twenty minutes, taking note in the museum’s glass exterior of my reflection and those of other visitors waiting in line to see the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. I thought about Poitras’s past documentaries, including the Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR, and wondered how her exhibition would reflect on her chief topic – the United States in the post-9/11 era – in ways that her documentaries could not. Watching my reflection slowly inch forward proved to be a fortuitous entrance to the immersive exhibit, which, according to the program, “asks viewers to actively consider their position and responsibility in the ‘war on terror.’” Indeed, Astro Noise implicates and arranges viewers in “immersive media environments” that compel active looking and embodied contemplation.
I stepped out of the elevators and into the first “immersive media environment” (the program’s reinvention of the word “room”). The space is split in half by a single screen, onto both sides of which are projected videos that respond to 9/11. Titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016), this two-channel digital video bifurcates the room, a setup that divides viewers into opposing groups that face each other as they face the central screen, as if an audience reflected in a mirror. Playing on side A of the screen are slowed images of the faces of New Yorkers as they look upon the remains of Ground Zero days after the attacks. Here viewers confront, and perhaps even remember firsthand, the emotions of that terrorist event: disbelief, shock, fear. These same feeling could be registered on the faces of viewers looking at the other side of the screen, where uncovered U.S. military interrogation videos of two prisoners in Afghanistan, Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdam, represent the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks.
Tucked amidst a spate of current shows featuring work in a particular vein of modernist painting—Stella, Olitski, Noland—Paul Barlow’s paintings, primarily of colorful frames, might seem little more than over-literal riffs on the medium’s ontology: canvas, stretcher bars, paint. And they are, undeniably, all those things, but close scrutiny reveals something else besides.
Blind Spots (on view January 14 – February 20, 2016) at Ana Cristea Gallery is a thirteen-work show of modestly-sized canvases by two painters: British artist Barlow and Norwegian artist Linne Urbye, both of whom are exhibiting in the United States for the first time. Urbye covers her canvases with repeating, often empty, abstract forms—chevrons, overlapping arcs, fleurs-de-lis, quarter-moons—in cool blues, greys, and whites. Often, her paint application discloses a prior composition below, laying bare the material’s twin function as both veil and window while simultaneously marking the support as a palimpsest of gestural maneuvers. These operations entail a certain resistance of vision on the part of the viewer, who must double down to visually excavate the logic of the marks beneath the uppermost layer. Through the interlocking arches, filled in to varying degrees in Untitled (12) (2015) we catch a glimpse of process, and wonder if we are seeing the work in an unfinished state. This transports the viewer from the space of the gallery to the space of the studio, a shift in register from the optics of viewing to the haptics of making. It is Barlow, however, who seizes most productively on the exhibition’s titular blindness as an operative term. This review, then, focuses primarily on his work.
In the first minutes of Walid Raad’s Walkthrough, a performance given throughout the run of his survey show at MoMA, the artist appears approachably nervous. Dressed down in jeans, a black t-shirt and baseball hat, he prefaces his hour-long talk by confessing that he suffers from panic attacks that often lead him to pace back and forth while speaking. Vulnerability suggests sincerity, and the works in this show—full of facts and figures about topical political and cultural issues—support the viewer’s first impression of earnestness. Nearby, an elaborate, colorful tableau visualizing years of research into the history of art in the “Arab world” uncovers connections between the Artist Pension Trust (ATP), a private enterprise offering financial security in the fickle commercial art world, its parent company MutualArt.com, and Israeli military intelligence. All of this data, part of an ongoing project called Scratching on things I could disavow (2007- ) is verifiable, Raad assures us. Yet he says the links revealed are so expected and banal that they are undeserving of an artwork. Oscillating between researcher and artist, Raad not only blurs distinctions between fact and fiction, but also implies that distilling truth from storytelling is entirely beside the point: the real end is engendering a greater awareness of the means by which history is constructed.
In early October New York’s Onassis Foundation hosted a festival in its newly renovated Atrium and gallery to mark the reopening of its Cultural Center. The festival, entitled Narcissus Now: the Myth Reimagined, consisted of an unforgettable opening ceremony and art exhibition, followed by several talks and lectures by renowned scholars and professionals in a variety of cultural and artistic fields, all revolving around the concept of ‘narcissism.’ The festival’s opening event, which took place on the evening of Thursday, October 8th, featured a number of talented artists, musicians, choreographers and dancers who collaborated to create an interactive and multisensory experience that transcended genre and artistic medium.
The event utilized both floors of the Cultural Center, encompassing three different spaces for the exhibition of artworks linked together by a site specific performance, and music written especially for the occasion. Most striking among the exhibited pieces, the large scale work The Art Wall:I AMness by Angelo Plessas, 2015 was installed in the Atrium. Plessas is an Athens-based artist who works between traditional visual and avant-garde digital practices. The Art Wall:I AMness represents a still of Plessas’ characteristically graphic online interactive work I AMness, 2015. Consisting of a series of black and white stripes, the work features two central circles. Structured across a central divide, the symmetry of these circular forms engenders a dizzying mirroring sensation. With this simple compositional strategy, Plessas embodies the subject of narcissism through self-reflection. Through its repetitive, almost psychedelic graphics, the work also signals the internal conflict that narcissism can cause, as expressed in the relationship between the circles that meld together above and seem to tear apart below. Even more so than this large-scale mural, the original version of I AMness, which began as a website, dives even deeper on the issue of narcissism in the age of the internet by calling the viewer to take control over the work by moving the circles with his cursor changing how they merge and detach from one another.
On a curtain of vinyl strips are projected two reproductions of Henri Matisse’s painting La Danse. Even in their dematerialized, doubled state the dancers are instantly recognizable, but after several seconds they vanish, replaced now by a Warhol portrait of Mao that is paired with a Mondrian Composition. The sequence continues, a parade of Van Goghs, Cézannes, Kandinskys, and Klees all flashing across the curtain seemingly at random, as if they accompanied an absent art history lecture that disregarded all pretense of chronological or stylistic organization.
This work by Lea Lublin, Dedans le musée/Pénétration d’Images (1971), invites the viewer to behold these familiar works and then pass through the curtain, at once metaphorically entering their pictorial spaces and enacting their physical rupture. Appropriately, it enjoys pride of place at The Museum of Modern Art’s compelling, dizzying Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980, dominating a small gallery at the heart of a show that foregrounds a widespread ambivalence towards prevailing artistic trends shared by artists on both sides of the Atlantic, who sought not only to engage with such trends but ultimately reshape them.
A collaborative effort by curators Stuart Comer, Roxana Marcoci, and Christian Rattemeyer, the show is drawn almost entirely from the museum’s permanent collection, with nearly half of the three hundred works on display for the first time at MoMA. The majority of these are recent acquisitions that have come to the museum thanks to the efforts of C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives), an in-house initiative dedicated to pushing beyond the warhorses on view in Lublin’s installation to focus on comparatively understudied work from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Transmissions is the first major curatorial intervention to result from C-MAP and the latest in a recent line of MoMA exhibitions that, in welcoming new figures into a pantheon of twentieth- and twenty-first century art history, have found the museum playing a long overdue but much welcome game of catch-up. Latin America has recently been spotlighted in retrospectives of Lygia Clark, Horacio Coppola, and Grete Stern, with Joaquín Torres-García next in line; Central and Eastern Europe have been represented by Isa Genzken, Sigmar Polke, and Alina Szapocznikow.
Doris Salcedo’s retrospective has traveled from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it occupies all five levels of the museum’s tower. This exhibition confronts issues of civil war and unrest, gang violence, displacement, and political upheaval across the world and throughout the twentieth century, yet these subjects could not be more relevant to the contemporary American consciousness as we struggle with these same issues today. Salcedo uses ordinary objects from our daily lives to elicit a sense of displacement and loss related to the suffering of political violence victims. Salcedo comes from Colombia, the country with the longest-running civil turmoil in the Western Hemisphere.[i] While some works relate to a specific tragic event and others to the general feeling of loss, the artist undoubtedly connects with the victims from her home country and around the world who deserve to be considered and remembered. In a January 2015 interview, Salcedo claimed that in our modern society, “we have lost our ability to mourn.”[ii] She addresses this problem through the use of familiar domestic objects, curing our insensitivity by allowing us to connect personally with the victims and to witness violence from their perspective.
Living in the vertical landscape that is New York City, riding in elevators is a familiar, even mundane activity. Ascending and descending, we arrive to our apartments, offices, the library, and even grocery stores. Still, after a quick trip to the eighth floor of a nondescript, corporate office space, it is a rare and even surprising treat to encounter the engaging and eclectic art exhibition, Between History and the Body, now on view in the aptly named gallery The 8th Floor.
Though unknown to many of the passersby along 17th Street, The 8th Floor celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, having been founded in 2010 by the collector/philanthropist couple Shelley and Donald Rubin. Previously, contemporary Cuban art dominated The 8th Floor’s exhibition schedule, reflecting one aspect of the Rubins’ collecting interests. However earlier this year the gallery broadened its geographical focus, ambitiously revising its mission, “to explore the potential of art as an instrument for social change in the 21st century.”
Such lofty goals are reflected in the current show Between History and the Body. Curated by Sara Reisman, artistic director of The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and the former director of New York City’s Percent for Art Program, the exhibition positions itself as, “a discursive territory in which ideas surrounding the construction of identity converge.” Although the works on view are perhaps less praxis-oriented than is suggested by either this claim or the gallery’s mission, the show nonetheless raises and contests historical and societal paradigms regarding race, culture, gender, and sexual orientation. Focusing on representations of the body as a site of identity, an agent of protest, and a symbol of projected myths, Between History and the Body features an intriguing range of photographs, drawings, collages, sculptures, and videos by a diverse group of twelve artists, many of whom work locally in New York.
Selfie stick: in hand. Move through the museum; photograph any object that piques one’s interest; apply filter; glance at wall labels if conveniently nearby. Some artworks become sites for group portraits while others—contours carefully (or not) framed within the familiar rectangle of the iPhone screen—warrant a photograph of their own. Lack of discrimination is fine: 16GB of storage can surely hold this many digital files. Move on.
The experience is a familiar one, one certainly known, if not first hand, through inadvertent observation. The facility of digital photography, via the ever-present smartphone, has accelerated the act of looking in the museum. The discourse around this phenomenon is often presented in negative terms, terms frequently indebted to Walter Benjamin’s essay on mechanical reproduction, terms which remind us to be self-critical about the cultural baggage of outmoded concepts like the “original” or “authentic,” and to consider carefully the status of the replica.
The medium of painting, sitting comfortably atop the hierarchy of artistic production, is an obvious lodestone and conceptual linchpin here. To take a single work as an example, artist Ken Okiishi’s commission for Frieze Projects London in 2013—a Perspex walled space with windows on all sides containing visitor-activated paintball guns spewing fuchsia and saffron orbs—was conceived to function both in temporary installation as well as in endless proliferation on the web, as representation. As Okiishi put it:
On a technical as well as on a formal level, it’s a piece that is designed to be photographed, posted and reposted rapidly and with great enthusiasm […] These explosions and smears and drips that happen will become very desirable to be photographed, to be videoed, to be sent on Instagram or Vine or whatever.
As two poles of a conceptual spectrum (unique site of creativity on the one hand; ultimate proliferator on the other), painting and the screen become, paradoxically, easy bedfellows. In the Frieze installation, paint splats multiply across transparent windows and layer atop those on the walls behind; the screen of a smartphone creates yet another layer. Meaning is both lost and gained. Click and run.
This summer, two museum shows grapple more broadly with the implications of repetition, the archive, and digital technologies of replication. The Jewish Museum’s Repetition and Difference (on view through August 16, 2015) and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ salt 11: Duane Linklater (on view through August 2, 2015), open up for questioning, from two different angles, the ontology of the museum object vis-à-vis artistic techniques of replication, whether eighth-century BCE or contemporary, analog or digital. Most striking is the extent to which both shows welcome the issue of replication—understood as both material process and conceptual construct—as an opportunity to be transparent and self-critical about aesthetic assumptions, colonial influences, and, ultimately, collecting biases. Said differently, repetition, sameness, difference, and authorship are bared as the gatekeeper’s invisible hands.
Reviewing Surround Audience, the New Museum’s third Triennial (on view February 24 through May 24, 2015), is no easy task. The survey packs nearly 150 complex works by fifty-one artists into the downtown kunsthalle, requiring exceptional stamina or, for the rest of us, multiple visits. The exhibition’s focus on early-career artists (there is no longer an official age limit, but the vast majority of those included fall below the thirty-three year mark at which the first Triennial was capped) means that almost every work bears the burden of both introducing and standing in for an unfamiliar practice—an impossible task, not much helped by the bricks of artspeak-heavy wall text that strive to bridge the gap. One is tempted to simply praise the event as a model of inclusivity (twenty-six countries and six continents are represented) and opportunity for the selected young artists—more than half of whom were commissioned to make new work specifically for the Triennial, with seven of them receiving research and production residencies—and leave it at that.
On the other hand, at the level of curation, the model all but compels a critical response. While positioning itself as “predictive” rather than “retrospective,” the Triennial by no means presumes the posture of neutrality that the term “survey” might suggest. On the contrary, the “predictions” we encounter emerge from the highly particular perspectives and sensibilities of its organizers, New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin. As Cornell notes in the foreword to The Animated Reader, an anthology of poetry published to accompany the exhibition (in addition to the catalogue), “when we were starting our research, I asked my co-curator Ryan Trecartin if he could define the main concerns in his work, thinking we could use them as a point of departure for developing themes to structure the show” (her emphasis). Trecartin’s answer, “Language and Humanity,” while no doubt sincere, hardly adumbrates the specific qualities of his video works—frenzied, kaleidoscopic funhouse mirrors of reality TV and the deeper strata of YouTube, replete with clownish characters howling in seemingly private languages. Sure enough, many strains of Trecartin’s aesthetic run throughout Surround Audience. They traverse a wide variety of themes and concerns, but nonetheless circumscribe a particular sphere of art production, the ongoing vitality of which it is the argument of this survey exhibition to predict.
Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.
– Giorgio Agamben
Although Sharon Hayes is a contemporary artist, reviewers of her work almost always discuss it in relation to American art and culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Critics such as Quinn Latimer and Paul David Young write of Hayes’s “plaintive missives [that] recalled songs from the ’60s and ’70s by Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone” and that her art “speaks of a longing for the golden era of artistic and political radicalism of the late 1950s through the ’70s.” During the Q&A following Hayes’s February 24, 2015 talk at the Institute of Fine Arts (part of the Artists at the Institute lecture series), Professor Robert Slifkin addressed this theme, asking the artist about any sense of nostalgia in her work: either for that period of American history, or for the radicality the era offered.
The question followed naturally from the artworks Hayes chose to highlight, which included Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003), Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (2007), Parole (2010), An Ear to a Sound in Our History (2011), and Ricerche: three (2013). Many of these were exhibited in her 2012 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Hayes presented them as examples of engagement through video art. Of these five works, four explicitly reference or build upon art and events of the 1960s and ‘70s, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1964) to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (1974). Hayes explained that, having been born in 1970, she had a “temporal” relation with that decade, but could not at the time process that moment’s politics and culture in which she finds such rich inspiration now. She told the audience that she does not mourn the loss of that era, but uses it as “the past that exists in the present,” or the “near past.” For Hayes, this “near past” has an unfinished relationship to our present moment, and sets the parameters for the questions and issues with which we still contend.
Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003) was Hayes’s MFA work at UCLA. In it, she “re-speaks” the words of Patty Hearst on the videotapes released by the SLA, but without any of the fidelity of a reenactor, which is a purposeful distinction. Hayes explained to the audience that she finds the concept of “reenacting” problematic because such endeavors attempt to make whole the past, without its natural ruptures. Instead, in the Screeds, the “notness” of the work is foregrounded: she is not Patty Hearst, it is not 1974, the camera crew is not the SLA. As Hayes stumbles through her partially memorized monologue, the audience eagerly jumps in to correct her mistakes, emphasizing the video’s disjunctures—not continuities—with the 1974 tapes. In 2006, Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely described Hayes’s approach as “investigations into the stutters of history, its uncanny reoccurrences and unexpected recyclings.”
Hayes then screened Ricerche: three, a video of her interviewing Mount Holyoke students about gender- and sex-related topics, directed by Brooke O’Harra. I was surprised by Hayes’s blunt, direct, and leading questions, which contrasted so starkly with her usual careful speech, and often derailed the conversation or stymied the students. After the video, Hayes explained that the piece was formulated on director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore, and her interviewing style mimicked his, sometimes using the same questions. As did Pasolini, Hayes talked to the students in a group, “as their social selves,” and as they developed debates about feminism, identity politics, and trans issues, rifts formed: between the students who found “feminism” a welcoming label and those who didn’t, or those who saw sex as central to their identity and those who didn’t. During a lively and often provoking debate about current understandings of sex and gender, the transposition of Pasolini’s 1960s method and questions was often jarring and frustrating. And this fidelity to her source material displayed what Hayes called “disrupted time,” emphasizing, as in the Screeds, the distinctions (not the similarities) between the two contexts.