Carnegie Museum of Art (4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US) Oct 5, 2013–Mar 16, 2014
The Carnegie International, the world’s second oldest perennial survey exhibition of international contemporary art launched by the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1896, returned with its brand-new 2013 edition opening at the Carnegie Museum of Art in October. Co-curated by Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers and Tina Kukielski, this features the work of thirty-five artists and collectives from nineteen countries, with several artists being highlighted in mini-retrospectives. Aside from the major survey of international contemporary art, the other components of this year’s International include a reinstalled, permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, a small exhibition-within-the-exhibition named “The Playground Project” and some off-site projects. Although it has been five years since the launch of its previous edition “Life on Mars” in 2008, the 2013 edition surprises one as a truly focused and intellectually challenging show, proving the long wait to have been worthwhile.
At the Forbes Avenue entrance of the Carnegie Museum of Art, two vibrantly colored three-dimensional outdoor pieces perfectly summarize the frame of the entire show. The British sculptor Phyllida Barlow’s “TIP” (2013), a sculpture assembled chaotically from rough construction materials and colored flags, intentionally disrupts the aesthetic balance originally achieved by the refined, monumental Henry Moore and Richard Serra sculptures in front of the museum. It represents an “anti-monumental” statement made by the artist to confront the current white-male-artist-dominated sculpture field. Another work, the “Lozziwurm,” a playground designed by Yvan Pestalozzid in 1972, serves as a reminder of “The Playground Project” as well as resonating with the underlying spirit of play that can be traced through the entire show.
While showcasing international artists’ work at an attempt at global representation, the exhibition is also deeply committed to addressing the local problems of Pittsburgh as a place undergoing wrenching transitions. On view in the hallway near the entrance are the street photography and intimate portraits of the residents of Homestead, Pennsylvania, taken by the Pennsylvania-based Zoe Strauss for her project “Homesteading” (2013). Not far from Pittsburgh, the city of Homestead was once home to Andrew Carnegie’s flagship plant before the entire state of Pennsylvania suffered from a disastrous industrial decline. At the end of the hallway, a video is projected on the ground as another component of this work. Strauss appropriated the photos and video footage taken of contemporary Chinese steel plants to reanimate a historical epicenter of a major industrial strike that occurred in Pennsylvania. Through her lens, the feeling of estrangement caused by the obsolete cityscape is both juxtaposed with and contradicted by the intimacy of very lively portraits. By establishing connections between past and present, local and global, our everyday existence under the influence of social change and industrialization is being examined. Similar in theme, a set of two video installations by the Indian artist Amar Kanwar, “A Love Story” (2010) and “The Scene of Crime” (2010), addresses the impact of industrialization on the Indian Subcontinent differently. The artist narrates a twisted love/hate relationship with an unidentified lover; despite the clear sadness of loss and deep regret in the video along with the imagery of industrial dumps in India, one immediately associates with the over-exploitation of nature during the country’s industrial development. Also on the first floor, as one of the most conspicuous pieces, is the Chinese artist He An’s neon-light installation “What Makes Me Understand What I Know?” (2009). The artist stole cheap, partially damaged neon light-box signs from the city to repeatedly spell out the name of his deceased father and favorite Japanese porn star. It clearly represents his desperate longing for intimacy in the alienating cosmopolitan city, whether it is bound by blood or even just seemingly familiar. With local works resonating with the international ones, it is clear that industrialization and social change are never the problems of just one place.
A major score point of this exhibition is that it has truly invited a multiplicity of artistic and cultural stances into an open and intense conversation, giving voice to the invisible and the visible, the marginalized and the established, the outsider and the insider.
On view on the second floor, a small gallery is given over to Yugoslavian artist Mladen Stilinović, quite well-known in Europe but rarely shown in the United States. The entire atmosphere of Stilinović’s mini-retrospective is both activist-like and depressing. When you walk into the gallery, your eyes are immediately drawn to a large pink flag with an all-capitalized statement saying that “AN ARTIST WHO CANNOT ENGLISH IS NO ARTIST.” It confronts the hierarchical cultural politics of the Anglo/Western-centered global art world from the periphery in a way that could not possibly be more straightforward. A text written by the artist also on view, “In Praise of Laziness” (1933), further illustrates the artist’s statement to subvert the market-driven system of art-making in the West. In strong contrast with Stilinović’s black-and-white photographs of people marching in rows, devolving ultimately into a numb and meaningless pattern (as seen in “Bag-People,” 2001), “visual activist” Zanele Muholi brings the most invisible and marginalized gay, lesbian, and transvestite community in South Africa out to the public. In her “Faces and Phases” (2010) series, the direct and confrontational gaze shared by all her subjects creates an extreme tension in these powerful images, making her a well-deserved winner of this year’s Carnegie Prize.
The spirit of activism central to this exhibition becomes even clearer as we see two projects given generous space to subvert Americans’ own confirmed values: Joel Sternfeld’s “Sweet Earth: The Experimental Utopias in America” (2006) and Dinh Q. Lê’s “Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War” (2012). Recognized as one of the best-known American journeyman photographers, Sternfeld chronicled the marginalized, sometimes even isolated, utopian communities that have experimented on collectivistic lifestyles. Among them, Drop City, the once-famed artist community in Colorado, and Black Mountain, the experimental education program once attended by Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning, are instrumental in shaping our art history. In a nation like America, where individualism is undoubtedly the prevailing ideology, the stories documented in these photos fill in our epistemic blind spots by revealing an alternative history. On view in a gallery beautifully built from light-colored wood, Dinh Q. Lê’s project consists of one hundred drawings and paintings made by Vietnamese artist-soldiers during the Vietnam War and a documentary of interviews with these artists. As a painful historical war between the two nations being recounted through personal narratives, the work brings to light the other side of the story, encouraging a reconsideration of the history.
Among all the artists, two deceased outsider artists included in the exhibition—Joseph Yoakum and Guo Fengyi, have attracted much attention as well. For this year’s Carnegie International, the museum has amassed and exhibited 57 drawings by Yoakum in the center of a main gallery, presenting the largest exhibition of his drawings in decades. While inspiration is drawn from his real-world experience of traveling around the world, the people he met and the places he went to were used as raw materials in his drawings to construct an imaginary trip to Lebanon. Portrayed meticulously by the artist, the intricate and sinuous landscapes in these vibrant yet nuanced drawings navigate the audience freely into a dream state. Considered an “artist’s artist,” Yoakum’s drawings have had an impact on the practices of many young American artists. Among them are Vincent Fecteau and Sadie Benning, whose illogically shaped sculptures and abstract clay paintings are thoughtfully placed in the same space with Yoakum’s works, engendering a dialogue between the artists from two generations. In a rear gallery on the second floor, ten medium-to-large-size scroll paintings by the late Chinese artist Guo Fengyi are displayed on the same wall painted in light grey. Derived from a mystic Chinese health maintenance practice, Guo’s paintings visualize the energy flow within the bodies of both normal people and mythical figures. Even if a routine like this fails to be a successful self-healing device, maybe there really are certain kinds of psychological implications embodied in traditional rituals that can be enhanced over time through performing symbolic gestures repeatedly. In this thoughtfully curated exhibition, Guo’s and Yoakum’s works naturally stand out because of their distinguished visual language rather than the exhibition’s intentional emphasis on their outsider status.
Of course, there are many other interesting pieces in this year’s Carnegie International. In “Art Lending Collection” project, the Pennsylvania-based art collective Transformazium proposes that maybe artworks can be circulated and evaluated in a non-hierarchical way, just like books. The adjunct exhibition, “The Playground Project,” surprises many people as being both playful in presentation and thought-provoking in nature. It traces all kinds of confrontation, negotiation and conflict common in games and experiments back to our childhood. Aside from that, the reinstalled permanent collection of modern and contemporary art presents many important pieces featured in the previous editions of the Carnegie International. As art critic Thomas McEvilley once noted, “A sensitive exhibition defines a certain moment, embodying attitudes and, often, changes of attitude that reveal, if only by the anxieties they create, the direction in which culture is moving,” the show reviews many important moments, changes of attitude and cultural trends that the Carnegie International has experienced over its history. It is a reminder of how important it is for the biennial to reimagine itself continually in order to stay relevant.
A brief walk through the galleries is already sufficient for devoted biennial goers to notice several distinguished qualities of the exhibition. Unlike most biennials nowadays, which are usually grandiose in size and overwhelming in content, the entire contemporary art survey show this year only occupies the first two floors of the museum. While the percentage of female artists being shown in public museums or galleries remains still as low as around 18%, 50% of the works exhibited in this show are by female artists. Additionally, the majority of the artists included in the show are emerging to mid-career artists, from 30 to 40 years old. Although many of them might be familiar to art professionals, these artists are not the conventional “biennial artists” whose inclusion at prestigious international biennials is almost predictable.
The Carnegie International 2013 is moderate in scale, but quite ambitious at its core. As the exhibition shows a clear intention to mature away from a spectacular-culture-centered biennial—which oftentimes also means intervening insensitively in a local situation and having a stagnant curatorial pattern—it has made a statement about how we should go about a “biennial” today.