Carnegie International 2013

by Jonathan Griffin

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“You can’t bring culture to people, you can only bring it out of them.” That’s Robert Rauschenberg, in a 1968 manifesto titled “Proposals for Public Parks” which the curators of the 2013 Carnegie International—Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski—have reprinted in the catalog for their exhibition. Rauschenberg’s assertion poses a ticklish problem for the trio, whose assigned mission it has been (as first mandated by Andrew Carnegie in 1895) to bring culture to the people of Pittsburgh. Invigorated by Rauschenberg’s paradox, they have installed an edition of the Carnegie International (last held in 2008) that is both deeply rooted in its historical and geographical situation, and expansive in its purview. Artists from Switzerland and England lure visitors into the museum with eye-catching outdoor sculptures while, inside, the first work one encounters is by Polish artist Paulina Olowska, who has borrowed a collection of puppets from a Pittsburgh theater. Elsewhere, art from New York, Tehran, Zagreb, and Johannesburg seeks to connect the far-flung with the close at hand. And—notwithstanding the peripatetic art crowd that descended on Pittsburgh for the exhibition’s gala opening—it is the local audience that the 2013 Carnegie International seems designed to address.

You will not find Swiss artist Ivan Pestalozzi’s name in the official roster for the exhibition, although he made what is, perhaps, its flagship artwork. The Lozziwurm, designed in 1972, is a writhing tubular playground that Baumann, Byers, and Kukielski installed on the grass outside the museum six months before the main show opened. It was a statement of curatorial intent, and a gift to the people of the city. (It will remain in place after the exhibition has ended.) Play—an intellectual mode as well as a physical activity—is a central theme in the show. Also earlier this year, guest curator Gabriela Burkhalter devised a pocket exhibition called “The Playground Project” in the middle of the museum that gathered information on radical twentieth-century playground designers like Isamu Noguchi and Niki de Saint Phalle.

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This is not to say that all the art in the exhibition is interactive (though some of it is), but rather that it tends to hang out at the periphery of one’s perceptual field and wait for engagement with often unsuspecting viewers. In the museum’s cloakroom, Wade Guyton (one of the show’s starriest names) has ripped out the racks and shelves and, without repainting the space, hung four barely-there canvases on the irregularly painted walls. I don’t know if the paintings survive the exercise, but I enjoyed trying to decide.

In the museum’s spectacular Hall of Architecture, already crammed with casts of antique monuments (including the entire façade of the Abbey Church of Saint Gilles), Colombian artist Gabriel Sierra has painted the walls purple. The room is so packed with marvelous objects that Sierra’s gesture, though chromatically lavish, buzzes in the background while the hall’s artifacts snap into sharp optical and ideological focus.

Nearby, Nicole Eisenman’s paintings and plaster sculptures, by turns forlorn, riotous, and sexy, occupy the second-floor balcony that edges the classically furbished Hall of Sculpture. A doughy figure thumbing his smartphone dangles his legs from a pedestal and waits for sculptures by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes on the floor below to spring to life, which, intermittently, they do. Disarm (Mechanized) (2012–13) is a wired network of musical instruments made from scrap metal that automatically hum, drone, clatter, and ping; on closer inspection, they turn out to be welded entirely from bits of decommissioned handguns and assault rifles. If Reyes’s concept sounds a touch heavy-handed (it is) then the sounds that echo around the museum compensate with their pervasive atmospherics.

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In the hands of the curators, the museum becomes a thoroughly porous entity, and artworks leak in and out on all sides. In front of the building, passersby are arrested by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow’s TIP (2013), a forest of wooden beams tied with strips of bright fabric that barrels out of the museum’s entrance onto the sidewalk. Even at the exhibition’s opening it appeared well on its way to disintegration, its red and purple streamers heavy from recent rain. Barlow’s anti-form gesture seemed designed to give the finger to Richard Serra’s permanent steel sculpture Carnegie (1985) that towers beside it.

TIP, sadly, is not amongst Barlow’s best work, and once inside the museum its memory is crowded out by more urgent positions. Two unflinching displays occupy rather transitory spaces on the ground floor. Saigon-based Dinh Q. Lê has amassed an astonishing collection of watercolors made by Communist artist-soldiers fighting during the Vietnam War. Photographer Zoe Strauss set up a temporary photo studio in the working-class town of Homestead, across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh, and invited locals to have their pictures taken. She gave one print to each of her subjects, kept one for her archive, and hung the third in a long hallway in the museum alongside other shots of the neighborhood. Less successful is the aforementioned Olowska’s rather sentimental Puppetry in America Is Truly a Lonely Craft (2013), which includes posters and vitrines of marionettes on loan from a defunct theater.

A significant chunk of the art in the 2013 Carnegie International comes from stridently singular and sometimes marginal or eccentric voices, which lead us smoothly into discussions around broader social and communal issues. A micro-retrospective of work made since the 1970s by Serbian artist Mladen Stilinović is both funny and affecting; and Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free (2013), an intense text-based video projection by Frances Stark documenting her friendship with a young man from gang-ridden East Los Angeles alongside Christian, hip-hop, and pedagogical imagery, is a standout work in the show.

In many instances, unlikely conversations arise between the formally abstract and the overtly political: Sadie Benning’s grid of abstract paintings, Locating Centers (2013) and Zanele Muholi’s grid of photographs Faces and Phases (2006–13), portraits focusing on black African lesbians; Joseph Yoakum’s visionary landscapes and Vincent Fecteau’s impossibly knotted abstract sculptures; Sarah Lucas’s highly gendered assemblages and Henry Taylor’s casual but racially poignant portraits. The diverse artists in the show do not have a false homogeneity imposed upon them, but neither is any single artist’s position permitted to devolve into solipsism.

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The Carnegie Museum of Art, as with many old museums, is a Frankensteinian amalgam of architectural additions. There is no obvious route through its galleries, and the curators have capitalized on this opportunity for self-directed exploration. That there is no center to the exhibition is ideologically as well as spatially significant. The 2013 Carnegie International is actually three separate exhibitions, if you count Burkhalter’s “Playground Project” and the curators’ stunning re-hang—with interventions by artists including Lucas and Lara Favaretto—of the museum’s permanent Modern and Contemporary collection, largely amassed from previous editions of the International. You might even count four exhibitions, if you include the artist collective Transformazium’s free “Art Lending Collection” featuring works by almost all the artists in the main exhibition and organized by members Dana Bishop-Root, Leslie Stem, and Ruthie Stringer in collaboration with the nearby town of Braddock’s public library. Often it seems as if some artists’ works have been hidden away in the furthest corners of the building in order to evade detection entirely, as with the British artist Mark Leckey’s film Made in ’Eaven (2004), in the adjoining Museum of Natural History’s gallery of gemstones, or Brussels-based Pierre Leguillon’s underwhelming diorama featuring ephemera by Jean Dubuffet.

A biennial-style exhibition such as the Carnegie International can never be flawless. Obvious criticisms of the show—that it has no major chords or hummable riffs, that it is overly beholden to its context, that it is inconsistent in taste or style, that it is too thematically disparate—congeal, over time, into necessary attributes of a deliberate and thoughtful curatorial position. This, perhaps, is what difference looks like.

First published: e-flux Art Agenda, January 7, 2014

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