March 14, 2005

Carnegie International, Artists 26-29

Seventh installment. See here for all posts.

26. Katarzyna Kozyra. A surround-picture video installation.

27. Anne Chu. Figurative sculpture.

28. Paul Chan. Computer-animated video works.

29. Peter Doig. Large representational paintings.

26. Katarzyna Kozyra. Rite of Spring is a cinematic installation in which very old men and women (naked, with blatant fake genitalia) dance against a white background, to Stravinsky's music. Rather than have them actually dance, Kozyra photographed them lying down, frame by frame, to make stop motion animation--so they seem to pirouette and leap as they are surely no longer able to do (if they were ever). Rite of Spring is extraordinarily funny--in the herky-jerk parody of modern dance (the animation reminds me of Svankmajer), in the utterly deadpan expression of the dancers, who really don't look like they're enjoying themselves, and in the slow, synchronized movements of the corps de ballet surrounding the central dancers.

It's also disquieting when you think about it. Photographing the people lying down, and making it look like they're standing, gives an unnatural quality to their bodies--as if they're dead on slabs--that's accentuated by the stop-motion animation (and I think their eyes are closed throughout). We seem to be watching the living dead enacting the fertility rites. The end of the film is particularly ironic, as the central dancers seem to collapse to the ground with the end of the music. In the original Rite of Spring this was the sacrifice of a blooming youth to keep the order of nature going; here instead of youth, the sacrifices are near the end of their natural lives anyhow.

But the disquiet is a subtext--the overall impression is of good cheer and humor. Ken Johnson, the New York Times reviewer, calls this "just plain bad." I can understand our disagreement about Alys, noted previously, but this judgment makes me think the two of us simply have nothing in common.

27. Anne Chu "mines the history of figuration across cultures and eras to create sculptures that evoke ritual, storytelling, and mythology." Which is to say that, to an ignoramus like me, her sculptures look kinda folkloric or archeological--though, being an ignoramus, I can't say what tradition. Actually, only Maranao Man looks to me like it could conceivably be something you find in a dig, or an imitation of something you find in a dig. (Though perhaps the peaked cap should be a giveaway.) The "Hellish Spirits" (about four feet tall) are wicked-looking little creatures, misshapen and malevolent. But in an amusing way--no fear that they're going to get you.

28. Paul Chan. The main work here, Happiness (finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization--after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, is about as non-work safe as it gets. (But none of the images are online, so you don't have to worry, dear reader.) A 15-minute digital video--with less than photo-realist resolution, maybe about like a mid-90s video game--depicts a society of little girls like Darger's, beginning in a pastoral utopia, invaded and conquered by armed men, and then after an apocalypse looping back to the beginning. (There is a definite beginning--a hypnotic image of a bird flying backward over a meadow.)

This is another highlight of the International--tremendously detailed and with all sorts of unresolved resonances. The girls' utopia at the beginning is full of disturbing undertones--even if you take the open-air defecation and group sex as an assault on our booshwah hangups rather than anything that we should be disturbed by, there's an air of threat throughout much of these scenes. The girl eating the plants, and the buzzing sounds behind the pollination, and the way the clouds move across the sky, all create a sense of foreboding, for me at least. Unlike what's suggested by the title (and I think by Fourier's philosophy), we don't reach an end-state utopia, but one stage in a cycle.

I'm not quite sure of the import of many of the happenings here. At one point technological goods form in the meadow--their crystallization out of blobs of color is queasily reminiscent of the crapping going on elsewhere on the screen--and then at night the girls trade these for goods and services. Is the implication that reliance on technology comes to destroy the utopia? Or is it just part of its development? What destroys the girls' community in the end is the soldiers who rape and torture and burn the buildings. The rape and torture scenes raise uncomfortable questions of aestheticization--the fantastic setting and the video-game graphics distance us from the visceral impact, yet I couldn't help remembering that the U.S. is sponsoring this sort of atrocity right now. (Unless you think that, with Alberto Gonzales's promotion, the policies he loves have come to a halt.)

There's something unsatisfying about the external nature of the destructive forces--as though the message is that Bad People are the threat to utopian visions. That message would be too much of a myth of the counterculture. Also, it's not clear what destroys the armed men in the end. Destruction simply seems to rain from the sky--and Utopia can't count on that. On the other hand, the destruction of the armed men, with its sudden shift to an aerial perspective, is quite powerfully done. And if I'm complaining that Chan hasn't given us a prescription for Utopia, that's a lot to ask. As I said, what makes this so strong is the unresolved resonances.

Chan's other work (on the ground floor), Let Us Now Praise American Leftists, uses digital sketch software (used for suspect sketches) to create stereotypical facial hair for many kinds of activist. The faces, nose down, are shown briefly in a quick video, interspersed with occasional other scenes, while a text from I think Karl Kraus is read. This is about as funny as intended--but not so deep that I shouldn't point out that the concept writes women out of the history of activism entirely. Tsk, tsk.

29. Peter Doig. "Two years ago Doig and his family moved from London to the island of Trinidad, and the setting of this new series of paintings is recognizably tropical"--a modern Gauguin, but the family gets to come with. Of the many representational paintings in the International, Doig's seem to be the most purely retro. Andersson has her washes of pure paint, Rauch his outcropping of strange goo and otherworldly settings, Alys his overlays, but Doig does straightforward post-Impressionism. And it's extraordinary. The bather in the tidal pool, in green light, carries all the mystical freight he's meant to. (This painting reminded me of the Ancient Man in the Forest Questions scene of Meredith Monk's Atlas, but that's about as arbitrary as arbitrary personal associations get.) Another reason that painting is the strongest component of the International.

Ken Johnson says of the International,

Painting is not well served, however. Peter Doig and Mamma Andersson are interesting artists, but both seem mired in the backwaters of Post-Impressionist style and postmodernist signifying when their styles are compared with the nutty Soviet Surrealism of Neo Rauch, the show's strongest painter.

If I'm reading him correctly, he's dismissing Doig's work simply because he works in a previously existing style--because his work could have been painted 120 years ago (I think), it counts as mired in a backwater. This is horribly misguided, I think. The problem with art that self-consciously strives to recreate old styles is not that the old styles are inherently illegitimate, but that the self-consciousness of the attempt will cut the art off from the old style's power. But if Doig paints neo-Impressionist works because he likes neo-Impressionist works, and his paintings work as neo-Impressionism, that's no reason for a glib dismissal. (And if anyone's engaged in postmodern signifying here, it's Rauch.)

After viewing Doig's works one encounters a problem, if one wishes to consume the artworks in the strict order that is intended. Doig's are the last on the second floor, but nowhere near the desired entry point to the first floor works. You have to shut your eyes and rush all the way back till you reach the Alys, descending to the first floor at Donnelly's "Night Is Coming." (Note: Don't actually try it with your eyes shut.) But many of the works on the first floor are inaccessible, unreviewable, or unsuccessful. You might also consider taking a left turn and looking at the Carnegie's permanent collection. There's some decent stuff in there.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 14, 2005 08:52 AM