March 15, 2005

Carnegie International, Artists 30-37

The final installment of my review of the Carnegie International covers the artists on the first floor. (Other posts here.) As I mentioned at the end of the last post, I find the works on the first floor much less successful than the rest--or in some cases, unreviewable. So this will zip by with a lot of cheap snark.

30. Mangelos. Conceptual art.

31. Jeremy Deller. Tiny installations and, um, t-shirts.

32. Maurizio Cattelan. An alleged sculpture.

33. Pawel Althamer. A performance piece and a tiny video trailer.

34. Chiho Aoshima. A huge mural.

35. Oliver Payne and Nick Relph. Two videos.

36. Yang Fudong. Two 30-minute films.

37. Carsten Holler. A walk-in greenhouse installation.

30. Mangelos. The third career retrospective in the show (after Crumb and Bontecou), and the only work by a dead artist; Mangelos died in 1987. (Eerily, one of his manifesti predicts the exact date.) The retrospective is governed by manifestos on the wall; most of the art is rawly textual, words scrawled on canvases or globes. Says the guide, "For Mangelos, the manifesto--a declaration of ideological intent--was the ultimate example of 'functional thinking,' a concept inspired by a postwar world dominated by technology, which Mangelos believed had replaced the metaphorical thinking of a more naive age." And that is more or less explicitly stated in the manifestos. Mangelos' writing isn't imagistic or poetic; it's there to convey ideas.

Which ideas are completely wrongheaded, in my opinion. The idea that the postwar world has overthrown metaphorical thinking--that descriptive systems "were the logical heirs to the defunct metaphorical ones, such as philosophy, religion, and art"--reminds me of nothing so much as Dick Morris's moronic contention that we need to trash Social Security because it's outdated in the Information Age. Morris hasn't given any reason why the Information Age has anything to do with Social Security, and Mangelos doesn't give any reason why the modern world needs something beyond art. I'd say that Mangelos leaves me cold, and that's what he's trying to do, but he doesn't leave me convinced that leaving me cold is useful.

And since he mentions philosophy, with which I can claim familiarity: analytic philosophy is a hell of a lot closer to functional thinking thus described than most other forms of human activity. And it's not art, nor does it aspire to be. But the idea isn't that it squeezes out ways of thinking that draw unformalizable connections, or that appeal to, yes, the emotions. I hope it's clear that I'm no aesthetic reactionary--I think art should respond to the world we live in. But that calls for new ways of drawing connections, not the abandonment of any effort to do so.

(And is the functional thinking of analytic philosophy appropriate to a world dominated by technology? I can show you some Georg Lukacs that argues that it's so. Except the philosophy he's talking about is modern philosophy beginning with Descartes, and the world dominated by technology is the world that's heading toward the Industrial Revolution. Technology didn't start with the tank and the teevee.)

Ken Johnson says, "Why [Mangelos's] work cropped up in the Carnegie International is a mystery; it deserves an exhibition unto itself." Leaving aside the aggressive incoherence of this as a criticism of the exhibit--did Johnson expect the International to be cancelled for a one-man show?--I think it's revealing, taken with his slam at Doig and Andersson (see the end of this post). Those painters, he claimed, were stuck in a "backwater," in that they recognizably belong to old traditions. Well, if being stuck in a backwater is your greatest fear, you won't want to know from old ways of thinking. You'll want a way of thinking that's different from anything that comes before, never mind whether what's come before still has any validity. And, taken to absurdity, you'll decide that you've got to go beyond art. This, my dear, is throwing out the baby with the backwater.

31. Jeremy Deller. Breaking News (Dedicated to Peter Watkins) is designed for the Carnegie's miniature rooms. These dioramas--maybe a foot cubed--contain reproductions of period furniture. Deller's inserted tiny plasma TVs, showing reconstructions of contemporaneous battles. (And I believe he's disarranged the furniture somewhat.) The TVs are too incongruous to convince as a reimagining of the way people in the past might have experienced war. And, though the videos they show may be interesting, at this scale it's impossible to tell or to watch for long. I would've liked this better without the TVs--or if I'd been told the TVs were about to be inserted.

Deller also has T-shirts and plastic bags with biblical quotes for sale in the gift shop. When I think about this, it's really quite extraordinary. He's managed to break my "You call this art?" barrier. I didn't think it was possible (and I've played miniature golf courses where each hole was designed by a different artist, thank you).

I'm being so cranky about textual art that I think I ought to link my comments about Jenny Holzer again (end of this post). Believe me, I don't reject the concept.

32. Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan's Now is a sculpture of John F. Kennedy in his coffin. Or so we are told. The sculpture couldn't be viewed by the time I saw the International. Sarah Hromack has more here (scroll down to "Qualifications" and "Truly Green"; permalinks are bloggered even though it's an MT blog). Given Cattelan's reputation as a provocateur and a prankster, perhaps many things could be said about the significance of his withdrawing his work, but to the ordinary museumgoer the absence of a Cattelan from an exhibition is indistinguishable from the absence of any damn thing else.

33. Pawel Althamer. Another unreviewable one--"Althamer's Real Time Movie consists of a performance of a 30-minute segment of daily life, and a one-and-a-half minute film trailer created to promote that performance. During the performance... actors will assume the roles of typical passersby" (I believe Big Star Peter Fonda is the guy idling in the car--which, if he does it for 30 minutes, isn't really typical Pittsburgh behavior).

Well, I haven't seen the performance. (When I said that a bunch of actors would act out daily life, one person said "Why don't we act like we saw it?" You know who you are.) And ordinarily I have no compunction about reviewing movies based on their trailers--often that's the best way to consume the movie--but in this case, there isn't actually anywhere to stand where you can both see and hear the trailer. It might have been cool to see it in a movie theater, but alas. So, no comment.

34. Chiho Aoshima. Magma Spirit Explodes, Tsunami Is Dreadful predates the real-life tsunami. It's a huge mural, spanning natural disasters, tiny people and cars thrown around by the waves, scenes of battle, and a huge fire-breathing girl in the center of the composition. The mural certainly has power and accomplishment of some sort--reminded me a bit of Irving Norman's War and Peace, which I saw in this this exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum. But but but, I'm just not fond of the anime aesthetic at work here. It comes across cutesy, which War and Peace sure does not. If you're moved by Aoshima, however, I won't argue with you.

(I note, with some distress, that I have denied being in tune with the aesthetic of both Japanese artists in the International [see the remarks about Kaoru Arima here]. I don't think this goes for all contemporary Japanese art. It certainly doesn't go for contemporary Japanese movies. Oh well.)

Behind Aoshima's mural are rooms showing videos and films. I didn't see all of any of them, because I didn't have time on any of my visits...

35. Oliver Payne and Nick Relph. ...and because you don't have to eat a whole egg to know it's rotten. Driftwood is supposed to be a travelogue of secret London, but it looked like a bunch of not particularly interesting shots of the city with a not particularly comprehensible and not particularly interesting voiceover. I suppose I shouldn't leap to conclusions based on a small sample, but I had no desire whatsoever to stay around and figure out what might be going on. Comma, Pregnant Pause is harder to describe--a cross between "Space Ghost, Coast to Coast" and that experimental film some guys in Pittsburgh showed a few years back, involving Hitler, a baby Jesus doll, a time machine, and mushmouth dialogue--after it stopped being funny? I would say that invoking Beckett's name in connection with this was cause for physical violence, but there's two of them and either one could probably kick my ass. Plus I didn't see much of this either. Anyone who wants to defend these is welcome to do so, though you'd have to be very convincing to get me to try them again.

36. Yang Fudong. Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is five films, of which the first two half-hour segments are on view. This one I missed simply due to lack of time, and fatigue at the end of the exhibition view. I saw part of the second, in which the characters are in the city--apparently in part I they're in a landscape, and it seems much less potentially naturalistic than what I saw. Filmed entirely inside, there was a long dinner conversation that seemed to cross Whit Stillman and My Dinner with Andre--the very young actors discuss ideas and modes of life. Then sequences of the characters retiring, interacting in the bathroom, etc. There is no clear dramatic arc, no storytelling agenda that I could tell. It seemed fascinating but I'm unable to judge what might be going on without seeing a whole film.

37. Carsten Holler. "Solandra Greenhouse, a work created for this exhibition, is a garden filled with the Solandra maxima vine, a plant that exudes pheromones capable of inducing amorous feelings. Coupled with strobe lighting intended to create a slight disorientation in the visitor, the experience of the Solandra Greenhouse is meant to recapitulate the physical effects of falling in love." With the emphasis on Holler's doctorate in biology, and his theories concerning perception and reaction to stimuli, I suppose this is functional rather than metaphoric thinking. As such it's objectively evaluable, and I can say objectively: It fails. It does not recapitulate the effects of falling in love. Did it do so, it would be one of the greatest works of art ever, or a hella creepy experiment in mind control. But there's no way to tell what this is supposed to be about without you read the program.

Well, that was a grumpy finish to my review of the International. The exhibit was overall quite worthy, but the best work is certainly on the second floor. If you have to pick one segment, I'd recommend the middle (Alys to Doig), but there's much excellent work in the first part as well. If you're in Pittsburgh, the exhibit ends March 20, so get yourself down there posthaste.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 15, 2005 12:50 PM

Re Yang Fudong: I think "The Seven Sages" is a common theme of Chinese art. So the effect of portraying contemporary young people with that title would be similar to putting 13 contemporary young people in poses similar to those of the figures of The Last Supper. Not quite--people take the latter as blasphemy--but you get the idea.

Posted by: Matt's mom at March 15, 2005 02:05 PM

That was alluded to in the guide--of course I don't know the story at all, so I'd be in a bad position to pick up on some stuff even if I'd seen the whole thing. Did you see it?

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 15, 2005 02:07 PM