Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning
Entering Global Priority at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning is like stepping into Doctor Who's phone booth and discovering a world inside. The theory of inner space is relevant to guest curator Gordon Knox and director Heng-Gil Han's densely populated group show. While the works are all relatively small, since they had to be shipped through the mail, the 50-plus artists engage in a multicultural dialogue on globalism. The artists in the show represent 28 countries with careers ranging from art star William Kentridge to emerging artists like Fara Hatam. The more established artists were invited to choose another artist for the exhibition and this diversity creates a politically potent mini-Documenta, mercifully on a human scale. The show will return to New York again in three years after traveling around the world. Artists will be added at each stop along the way, altering its composition, and returning it anew to a necessarily larger space. The dynamic nature of the show is consistent with its curatorial aim, making it as much of a process as a thing.
Established artists like Kentridge (South Africa) provide drawing power. His work "Portage," a book with stenciled collages of black South Africans on an English language dictionary, is part of his ongoing exploration of apartheid and colonialism. It is Kentridge's selection of Andries Botha (South Africa), whose wall-piece is titled "Patterns, Paternalism, Power, Pity," that represents perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibit—the strong showing by emerging international artists. Botha's work is familiar histories of the conqueror and conquered written on a skin—but that doesn't diminish the impact of the work. Together, both Kentridge and Botha interrogate history and power through images and language.
The amount of video in Global Priority is fairly reasonable (there were over 600 hours of video in last summer's Documenta) and is one of the show's strongest mediums. Daniel Bozhkov's (Bulgaria/USA) "Learning How to Fly Over a Very Large Larry" is a hilarious riff on politics and celebrity with a subtext that is less humorous. Bozhkov and friends created a portrait of Larry King in a field, sort of like a crop pattern, and filmed the result from the air during a flying lesson. Watching the video is a curious affair until the camera focuses in on the image of Larry King, and the perspective flips from a tension filled ride to an artistic/political joke. The idea of flying lessons and politics creates tension, since the plane as potential bomb has become part of the lexicon of terrorism. Thankfully, Bozhkov uses absurd humor to defuse the situation and create something entirely different. He even made it on the nightly local news and gained Larry Kings's attention. Fara Hatam's video, "Point'in Life," uses deadpan humor to turn the artist's simple act into a sublimely ridiculous performance piece, which in turn makes the casual passerby into an absorbed subject. Hatam stands motionless on a street corner pointing at the sky. Everyone stops, looks, and registers confused curiosity. There is no revelation, only a questionable gesture, part warning and part directive, that transforms the artist into a temporary tourist attraction.
Photography is also well represented, from Kerry James Marshall's (USA) photographic installation, "Some Assembly Required," to Ingmar Bruhn's (Germany) "Untitled" series. Widely known for his paintings, Marshall's photographs present a dislocated narrative of place and identity. The montage of images of a farm, the artist's name, Chinese characters, and a "For Sale" sign, all set under a magnifying glass, speak of history and the transitory nature of place. While Marshall's style is oblique, Bruhn contrasts four enlarged photocopies of hair, facial and pubic, associated with Hitler and Bismarck, along with a simple moral text. The montage quickly evokes feelings of nationalistic identity and patriarchal power, and the dangers therein. Also notable are the carefully faked military scenes of Dino Bruzzone (Argentina) and Igor Makarevich & Elena Elagina's (Russia) photographs of McDonald's and a Russian chain called Russkoe Bistro.
Global Priority includes strong conceptual works, like Ion Godeanu's (Romania/ Germany) poignant "One Way Ticket," about all the travelers forced to purchase round-trip tickets who never use the return ticket, establishing quasi-residency in another country. The fictional company Godeanu creates opens up a dialogue about the ways in which people from certain countries must negotiate visas and traveling restrictions in order to exercise a freedom Westerners often take for granted. Larry and Kelly Sultan's paper bag project, "Have You Seen Me" gives voice to minority students in America, although they are framed in a way that is more familiar as an area for missing persons. The result is a work that acknowledges a problem and offers the children's optimism as an answer.
Much of the work in the show carefully balances artistic formal concerns with the theme of the show, ideas about globalism. Mark Dion (USA) and Rutherford Chang (USA) present two riffs on the idea of the newspaper. Dion's paper is a satire of bioengineering, while Chang's "Alphabetized Newspaper" orders language in a way that inverts the authority of the subjective newspaper voice and reveals a frightening logic of its own. Dan Perjovschi's (Romania) comic book, New Ideas-Old Tricks, is a hilarious and engaging personal commentary on the stresses and absurdity of life in the age of the Internet.
It's amazing that Knox and Han are able to find room for so many practices in one show and maintain a consistent vision. There are many works that gain currency by recasting familiar genres in culturally specific materials and practices. Notable works include Nanlini Malani's animation of abstract forms, "Stain," Xu Bing's (USA/China) "Letter written in Squared Word Calligraphy," Regina Silveira's (Brazil) "Latin American Puzzle," an oversized jigsaw puzzle of black and white imagery, and Ayelet Zohar's (Israel/UK) image of a fence that returns in a video following the vast tract of fence surrounding a Palestinian refugee camp.
Global Priority is a show with an agenda, and it succeeds in realizing an international dialogue on important issues, while avoiding mere topicality. Although that word has been ingrained as being "bad," the show achieves a political consciousness that transcends any negative connotations. It is good to see a show that has a curatorial premise that lets the art itself create the dialogue, and not the manipulation of the art with careful placement and textual prompting. When Global Priority returns or arrives near you, make a point to spend some time with the art. It's a rewarding exhibition with both new and established voices.