CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF ART | OCTOBER 13, 2018 – MARCH 25, 2019
In his book, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Miller wrote, “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” The type of journey he describes is not defined by the geographical displacement of one’s body, but by encounters of the senses—a distinction that also defines the divergence between tourism and travel. For the 57th Carnegie International, curator Ingrid Schaffner contracts this notion of mental and sensuous traveling to the concept of “museum joy,” which she defines as the pleasure experienced “from the commotion of being with art and other people actively engaged in the creative work of interpretation.” To organize this year’s iteration of the world’s second-oldest international survey of contemporary art, Schaffner decided against a theme, instead taking “the very word international as ground for exploration.” In her introduction to the beautifully designed catalog, The Guide, she asks, “How do you locate yourself relative to urgent issues of borders, states, nations within nations, nationalism, and new nationhood?”
Given the present political moment, Schaffner’s question is a bold, challenging place to begin. Uniting thirty-three participants from various geographic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds—more than half of whom are women—Schaffner has fulfilled and expanded upon the institution’s tradition of bringing the world’s art to Pittsburgh. But unfortunately, her curatorial interventions often don’t correspond with the pertinent questions she attempts to raise.
As you enter the museum, you are welcomed by two large-scale photographs of a horse and a tropical flower by Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok. Taken across the African continent, her tender, carefully composed images are often installed as intricate, kaleidoscopic wallpaper arrangements. Here, in the entryway, Cherono Ng’ok’s work feels too isolated to either stand on its own or relate to other works on the ground floor, where the totem-like wood sculptures, by Pittsburgh-based artist Thaddeus Mosley, present another missed opportunity. Inspired by jazz, African tribal art, and Modernist sculpture, the work’s complexity is overshadowed by Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s neighboring installation, for which they hired sign painters to recreate the titles of paintings rejected in the museum’s open calls between 1896 and 1931. While titles such as Boxing Clowns or A Daughter of Eve entertain speculation about how these works might have looked, attempting to reconceive of them as real, living pieces, the fog of their rejection lingers over Mosley’s beautifully carved sculptures–and not even the nearby display of Kerry James Marshall’s seventy-foot-long comic-strip, from his “Rythm Mastr” series, can mediate this awkward pairing.
The second-floor galleries impress with beautiful displays and visually stunning work. Yet the feeling of contextual inattentiveness prevails. One reasons for this is the fact that many of the exhibition’s works were preceded by thorough artistic research, and are grounded in the cultural specificities of their subject matter. The difficulty, however, is obtaining this information: Schaffner chose to use only most rudimentary wall labels in order to let the art speak for itself. “Draw from what you know . . . approach the exhibition with confidence, travel light,” the catalog advises. While Schaffner’s language is refreshingly free of jargon, it risks leaving much of the art suspended between half-answers and a shrug.
This negligence is thankfully without consequence for some pieces, such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye portraits or Saba Innab’s What Is Unseen Cannot Be Broken (2018). Crammed into the lower-left corner of the Hall of Architecture, surrounded by Greco-Roman and Renaissance casts, Innab’s ruin-like sculpture of steel and concrete is based on a partially excavated Gazan tunnel. It creates a powerful opposition between monuments of praise, and those of resistance.
The collaboration between South Korean filmmaker IM Heung-soon and writer Han Kang is arguably the show’s strongest work. Housed in three linked chambers, their films unearth and explore internalized trauma. Heung-soon’s film installation, of two facing screens, tells alternating stories by survivors of the military dictatorships of Argentina and Korea. Their fierce recollections of pain, torture, and loss are edited with such respectful precision that it quickly becomes difficult to determine which memory pertains to which dictatorship. More abstract in scope, Kang’s I Do Not Bid Farewell (2018)—a filmed performance of two women carrying a large white cloth, like a sail, through a forest and along a seashore—delicately insinuates mourning and the fear of loss. While Kang enacts them as culturally coded rituals, the emotional impact of mourning and memory remains.
That abstraction has the capacity to illuminate local histories—and their international impact—also emerges in Zoe Leonard’s Prologue: El Rio/The River (2018). Circling the mezzanine, her small photographs depict the murky surface of the Rio Grande. A source of life and conflict between the United States and Mexico, its fateful waters are smooth like chocolate milk or violent as a whirlpool. In scope, not scale, Leonard’s images relate well to indigenous collective Postcommodity’s imposing installation displayed on the floor below. Inspired by Navajo sand-paintings, the collective arranged chunks of steel, glass, and coal into patterns that transform the residues of Pittsburgh’s industrial past into an evocative environment piece. Viewed from the balustrade, it functions as a graphic score for the local jazz musicians who perform there.
Despite these moments—when unmediated visual pleasure allows for new, insightful, ways of looking and thinking—this year’s International is, ultimately, disappointing. The problem lies not in Schaffner’s proclamation of museum joy, but in her proposition that art from around the globe can negotiate the complicated notion of “international” on its own, without decisive curatorial intervention, simply by “being from around the globe.” As a result, most works seem not only disconnected from one another but also from their audience. For her film Event for a Stage (2015), included in the International, Tacita Dean collaborated with an actor to reflect on the magic of suspended disbelief—the fragile mechanism through which audiences connect with performances or artworks. At one point, Dean’s protagonist asks, “How do you know you are watching theater and not life?” For as long as the performance—or in this case, exhibition—lasts, you shouldn’t.
SABRINA MANDANICI is an art critic and former curatorial fellow of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Foundation. She currently lives in Germany and New York.