Friday, March 27, 2009

Making the site specific

© Maurizio Cattelan, 1998
Photo: Marilu Knode

We're awaiting the installation of a work (nicknamed "the jellyfish") by Janet Echelman, and despite attempts to defund it last fall, the work will be the first, most significant marker of place in the city of Phoenix. I started thinking about how public art is often reviled when first installed (the Eiffel Tower, Claes Oldenburg / Coosje Van Bruggen's "Shuttlecocks" in front of the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City), although later, the work becomes an icon of said city.

But so many more artists make temporary, ephemeral sculpture that provides an equally intriguing opportunity to become socially engaged in our civic discourse.

Above is a picture I took of a work (unpublished) by Maurizio Cattelan that he did for us at inova (Institute of Visual Arts) in Milwaukee many years ago (show curated by Jerome Sans). When Maurizio's first idea didn't work (he wanted to shoot bootleg movies and screen them), I spent a day with him visiting thrift shops looking for the appropriate clothes for this homeless dummy--Kenneth--which we placed by inova's front door. The public response was truly astonishing, and started me on a path towards working with more non-traditional forms of art in public places.

Responses we got with regards to Kenneth included a call from a young woman who yelled at me, saying she had been afraid to leave her house because of the homeless guy laying by our door. Colleagues on UWM-campus came by to see if they could get Kenneth into a homeless shelter. When it rained I thought to bring him inside, but real world Kenneth wouldn't necessarily have that option. Instead I put an umbrella in his hand--it blew away. One afternoon, within a space of a half-hour, students had posted a sign on Kenneth's coat, protesting the cost of rising tuition (students would go homeless, the note suggested).

Then one weekened, someone stole / kidnapped Kenneth (but left his shoes). It made national and local news. Maurizio thought maybe Kenneth was tired of the attention, or that he had started a march on Washington on behalf of the homeless. The e-mails were hysterical, and added another dimension, for me, to Maurizio's works.

Finally, someone from the Milwaukee police department called to say they had found Kenneth. The detective stopped by to talk about where and how they found him, and when he described what Kenneth was wearing, I had to stop him--they were the wrong clothes. Two missing dummies in Milwaukee at the same time? Perhaps the people (frat boys from across the street perhaps?) changed his clothes before a night on the town? So curious...

Lots of issues came up: institutional responsibility to the public, the artist and the art work; extending art's social engagement with contemporary issues; the role of documentation in preserving visual history in a community's life--these were all embodied in the figure of Kenneth.

Although these types of temporary sculptures do not garner the type of long-term iconic status of a Tour Eiffel, I find the gesture more direct and invigorating. Perhaps with the state of the art market, we'll see more of these gestures.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More on the Middle East

© Ahmet Ogut detail "Somebody Else's Car", 2005, two-screen slide projection

Since my first trip to Egypt, in 1997, to curate Nancy Spero's participation in the 1998 Cairo Biennial, I have returned to the region almost every year since, traveling to Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey for studio visits, conferences and arts festivals. From these experiences I have worked with artists as diverse as Ahmet Ogut (in the work above, Ogut transforms a private white car into a police vehicel, and a red car into a cab, the two ubiquitous vehicles found in Turkey), Halil Altindere, Mona Marzouk and Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, who represent the dynamic range of artistic practice in the region. Last year I attended Ashkal Alwan's electrifying conference Home Works IV in Beirut, and invited architect Bernard Khoury to Phoenix as a result to speak about his work. The connection? How to balance the development (or redevelopment) of a city core where public good has a place inside of private benefit (a huge issue in downtown Phoenix, while Beirut continues to recover from the schisms of a civil war).

The growth of resources for the artists and institutions in the Middle East has exploded since 1997, and international attention--mostly from Europe--has allowed for an expanded cultural exchange across political and social traditions. As the US tries to undo much of the harm done over the past eight years by the previous administration, I see organizations such as Townhouse Gallery in Cairo as pivotal in creating a platform for meaningful intellectual dialogue.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Naked or nude

© Kent Monkman "Si je t'aime prends garde a toi," 2007 (top)

© Rebecca Belmore "Extreme," 2003 (bottom)

I attended a day-long seminar with First Nations Canadian artist Kent Monkman and Dr. Gerald McMaster, a First Nations curator / artist, and currently curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The topic was the male Indian body in contemporary art. Monkman undoes cliches about landscape and indigenous peoples in 18th and 19th century American and European paintings, adding an exquisite homoerotic twist to his newly-minted tales of love and lust in the forest.

Of course the meaning of the female Indian body in contemporary art is the companion piece to the discussion, and Anishinabe / Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore's installations and performances explore issues of identity, borders and gender. Like many other indigenous artists working around the globe, Belmore and Monkman investigate urgent, relevant social issues while making gorgeous objects.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March Madness #1

© Nina Katchadourian work installed on dirt lot

It's March Madness in Phoenix, the month of out-of-town visitors (New York, Milwaukee and Los Angeles), art, baseball and performances. This weekend was jam-packed with things to do and see along Roosevelt Street (modified arts, eye lounge, MADE) and Grand Avenue (Bragg's Pie Factory, The Chocolate Factory) et al. The scrappy, grassroots activists of this city have given dirt lot-riven central Phoenix a sense of place (work by Nina Katchadourian is part of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition "Seriously Funny"--Scottsdale yearns for the Phoenix audience). Now we need the big institutions in town to reconcile themselves to the new economy, and embrace the role local entrepreneurs (Local First) have in making us a great 21st century city.