Sunday, December 27, 2009

Western Modernism re-made, part I

Mona Hatoum World, 2004, at Site Santa Fe

Over the past fifteen years or so I have been lecturing, curating, traveling and teaching about how non-Western artists have reinvigorated Western Modernism by reinterpreting it from many different perspectives. When cultural tourism allowed for a wide range of Western curators to visit new places--like the Johannesburg or Istanbul biennials--how to place non-Western artists into a Western historical context became a topic of some importance.

How not to repeat the problems of MoMA's Primitivism show or the Pompidou's Magiciens de la Terre, where the curatorial premise reduced whole continents of artist's works into a formal mimicry of Western modernism?

It all boils down to context context context (location location location, or the place from whence you view the work).

Of course many institutions will work with non-Western artists to be fashionable, but to truly understand the intellectual import of these artist's work in considering post-independence Africa or Palestinian diaspora for example, is another thing.

Gabriel Orozco in How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, Walker Art Center, 2003

Hatoum's work, above, is the globe in marbles. One false move, one petulant kick, and the whole thing goes haywire.

Orozco's installation, below, is a maze punctuated by signifiers of travel--a train or plane ticket--to suggest the dislocation of travel, flight, emmigration, diaspora. Both these artists rely on their own cultural histories to vault across the brittleness of late, mannered Modernism to create a fresh, vibrant world for us to consider. Imperialism is as much intellectual as actual, and these artists raise those issues in new ways.

I hope to be exploring some of these ideas with some of these artists, over the next few years, at Laumeier Sculpture Park and through my teaching at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Because of the uniqueness of our space, we have some great opportunities to vault beyond what a traditional institution can do and see what the second decade of the 21st century will hold.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Build It, But Will They Come?

Kevin McMahon and Akua Nyame-mensah "The Bilbao Boom or Bust?" in Next American City, issue 25, pp. 30-31.

Of all the news analyses of the trends of the '00's I have particularly enjoyed the writing about the museum building boom of the past decade.

This recent article in Next American City and Robin Pogrebin's December 12 article in the New York Times both explored the trend of large museum additions and the resulting economic impact on the museum itself. (We know this routine: a museum expands, the director leaves, staff is laid off. Rinse. Repeat.)

I started anticipating the "Bilbao Effect" in 1998 faced with the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum being completed. But since the economic collapse of the 1980s I have also bemoaned the grafting of for-profit management and market-expansion goals onto non-profits to disastrous effect.

What if, like businesses, non-profits don't have endless capacity for market expansion unless they "buy" other businesses (or expand their own space)? What if we cannot force increased market share (museum attendance) just because we're bigger? What if the expanded institution misinterprets the new entertainment options available and thus misinterprets their own mission and goals accordingly? What, ultimately, is the value of the preservation of material culture in our throw-away American society?

Is, perhaps, the museum model still a fundamentally European ideal?

Of the examples in the article above--Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Akron and Roanoke--I would say the Zaha Hadid building in Cincinnati had both an impact on the city and the art world because of the budget kept in check, it was the completion of a first museum building by a woman, etc...

But the most important question is: have the exhibitions at any of these institutions matched the ambitions of the building for the better elucidation of ideas, the unearthing of new content, the reinterpretation of the past in light of the present and future?

I would say rarely has that happened. So what, then, is the ultimate goal of the "Edifice Complex"? More realistic understanding of the museum's role in contemporary society, getting back to non-profit roots, actually press politicians and supporters to understand what museums do for the community, and not just in terms of tax revenue.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Place Your Bets Here

My friend Judith Patrylak (shout out from Phoenix!) and I went to Cahokia Mounds last weekend to see one of the most significant cultural touchstones of the St. Louis region.

Judith had studied Native American history in one of her many past lives; I am interested in re-animating our cultural histories in as many ways as possible.

What I learned:
Much of our cultural heritage has been lost through attrition, neglect, manifest destiny.
Many St. Louis residents have never visited Cahokia.
The State of Illinois has to cycle out Illinois state maps with Rob Blagojevich still listed as governor. (The state's bird=jail bird?)

What struck me was the smartness of a display at the end of the "tour" in the Visitor Center.

They didn't just tell you the current archaeological theories for the collapse of Cahokia Mound society--they asked you to bet on which one won (or lost, depending on your perspective) with money fed directly into the display.

What a brilliant funding strategy!

"Failure of Leadership" was not the highest-grossing of the four winning answers, but given the climate discussions in Copenhagen this past week, we might want to start our own bets.

One of my favorite recent reads was Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail. Collapse kept coming back to me while thinking about cultural sustainability because, ultimately, this is what we are up against.

I don't mean just non-profits, I mean the various institutions that fulfill the "social contact" that has driven Western Civilization for the past 500 years.

We should all take lessons from Cahokia.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What a difference a year makes

Sparkly Christmas tree at the Fountainebleau hotel, Miami Beach.

Just got back from ArtBasel Miami. I do miss the warmth of the south--did it really have to rain?

I skipped Miami last year, art fair weariness. I have no problems with the market. However, as a curator, I simply got tired of having to fight to talk to dealers who were so focused on selling to institutions, not necessarily helping to build a more firm artistic career. The market calming down is a good thing for curators and artists, but maybe not for the dealers.

This year I went to Miami in a different position and therefore my goals were different. I was able to meet with several members of my new International Advisory Committee (check Laumeier's website soon for details): Silvia Karman Cubina, director of the Bass Museum of Art, Beverly Adams, curator of the Diane and Bruce Halle Collection of Latin American art in Phoenix and Laurie Farrell, Director of Exhibitions, Savannah College of Art and Design. I had great conversations with all three of these experts who will be helping us work on outdoor temporary projects and collections-based exhibitions. I can't wait.

And of course I did see a lot of art.

The on-going rash of deer has not died down--I first started noticing this about five years ago in Miami (simultaneous with the storm of snowmen in art, and I've got the pictures to prove it).

Bambi and a big rack (titled by Beverly)

Bambi in the head / spot lights outside the convention center

The blizzard of snowmen several years ago was certainly a response to being in the lush tropics of Miami (just as the rash of genitalia in art was a symptom of hotel art fairs before that).

Gratitude towards junk culture at Nada Fair

The Taco Bell work was nicely ironic given the predominant influence of Latin American in Miami. Taco Bell is but a ploy of the fast food industry to sell a foreign culture's cuisine in a non-threatening (and non-spicy?) way to Americans. Right outside the convention center's doors is a polyglot range of food types rarely found in mainstream kitchens.

I moved rather quickly through the fairs with various friends and colleagues (hence my shocking lack of names for many of the works I am showing you). I ran into many colleagues whose own works or ideas will be great to bring to St. Louis--this is the biggest part of what I brought back with me from Miami.

I also got over to most of the private collector spaces--the Cisneros Foundation, the Margulies collection (needs some curatorial focus, a good architect might help snap that place together) and the new Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz space.

Inside the new De la Cruz exhibition space, with Allora & Calzadilla missile in foreground

Outside the De la Cruz space

The view outside this gorgeous new space brought home the inherent difficulties of selling, buying, making, presenting and loving art. With the obvious surrounding poverty of the area, the work of Allora & Calzadilla and Ana Mendieta became sharper, while the seductive work of Jim Hodges became softer. I look forward to seeing if they impose quasi-curatorial themes to their shows, a la Rubell, or toss things out choc-a-block like Marguelies.

Miami is really the wild west of the American art world, for good or bad, but they've really had an impact on how we see the arts in that city. The cabbie who returned me to my hotel had moved to Miami from Surinam about 25 years ago, and he said he's going to miss us art people because we are helping their economy.

Now that is the true shock of the current bad economy--that people are looking to the art world to help them.

What a difference a year makes.

all photos courtesy the author