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Life on Mars: 55th Carnegie International

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 3, 2008 – January 11, 2009

As an organizing principle, the title of the 55th Carnegie International, Life on Mars, (followed a bit too breathlessly by the taglines “Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?”) comes off as a consummate nonstarter. But as the show unfolds, pressing its points with an unexpectedly jagged edge, its sci-fi overtones and unworkably broad premise quickly fade into irrelevance, and other, more earthbound issues worm their way into the mix.

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul, "Unknown Forces" (2007). Still from the four-channel color video, variable length loop. Courtesy of the artist.

Douglas Fogle, who organized the show with Heather Pesanti and Karin Campbell, writes in his curatorial introduction that Life on Mars should not be viewed in terms of “a literal search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” but “as a metaphorical quest to explore what it means to be human in this radically unmoored world.” It’s significant that he uses the phrase “radically unmoored world” to define our moment, rather than subscribe to the chimera of interconnectedness. Walking through this exhibition, it’s difficult to resist a feeling of estrangement—not because the art is deliberately off-putting (as it often is in the similarly-themed After Nature at the New Museum) but because it is embedded in a well of history and experience that we cannot fathom. It is also worth noting that the third question posed by the exhibition (“are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?”) uses the plural—“our own worlds”—implying a multiplicity of cultural tracks that rarely, if ever, intersect.

Although the title of the show refers to an age-old speculation about the Red Planet (which may yet be proven by the Phoenix Mars Lander), its emblematic image is Paul Thek’s lovely acrylic-on-newspaper “Untitled (Earth Drawing I)” (c. 1974). Painted just a few years after the first human contact with the moon, the work revels in the earth’s beauty—the surface is rendered in graceful dabs of white and ultramarine—yet suspends it in a nihilistic black void that makes no bones about its identity as paint on newsprint. The day’s stories, comic strips, ads and stock listings—a parade of the transitory and the trivial—take up almost as much of the surface area as the image painted on them, undercutting its timeless dignity while signaling the presence of the countless, unknown lives flickering beneath its cloudy expanse.

More than thirty years later, the clouds have only gotten denser. After two terms of Bush-Cheney we can’t recognize our own country, let alone pretend to grasp what is happening with such rapidity across the rest of the globe (as Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, its very existence came as a surprise). Instead, it seems, we can apprehend only what’s been lost. The most painful work in the show is Mario Merz’s “A Mallarmé” from 2003, consisting of bundled stacks of newspapers in Italian (Turin’s La Stampa) and Arabic, counting down the days before Bush launched his war against Iraq. A quotation from Stephane Mallarmé is emblazoned in blue neon across the top: “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“A roll of the dice will never abolish chance”). Merz, who died that same year, would never know how prescient his evocation was. But to gaze in hindsight at the headlines documenting Bush’s absurd posturing and unhinged bellicosity is to suffer a sensation of bottomless futility. Merz’s work achieves its prophecy by arresting the flow of history at a critical moment—the prologue becomes the play.

Merz was an Italian citing a French poet in a work about an American president’s adventurism in the Middle East. There are only a few other artists in the show whose work makes a similar attempt to transcend national boundaries. The photographer and filmmaker Phil Collins, who was born in England and lives in Scotland, examines the fate of the Serbo-Croat language in Kosovo with his 16mm short zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom) (2008). Susan Philipsz, who was born in Scotland and lives in Germany, sings the American folk ballad “The Banks of the Ohio” in her 2003 sound piece “Sunset Song.” But the majority of contributors choose instead to burrow into their own cultures, their own psyches, or both.

In some cases, the results reflect the stunted arc of Ryan Gander’s Man on a bridge - (A Study of David Lange) (2008) but without its satirical bent. Gander’s variable-length 16mm short, which consists of fifty 10-second takes of a man walking halfway across a bridge before stopping to glance over its railing, never quite gets where it seems to be going. While the denial of catharsis in Man on a bridge feels deliberate, in other works, like Andro Wekua’s installation “Get out of my room” (2006), it seems more the consequence of undercooked execution or the absence of context. Wekua’s sculpted schoolboy, dressed in real clothes and sitting with his feet up on a table surrounded on three sides by peacock blue walls and framed prints, could have been a Kienholzian vision of truncated potential (the boy’s cheeks and sealed-shut eyes are painted white, his lips smeared in red) but instead feels inert and dissipated. Yet there are many other instances—such as Cao Fei’s video Whose Utopia (2006-2007), which contrasts the dream lives of Chinese factory workers with the sterile pointlessness of their daily routines, or the set of four crazily expressionistic untitled oils completed this year by the 89-year-old Austrian Maria Lassnig—where the works are as moving as they are euphoric.

The Carnegie International doesn’t balkanize its offerings from the rest of the museum, and there are even some intentional interventions of the new upon the old. On the floor level of the museum’s two-story Hall of Sculpture, Mike Kelley has mounted a selection of works from his 2007 series based on the miniature city of Kandor, the capital of Krypton, which is kept in a bottle by Superman at his Fortress of Solitude. Eerily glowing in the darkened gallery like phosphorescent gemstones under glass domes, Kelley’s diverse takes on the city derive from the inconsistencies in the way it has been depicted in various comic books over the years. Above these fictional cities, on the hall’s upper level, a dozen of Bruce Conner’s “angels” from 1974-1975, ghostly photograms of human bodies evoking both mummies and amphorae, hang spotlit behind casts of classical sculpture adorning the balustrade. The artist’s death in July underscores the poignancy of these images—surprisingly gentle and earnest for the notoriously cantankerous Conner—and lends an added dimension to their aura of transience. Photograms are created by laying an actual object on light-sensitive paper, and so these life-size bodies, in their resemblance to ancient embalmed corpses or empty vessels, can be seen as snapshots of souls or as flesh atomized into silhouettes of light—evidence of both immortality and oblivion.

A narrow enclosed stairwell separates the atrium featuring Kelley’s Kandors from the museum’s Hall of Architecture—a permanent display of direct plaster casts of ancient and medieval European building sections, including the façade of St.-Gilles-du-Gard, as well as classical sculpture’s greatest hits: the Discobolos, the Nike of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo among others. Exhibits of plaster casts as both objects of contemplation and teaching tools were commonplace before international travel became affordable for the public at large, but the Carnegie Museum’s is the only large-scale collection to have survived in the United States. By bringing together more than one hundred of the most exalted works from centuries past (and juxtaposing them with startling theatricality), the Victorian-era planners of this collection have conjured a glimpse of an ideal city, a world in a bottle that, like Kandor, is essentially ersatz in conception and execution, subject to the whims of fashion and the corruption of memory.

Still, to encounter such an aggregate of flawlessly reproduced treasures in a relatively compact space is truly dumbfounding, just as it is sometimes thrilling to find hitherto unknown forms of expression in broad international surveys like this one. But both displays are based on the premise—as circumscribed as it is misleading—that a deft curatorial selection can supply us with a sense of world culture. While international biennials and triennials shouldn’t look as if they were cobbled together by some aesthetic subcommittee of the un, this exhibition, due to a shortage of vision, or of funds, is as Western-centric as the Hall of Architecture: out of forty artists, thirty-three are from the U.S. or Europe; the remaining seven come from Mexico, Brazil, India, China, Japan, Korea and Thailand. There is not a single artist from Africa or the Middle East, which is nothing short of unconscionable. While the work on hand by and large supports the curators’ goals, the show’s limited scope ultimately undermines their insights into the implications of our “radically unmoored world” through a lack of evidence from outside the mainstream cocoon.

In such an imperfect, unmoored world, however, even a shadow of reality is something to latch onto, and, like Conner’s phantom bodies, no less beautiful for it. Of all the works in this massive show, none is more representative of what the exhibition could have been than Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Unknown Forces (2007), a four-channel video installation dominated by a young man dancing in the back of a moving truck and a night scene of a tent billowed by a fierce windstorm under Klieg lights. Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker whose deliriously fractured Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Mysterious Object at Noon have made him arguably the most original cinematic voice on the world stage, plays upon our inability to comprehend the unknown forces buffeting the planet (political, social, meteorological) or at work in the individual mind (what do these images have to do with each other, and, more pertinently, what makes their combination feel so right?) Coming from the farthest reaches, geographically speaking, of the exhibition’s sweep, this mesmerizing and unequivocally non-Western work gives us only a hint of what raptures might lie in store if we, as “strangers in our own worlds,” had only the chance to look.


Thomas Micchelli


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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