Space Oddity

David Velasco at the Fifty-fifth Carnegie International


Left: Carnegie International curator Douglas Fogle with artist Mark Manders. Right: Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, and Richard Flood, chief curator at the New Museum. (All photos: David Velasco)

“Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?” Sounding a bit like the promotional spiel for a sci-fi convention, the tagline for the Fifty-fifth Carnegie International—which curator Douglas Fogle blithely titled “Life on Mars,” after David Bowie’s 1971 classic—inspires visions of Roswell, tinfoil hats, and Heaven’s Gate. Not an entirely unappealing set of connotations (for this conspiracy theorist, at least), but a strange one nonetheless for North America’s most venerable periodic exhibition of contemporary art.

Arriving in Pittsburgh early Friday morning for the opening festivities, I spotted a placard at the museum’s entrance featuring a skeletal Tyrannosaurus rex inviting visitors to ROAM OUR WORLD. I took a moment to nudge my inner child, though there were plenty of outer ones at hand. On that particular morning, the museum seemed a veritable Kid Nation, with middle schoolers stomping around Manfred Pernice’s deconstructed installation of vitrines and eating lunch in the courtyard amid Susan Philipsz’s a cappella recording of “The Banks of the Ohio,” two of the exhibition’s 204 works (by forty international artists).

Upstairs, however, the galleries devoted solely to the International were much quieter. Curators, artists, and installers (performing last-minute touch-ups) roamed the halls, surveying Fogle’s handiwork. Hovering near one of his installations, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, Ryan Gander pondered his piece, as well as the city’s unique history. (In his hotel room the night prior, he and gallery mate Phil Collins had reenacted scenes from Dawn of the Dead, which was filmed at the nearby Monroeville Mall.) The work typically consists of one hundred laser-cut crystal balls, but Gander only used forty here. “I didn’t want to interfere with Wilhelm Sasnal’s area,” he claimed. “That’s not proper biennial artist behavior,” joked former Whitney director David Ross. “You’re being far too generous.”

Left: Artist Ryan Gander with Artists Pension Trust chairman David Ross. Right: Artist Matthew Monahan.

Other artists were perhaps more willing to indulge their inner diva. When Fogle placed one of Maria Lassnig’s curiously deformed self-portraits behind a set of Matthew Monahan’s towering, misshaped sculptures—a clever, though imposing, juxtaposition—Monahan disagreed. “I’ll move it myself if I have to,” noted the artist’s resolute mother. In the end, though, it seems a compromise was reached, and Lassnig’s painting was simply placed on the wall opposite.

Spelunking Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Cavemanman, a vast horror vacui warren of brown packing tape and photocopied historical and sociological scholarship, I bumped into trustee emeritus Ann Wardrop. “I simply love being in the museum when it’s empty. Don’t you?” she exclaimed with a childlike grin. In another large room, filled with Wolfgang Tillmans’s variegated photographs, a host of curators—Daniel Birnbaum, Lars Bang Larsen, Richard Flood, and Fogle himself—congregated. “I have the distinguished honor to be the youngest-ever curator of the Venice Biennale,” the fresh-faced, forty-five-year-old Birnbaum jokily boasted. “And after this year, you’ll never look quite this young again,” teased a glowing Flood, before turning to receive Fogle with a warm, congratulatory hug.

Perhaps most surprising in “Life on Mars”—especially given recent trends in major New York surveys, such as the 2008 Whitney Biennial and the New Museum’s “Unmonumental”—is the preponderance of figuration (or disfiguration): works by Monahan, Hirschhorn, Andro Wekua, Mark Manders, Kai Althoff, and Barry McGee each feature distorted humanoid sculptures, while Lassnig, Sasnal, Bruce Conner, and Daniel Guzmán play with the figurative in two dimensions. Also common are evocations of swiftly tilting planets and the universe’s terrific, alienating vastness, beginning, of course, with Paul Thek’s much-disseminated brochure-cover work Untitled (Earth Drawing I), but also including pieces by Friedrich Kunath, Vija Celmins, Mark Bradford, Rivane Neuenschwander, and quite a few others. Everything chimes. Dramatically cinching it all is Mike Kelley’s wondrous, colorful laboratorylike installation, inspired by the fictional city of Kandor (the capital of Superman’s homeland of Krypton), which dominates the ground floor of the Hall of Sculpture. For all Fogle’s talk in the press about “Life on Mars” as a metaphor for human connection, the exhibition also comes across as a literal enactment of its title. There is “Life”—numerous mutated, alien forms—and there is “Mars”—solemn representations of planets, suns, and nebulae, entropic horizons.

Left: Ann Wardrop, Carnegie Museum trustee emeritus. Right: Architects Ravi GuneWardena and Frank Escher with artists Sharon Lockhart and Alex Slade.

That evening, a largely black-tie crowd descended on the museum for the gala benefit. A bevy of Chelsea dealers (Barbara Gladstone, Tanya Bonakdar, Anton Kern, Brent Sikkema, Michael Jenkins, Paula Cooper, and Andrea Rosen among them) chatted with their artists and Pittsburgh’s elite; they didn’t seem to talk much with one another, though. Most everyone seemed ebullient about the exhibition. Madeleine Grynsztejn—curator of the lauded fifty-third survey in 1999, and newly minted director at the MCA Chicago—gave praise in passing: “It’s beautiful, tender, and human. He really hit it out of the park.”

Following a formal awards ceremony, during which Carnegie Museum director Richard Armstrong announced the winners of the Fine Prize for emerging artist (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and the Carnegie Prize (Celmins), attendees spilled into the museum’s baroque music hall for a somewhat less punctilious “strolling dinner,” featuring buffet tables laden with charred ahi and strawberries filled with minted cream cheese. Some patrons roamed the galleries, while others ventured outside into the warm spring air to scope out Doug Aitken’s new outdoor video projection migration, featuring indigenous American animals exploring hotel rooms across the US.

A little after 10 PM, school buses began shuttling guests from the museum to the Brillobox, a two-story lounge and dance club on Penn Avenue featuring red-velvet wallpaper and high tin ceilings. There, Bradford and Peter Fischli impressed us all with their dancing stamina, even, near the end of New Order’s “Perfect Kiss,” helping to coax a reluctant Fogle onto the floor. Soon enough, the entirety of the club’s second level was packed with sweating and ecstatic bodies; miles away from their home turf, suddenly no one seemed shy.

Left: Artist Eoghan McTigue with critic and curator Lars Bang Larsen. Right: Artist Haegue Yang.

Left: Latitudes's Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna. Right: Lynne Cooke, curator of Dia and chief curator at the Reina Sofía.

Left: Sylvie Fortin, editor in chief of Art Papers. Right: Gary Garrels, senior curator at the Hammer Museum.