PRINT December 1997


the Endless Biennial

HERE’S A SPOT QUIZ. What do the cities São Paulo, Havana, Kassel, Münster, Venice, Santa Fe, Lyons, Kwangju, Istanbul, and Johannesburg mean to you? Either the preceding list reads as a disconnected set of far-flung travel destinations, or else you’re double-checking to make sure you packed the melatonin. If it’s the latter, you’re probably among those who recognize the extent to which those in the art world racked up Frequent Flyer miles over the last twelve months.

If anything, 1997 seemed to be the year of the never-ending Biennial, with older, more established international shows joining upstart exhibitions in less-known locales. Artists and curators in particular became nomads, trailing each other around the globe, comparing notes on what and whom they saw and on how one artist’s work looked up against another’s. As a curator constantly fighting jet lag, I have a particular interest in how this emerging globalist mentality has come to inform what is experienced in one’s proverbial backyard, and how the two ends of this spectrum might most fruitfully inform each other. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that coming to terms with what Rem Koolhaas has termed the “glocal” is the most pressing issue for curators today, at least to the extent that success at integrating one’s local realities with those of the world at large is fast becoming the only sure way to maintain a community’s standing in the race for global relevance.

What better way, then, is there to express the sense of perpetually chasing back and forth across borders and time zones and the ongoing internal conversation about these issues than through the travelogue? From the point of view of a diarist, It also seems to be a useful conceit, since the exercise has convinced me that the most interesting record of my travels would be one concocted in hindsight—where what comes to the surface is what ended up counting for me over the relative long haul. Those dry lists of names and places that provide the most concrete record of my curatorial peregrinations somehow manage to conjure up vast reservoirs of past experience, even though to anyone else they might seem as meaningless as a stack of used boarding passes.

Dan Cameron

January 4, 1997, New York: Still reeling from the effects of the São Paulo Bienal last October, my ongoing inner conversation regarding the role of local issues across the emergent global art village is interrupted by seeing the Jörg Immendorff exhibition at Michael Werner. Based on Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, the panoramic canvas reminds me of how difficult it has been to assimilate Immendorff’s work into the ’90s, and of how necessary it is to be free enough to reconsider an artist, even one who threw away most of the late ’80s and early ’90s producing work whose embrace of the most generic forms of international neo-Expressionism made it flagrantly uninteresting to all but the most die-hard boosters.

January 11, Barcelona: I’m in town for a couple of days, checking out Richard Meier’s Museu d’Art Contemporani and being let down once again by how out of their way architects seem to go to make spaces artists can’t use. It doesn’t help any that the programming seems flat, with a poorly hung loan show from the Whitney. Worse, what’s billed as a Pepe Espaliú exhibition turns out to be nothing but leftovers from the estate, making it even harder for me to make up my mind about an artist about whom I’ve always harbored serious doubts. Much more engaging is the no-less-problematic Cuba: “CubasigloXX” at the Centre Santa Mònica (a space I loathe), an exhibition that dares to make some serious mistakes and ends up highlighting some truly breakthrough new material (Jan-Francisco Elso, Kcho, Ernesto Pujol).

January 18, SoHo: Had a pretty thorough run through the galleries today, and was struck by the fact that, other than Alan Belcher’s remarkable new sculptures at Jack Shainman, the best work I saw was in video and/or film: Jennifer Steinkamp’s ‘computerized color projections at Bravin Post Lee; Liisa Roberts’ breathtaking gallery-scaled installation, Trap Door, at Lehmann Maupin; and, most powerful of the three, Stan Douglas’ work at David Zwirner. I know it’s a sign of the times, but isn’t it also the time of year (glowing video installations as a kind of high-tech hearth)?

January 30, Boston: The Cildo Meireles exhibition has just opened at the ICA, and I’m here to have a look at a couple of the larger installations that we’ll be showing at the New Museum in our 1999 survey of his work. As I suspected, the difficulties involved in making his ideas clear to a North American public are quite serious, largely because the revolution in subject and style led by Meireles, Tunga, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica in Brazil during the ’60s had a completely different relationship to the Constructivist tradition than did the post-Minimal artists working in the US or the arte povera generation in Italy. So often, American critics and curators seem fixated on formal relationships within the art of this period, because anything else might be understood as a threat to those relatively hegemonic visions of the ’60s and ’70s whose manifestations as historical “fact” still inform most of our institutional collecting practices.

February 4–5, Los Angeles: It’s been a flurry of meetings with not enough time to catch many shows. The only things that really stuck in my imagination were Tom Friedman’s new work at Christopher Grimes, and the Gehry model for Disney Concert Hall at MoCA. Made up for it with two memorable dinners, the first night with Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason—they were breathless from having just finished shooting the horse footage for Diana’s upcoming Münster project—and the second with Karen and Paul McCarthy. I’m still amazed that Paul’s work is so deeply polarizing for US audiences, a state of affairs that must chiefly be attributed to his uncanny accuracy at zeroing in on America’s puritanical fear of the body and refusing to let it out of his sight. I am reminded of how disproportionately great the critical support was for our Carolee Schneemann exhibition last fall, especially when weighed against the subsequent fact that no other US museum would book it.

February 21, New York: Two curious studio visits today. First was Frank Schroder, an abstract collagist who showed regularly during the ’80s and now lives in Paris. Besides his studio work, Frank has assembled a pretty sizable collection of portraits of women by minor or anonymous artists up through 1959, which he is now presenting as an ongoing work of art. Although some of the paintings are more interesting than others, the overall effect is provocatively disturbing. Next stop is Bili Bidjocka, an artist from Cameroon who also lives in Paris but who, like Schroder, manages to spend a few months of each year in New York (I find myself wondering if their respective Paris flats are as close as these Tribeca addresses). I’ve seen Bidjocka’s work abroad, and am intrigued by the fact that he seems to represent a new generation of African artists with one foot in the conceptual/installation tradition and the other in the more traditional culture. Bili, like Frank, works by a process of accumulation guided by intuition, and his studio contains a wonderful assortment of prints, found materials, half-finished objects, and other bits and pieces that will slowly take the shape of a future installation.

March 1, New York: I’m bowled over by Esko Mänikkö’s new work at Morris Healy. This Finnish photographer, who captured the world’s attention through his intimate domestic portraits of people in northern Finland, just completed a residency in San Antonio at Art Pace Foundation. Some apprehension had been expressed about whether the intensity of his portraits could be sustained in a place so foreign to his experience, but my sense is that he has even surpassed his early work through a display of remarkable insight and empathy. The other surprising show in town is Hiroshi Sugito’s debut of paintings at Nicole Klagsbrun, which reveals a sensibility close to Milton Avery’s touch and palette applied to comic-like scenes that slowly wind their way back to traditional Japanese landscapes. I’m not sure how relevant it is, but it turns out that Sugito, as a child, spent a few years in the US, and the recent arrival of his work on these shores marks a return after a long absence. Although otherwise completely different, these two shows make me appreciate how complex and intricate artists’ identities have become these days. They may travel more than ever (even more than curators), but they also remain more identifiably local, and there is a certain irony in the way this “local-ness” has become key to maintaining a global outlook.

March 15, New York: I can’t get over how deeply I’m moved by Michael Smith’s collaboration with Joshua White at Lauren Wittels. Not only does the exhibition, which appears as a going-out-of-business sale at a fictitious former light—show company, get to the heart of the transformation from a ’60s countercultural ethic to ’70s disco consumption, it also underscores that the only way businesses in America become a part of cultural history is if they successfully crush their competition—which this lovable outfit could never manage. I’ve experienced this playful melancholy before in Smith’s performance and video work, but never so convincingly on the scale of an installation, and never with such a poignant undertone. Perhaps it’s the proximity of Joshua White’s cultural legacy (as creator of the Filmore East’s famous Joshua’s Light Show) to my own adolescent projections of the counterculture, but the way this piece acts as a metaphor for the disappearance of the “old” SoHo makes it both exhilarating and unbearably sad.

March 19, New York: The Whitney Biennial previewed last night to the usual squeals of pleasure and groans of dismay. The most serious grumblings concern the catalogue, but most of the other complaints seem to be in the I-hate-these-big-shows vein—not a good sign in a Documenta year. My initial impression is that it’s the best-installed Biennial I’ve seen in ages, and refreshingly short on overkill. My second thought is that Louise Neri and Lisa Phillips seem to have used their respective vetoes to curb each other’s idiosyncracies a bit too preemptively, since what’s missing are some of the rough edges that invariably take place when a curator goes out on a limb. My third thought, though, is that the outstanding works are plentiful and carefully prepared, which outweighs virtually any other considerations.

March 29, New York: An uptown-downtown gallery sweep uncovers two gems: Jeanne Silverthorne’s expansive and witty installation at McKee, which brings together a lot of loose threads from her earlier work; and Jane Hammond’s paintings at Luhring Augustine, which push her maximalist aesthetic so far over the top that one spends half one’s time simply trying to untangle the charged relationship between image and material that’s been her hallmark for years.

April 5, New York: I’ve been all over SoHo and Chelsea today, and what stays in my mind most is a show at Anna Kustera of Ron Baron’s towering assemblage-sculptures, whose visual drama comes from the fact that they seem ready to collapse at any moment. In Chelsea, I was unexpectedly moved by Doug Aitken’s filmic environments at 303, especially the cocoonlike space in the back gallery, where the artist projects a numbing futuristic treatment of familial relationships that nevertheless manages to radiate a kind of ironic warmth.

May 10, New York: Spring is hitting with typical exuberance this year, and a number of stunning exhibitions are popping up all over town. There’s a thread of theatricality that ties together Bonnie Collura’s Disney-esque environment at Janice Guy and Lothar Hempel’s scenic deconstructions at Anton Kern. Nedko Solakov’s fairy-tale-like dispersal of cloth toys and figures through giant tree roots suspended from the ceiling at Deitch Projects is both silly and ominous, while Fred Tomaselli’s psychedelic landscape paintings at Tilton seem to finally establish him as perhaps the most inventive painter of his generation. The most moving show of all, however, is Michel Auder’s multimonitor video diary, which covers several years’ worth of material in just over an hour.

June 20–21, Kassel: It’s hard to add more to the Documenta legend than has already been published, but my persistent feeling here is that, despite the presentation of a rigorously intellectual environment in which remarkable discoveries from the ’60s and ’70s can be made, almost everything dating from the last few years seems stilted and decontextualized. My greatest personal disappointment comes from the fact that Catherine David is one of the few European curators who has actually logged in significant time in Latin America and other less-mainstream locations, yet she has produced a relentlessly Eurocentric exhibition. It’s virtually impossible, looking at her distanced and alienating installation of Hélio Oiticica’s work (and the disorganized and fragmentary documentation that accompanies it), to guess how he intended for his parangolé capes to be worn by dancers. Here it looks like a cargo cult in reverse, with the objects being “misappropriated” through the need of the “natives” to gaze on them in the form of a museological display. Also, I’m a bit offended by her antimarket rhetoric, as well as by her rabid anti-Americanism, which feels too much like the nostalgic projections of yet another French intellectual whose politics have not budged an inch since 1968.

June 22–23, Münster: Everyone is calling Kasper König’s “Sculpture Projekte Münster” the antidote to Documenta X, and there is a definite sense that the art looks vital and inventive under his tutelage, as opposed to the bland retreads of Broodthaers and Pistoletto that David seems to prefer. In addition, König seems to have selected the majority of his artists well in advance (in some cases, years before), which means that the works benefit from long preparation and production—none of which is evident in Kassel. Still, despite remarkable projects by Douglas Gordon, Hans Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn, Ilya Kabakov, Jorge Pardo, Allen Ruppersberg, and Diana Thater, among others, one comes away with a sense of things having been made a bit too pleasant and easygoing for the viewer, who is constantly being seduced and repelled by the city’s storybook quaintness. After Kassel and Münster, one is forced to wonder whether there are only two possibilities for art today: a finger-wagging lecture or a stroll in the park.

July 19, Santa Fe: The SITE Santa Fe Biennial may not have the prestige of the Carnegie International—the only other regular international show in the US—but it more than makes up for it this year in freshness of selection and design. Curator Francesco Bonami has called his production “TRUCE,” and focused his attention on artists who are little known in New York, much less the Southwest. Jaan Toomik, Maurizio Cattelan, Miguel Rio Branco, Tracey Moffatt (how quickly things change), Suchan Kinoshita, Eulàlia Valldosera, Kevin Hanley, and Olafur Eliasson (to name a handful) may not be household names yet, but for this reason the audience here seems more inclined to remain open to their work. In addition, Bonami has created a tight but fluid installation that allows each artist to create a stimulating dialogue with his or her neighbors, while maintaining enough visual autonomy to give a clear sense of what the work is about. One can only dream that the next Carnegie will be less starstruck than its 1995 version.

September 19, Las Palmas: I’m here in the Canary Islands to view a miniglobal exhibition, if such a thing can be imagined. Entitled “Islas,” Portuguese for “islands,” the show, organized by Orlando Brito, brings together two dozen artists from islands around the world (Manhattan is represented by Barbara Ess and Toland Grinnell), offering a peculiar, margins-first aesthetic that uncovers a few surprises in its sweep. Jacqueline Fraser of New Zealand has created a beautiful, closetlike environment of cloth deities that remind one of shadow puppetry and child’s fantasy, while Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal of Cuba has produced a smallish wooden standing figure, equal parts defiant warrior and introspective muse, surrounded by crushed glass. Although the exhibition is definitely a mixed bag—Grinnell, Willie Doherty (Ireland), and Marcos Lora Read (Dominican Republic) are the other standouts—the show demonstrates that even a narrow thematic focus can sometimes lead to broad artistic results.

October 15, Johannesburg: It’s the third day after the opening of the second Johannesburg Biennial, and it’s a profound relief to be able to report that this is the artistic payoff that everyone who’s been traipsing the globe this year has been waiting for. Realized under extraordinary conditions—support from the cultural authorities seems more symbolic than real, the skeletal support staff is more overworked than any I’ve encountered before, and conditions surrounding the downtown site lend the whole proceedings a bunkerlike mentality—“Trade Routes: History and Geography” is the first global exhibition to transform the promise of postcolonial theory into a tangible reality, thereby almost completely exorcising the ghost of 1989’s “Magiciens de la terre” from the curatorial lexicon. New York–based curator Okwui Enwezor has wisely spread the work out among a team of six additional curators, each with his or her own site. The sprawling core exhibition, “Alternating Currents,” with over sixty-five artists from every part of the world, has been organized by Enwezor and New York–based curator Octavio Zaya. Satellite exhibitions including another seventy artists in Johannesburg and Cape Town have been organized by the Paris–based Chinese curator Hou Hanru; the Walker Art Center’s Kellie Jones; PLEXUS founder Yu Yeon Kim, who is based in New York and Seoul; Gerardo Mosquera (my colleague at the New Museum), and Colin Richards, the sole South African on the team. The scale and breadth of this exhibition enables the most intrepid viewers to immerse themselves for an entire week in what may turn out to be the most important exhibition of the ’90s. Why is Johannesburg II such a triumph? Part of it has to do with the fact that Enwezor, originally from Nigeria, is thoroughly immersed in both scholarly issues and the art of the African diaspora. Unlike comparable projects in the US and Europe, however, race becomes more subtext than excuse, reflecting the fact that the hotbeds of intersecting cultural drives in the most vital artistic centers today (London, New York) are producing innumerable hybrid positions. Thus, the links between, for example, Pepón Osorio’s deeply moving Badge of Honor installation, in which an incarcerated father “talks” to his teenage son via synchronized video monitors, and a work like William Kentridge’s hair-raising Ubu Tells the Truth, an animated film about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stem not from political issues per se but from the rawness of human expression at the heart of all identity-driven debates. There are any number of memorable projects; from “Alternating Currents” alone came stunning works by Mario Benjamin (from Haiti); Andries Botha, Malcolm Payne, Kendell Geers, Sue Williamson, and Pat Mautloa (from South Africa); Sergio Vega (Argentina); Stan Douglas (Canada); Isaac Julien (UK); Marko Peljhan (Slovenia); Touhami Ennadre (Morocco); Salem Mekouria (Ethiopia); Bili Bidjocka (Cameroon); Shirin Neshat (Iran); Rivane Neuenschwander (Brazil); Teresa Serrano (Mexico); and Beat Streuli (Switzerland). As one makes one’s way through these and other works, it’s impossible to deny the growing awareness that global art has finally passed from pipe dream to the paradigm of our times. If it seems at all strange for a New York curator to glimpse the future of contemporary art at the southern tip of Africa, perhaps that is because no seismic changes can be registered at the center anymore. Rather, the kinds of artistic change promised over the past decade must take place through a slow process of assimilation, by which the center learns of its own peripheral status through the gradual shock of a more equitable system of universal recognition.