PRINT September 1999

Focus Preview

Michael Brenson talks with Madeleine Grynsztejn

IT MAY SEEM MADELEINE GRYNSZTEJN has lived her entire life in preparation for the 1999 Carnegie International. Born in Lima, raised in Caracas by her Hungarian-born mother and Polish-born father, who worked as an engineer for Royal Dutch Shell, the thirty-seven-year-old curator grew up speaking Spanish and learned English in a Dutch school. Between the ages of ten and thirteen she lived in London, then returned to Caracas before moving to the United States in 1976. Grynsztejn entered Tulane University in New Orleans as a painter and printmaker but ultimately pursued a degree in art history. Her master’s thesis at Columbia University explored the connection between luminism and Eastern thought. Clearly, translation and transmigration, two concerns underlying the Carnegie International that will go on view on November 6, are issues with which Grynsztejn has long been familiar.

Grynsztejn began work in 1986 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, where she curated solo shows of Jeff Wall and Celia Muñoz and, with that city’s Centro Cultural de la Raza, helped organize “La Frontera = The Border: Art About the Mexico/United States Border Experience,” one of the defining exhibitions of the multicultural moment of the early ’90s. As a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1992 to 1996, she organized “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” and continued to devote as much attention to north-south artistic currents as she did to those flowing east and west.

Grynsztejn began work at the Carnegie in early 1997. Her researches for the fifty-third installment of the International have taken her to nearly thirty countries and some two hundred studios. Time spent on the road (“a four-week-at-home, three-week-away” cycle, she says) helped her understand the nomadic lives of many of the artists in her show. Struggling with what it means to cross cultures and inhabit multiple notions of space and time has been part of her working process. “What happens in translation has become terribly important to me. It’s at the center, not at the margins, of many lives.”

Michael Brenson

MICHAEL BRENSON: When previous curators organized the Carnegie International, there was no field of large international contemporary art exhibitions. How has this burgeoning area affected your thinking about the Carnegie?

MADELEINE GRYNSZTEJN: The year I started my research, 1997, I believe there were thirteen international exhibitions; I saw twelve in 1997 and 1998. What became clear was that these exhibitions could only be differentiated along interpretive lines. With the growing number of channels for the distribution of art, it’s hardly possible to present “discoveries.” I think one of the tasks of the curator is to be a translator—for art, and for the moment. The International lends itself to that, paradoxically, because of its fairly traditional structure. It’s curated by a single person and is relatively small, with forty artists versus, say, ninety-nine. This allows for a strong interpretative framework that may not be feasible in larger exhibitions.

MB: What makes this your show?

MG: I arrived at the thematic by looking at art and speaking with artists all over the world, and by thinking about what had reached a point of saturation in our culture since the last Carnegie in 1995. It seems to me that the most compelling work today takes the form of a Conceptually oriented realism, the active engagement of the viewer, and the slippage between reality and fiction that is deliberately fostered in artworks.

MB: What do you mean by “Conceptually oriented realism”?

MG: It’s not realism in the traditional sense of the word, that is, either a literal transcription of the visual world or a kind of anthropology of the present. I’m not making an argument for an essentialist or authentic notion of the real. Rather, the philosophical interrogation of our relation to reality seems to be an urgent concern of an entire generation. Realism today is defined in several ways. One is via a phenomenological approach—where environments solicit a heightened level of somatic participation on the spectator’s part. Examples would be work by Diana Thater and the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. For the International, he plans a room situated inside one of our galleries, a large membrane-like compartment that you can walk into, push, pull, and touch.

MB: Why is this realism?

MG: Neto’s work reengages us with the world in a visceral way. The work is as much about how we act on the material as it is about what the piece becomes in being affected. There’s a loosening of the separation between viewer and object that affirms a kind of experiential plenitude.

MB: Is it possible to talk about how these artists experience the relationship among the mass media, digital technology, and reality?

MG: It’s not just that the digital era constantly recasts our modes of perceiving and conveying reality, but that reality itself is more and more constituted by technology. These artists recognize that the real is an endless permutation of different realities—and, at the same time, they resist the complete dissolution of reality into received imagery that is one heritage of postmodern practice.

MB: I’m still struggling to understand what you mean by “realism” and “real”?

MG: Olafur Eliasson’s work is an example of what I see as one of the ways in which post-Conceptual realism is being approached today. His work is grounded in actual phenomena—he uses ice, steam, and light to create environments experienced in real time and space. There is another grouping of artists who approach the real through an emphasis on labor, materiality, and craft. That insistence on material lends the work a sense of absolute presence that generates a concomitant attentiveness in the viewer. Gregor Schneider is an example. He reconstructs rooms in his house outside Cologne, and there’s an uncanniness about his complete refabrication of these spaces—down to the carpet and the handle—that subsequently makes you that much more aware of your own surroundings. A third approach is defined by work that deliberately creates rifts between the real and the fictive. For example, Thomas Demand creates epic-size photographs of three-dimensional life-size sets that he builds in his studios, which are, in turn, based on photographs he culls from the mass media. So here is an image four times removed from reality—and in being four times removed, it calls attention to what is real and what isn’t. Demand belongs to a generation who grew up with the mass media and are less cynical critics of it than they are active creators. They’re not reproducing, they’re producing. And they’re making sure you know they’re producing, because nearly all these artists deliberately and willfully expose the means of their fabrication.

MB: From your description, one could just as easily conclude that things are so mediated that to attempt to reach a point one could describe as “real” is futile.

MG: The work is not about origins. It’s about process. Pierre Huyghe, for example, suspends a conclusion for as long as possible. It is this process of negotiation and not one settled end point that interests these artists: They stretch the moment of closure. And that is the moment—between phenomenon and final resolution—where there is play and translation, interpretation and transformation. This is the crucial space for many artists today and the arena they wish their audiences to inhabit.

MB: So that moment is the real? That moment, or space, is what allows viewers to create for themselves something that can be experienced as real?

MG: Precisely. This in-between space is the space of process, the space of creativity—the space of agency, where viewers make themselves and their world real.

MB: How does the world exist for these artists?

MG: As a process of constant transformation. Gabriel Orozco’s work exemplifies this. Visually and often in terms of its literal construction, it stands at the threshold of transformation, if not disintegration. It welcomes change, often through the viewer’s active involvement. His work, like Huyghe’s or Janet Cardiff’s, is arrived at with great economy, involving very slight shifts from the “original.” Whether the source material is a film or a Ping-Pong table, the artwork registers a doubling, or a slowing down, or an interpolation, that shifts our understanding of the world and our place in it. What is important to these artists is that meaning can still be generated through making: that the image, precisely through its incompletion and open-endedness, may contain the capacity to reconnect rather than alienate. Certainly it’s understood that reality is to a great extent a social construct—but one that we have the freedom to manipulate and give multiple meaning to. It’s the emphasis on the latter, the welcome entry of fiction into a critique of representation, that defines much of this work.

MB: How did we get here?

MG: I think the lessons of postmodernism have been absorbed, transfigured and renewed, as have the lessons, to a great extent, of multiculturalism and of institutional critique. Perhaps multiculturalism’s most important contribution was to establish a political awareness of point of view—an awareness of who speaks, and who remains voiceless. One could argue that multicultural practices inform the thrust toward engagement-oriented art today; it’s one way in which the “other” is no longer mute.

MB: How important to you is the international art community compared with the communities in Pittsburgh who are not versed in an international art language?

MG: They’re equally important. I have to speak to both of them.

MB: How do you speak to your local communities?

MG: I have been doing a great deal in advance. I think preparation eases the entry of the public into the experience of the exhibition. Because then it’s not about the shock of the new—it’s about recognition, and the subsequent ability to be more open. While an art-historical background and an understanding of the artist’s trajectory will certainly enhance the experience, a good dose of empathy will go a long way. The International has been in place for 103 years. I have the enormous advantage of a community that considers this exhibition its own, and that considers it part of Pittsburgh’s history.

MB: Can we talk about the ideological dimension of the work in your show?

MG: The artworks are grounded in the creation of a viewing subject who is also a critical producer. They encourage new forms of productive spectatorship. The dynamic generated between artwork and observer is like a call to action in docile times. The work reflects on our contemporary condition as being both embedded and virtual, actual and digital. Video projection exemplifies this condition. Another due to the ideology of these works is that they reflect the grafting of the local and the global. Many of the artworks demonstrate a transnational aesthetic. They point to an unprecedented mobility, unprecedented channels of communication.

MB: Which you celebrate?

MG: Rather, it is critically investigated. Shirin Neshat, for example, is planning a kind of visual essay for the International on the condition of circulating between East and West. It’s important to recognize that her work does not support some idea of globalism but is about being in-between.

MB: International exhibitions seem to create spaces that could easily reinforce global corporate interests by making everything seem compatible, by destroying any sense of absolute difference. Is it possible to resist those interests when international exhibitions depend on massive corporate backing?

MG: Yes. Every artist brings lived, local concerns to the international arena, creating a strategic transnational forum made up of a concentration of “locals”—to paraphrase Saskia Sassen—an interstitial space of vernacular and global. Difference can be recovered in this way. And resistance to globalism is enacted by art in a twofold approach involving agency and vulnerability—both of which undermine the seamlessness of the global and the digital. It’s also important to recognize that globalization is not all-encompassing: It does not manifest itself evenly across time and place, as Sassen and Jonathan Crary have pointed out. Artworks remind us that the global is rooted in the local and is constantly reconfigured by local stresses.

MB: How do they do that?

MG: Look at Willie Doherty’s work. For the International he is presenting a piece made up of four video screens that cannot be seen simultaneously from a single vantage point. This physical construct conveys in metaphorical terms the difficulty of occupying more than one point of view, a reflection on the larger situation in Northern Ireland, where Willie is from.

MB: Can we use the word “resistance” for the artists in your show?

MG: I find resistance in work that shows its seams, that undermines authority through “flawed” mechanisms. These artists, who slip and shift things just slightly, make us think about; and resist, the kind of passivity that’s generated by a seamless mass media. Huyghe, Demand, Doherty, Sarah Sze, Chris Ofili, Luc Tuymans deliberately work against the grain of the mass media by refusing that kind of “high resolution.”

MB: These artists do not seem immediately interested in making audiences uncomfortable or angry.

MG: The work has better things to do than to give us a hard time, but many of these pieces, such as Kara Walker’s or Kendell Geers’s, tell tough stories that shift one’s point of view, an act that can be initially uncomfortable. These artists mix fiction with reality and position us both within and outside reality. Their work gives us an instance of freedom by way of a self-awareness that is a deeply ethical gesture

MB: How do you see William Kentridge in relation to this?

MG: He has taken the vocabulary of film and brought it to a very human, handheld level. You can see the movement of the hand, his reach in space, the intense focus of the imagination, and the time spent. It has the effect of slowing you down to its time. And that is the perfect example of a kind of politics inherent in work of the present that quietly but definitively subverts the corporate global information network. Like much of the work in the International, it may be antimonumental, but it’s far from benign.

MB: What kind of impact can this work have?

MG: When the spectator allows him- or herself to be open to the object, the possibility of radical change exists. Ultimately what is at stake is the extension of individual human agency and subjective experience, and the increase in the ability to directly act upon and influence one’s life. The challenge lies in how to elicit new formations of meaning within given circumstances.

Michael Brenson is a freelance art critic living in New York.



Franz Ackermann
Matthew Barney
Janet Cardiff
John Currin
Hanne Darboven
Thomas Demand
Mark Dion
Willie Doherty
Olafur Eliasson
Kendell Geers
Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Ann Hamilton
José Antonio Hernández-Diez
Pierre Huyghe
Alex Katz
William Kentridge
Bodys Isek Kingelez
Suchan Kinoshita
Martin Kippenberger
Kerry James Marshall
Takashi Murakami
Shirin Neshat
Ernesto Neto
Chris Ofili
Gabriel Orozco
Markéta Othová
Laura Owens
Edward Ruscha
Gregor Schneider
Ann-Sofi Sidén
Roman Signer
Sarah Sze
Sam Taylor-Wood
Nahum Tevet
Diana Thater
Luc Tuymans
Kara Walker
Jeff Wall
Jane and Louise Wilson
Chen Zhen