PRINT October 2018



Balloonfest ’86, Cleveland, September 27, 1986. Photo: Thom Sheridan.

IN SEPTEMBER 1986, the United Way of Greater Cleveland released nearly 1.5 million helium-filled balloons into the atmosphere in an effort to celebrate the city, raise funds, and break a world record. A crowd of onlookers cheered as the mass of multicolored latex orbs ascended like a fantastic murmuration of starlings. They engulfed the city’s iconic Terminal Tower before beginning to disperse. But weather conditions soon changed, causing the inflated balloons to drop from the sky, and they slowly rained down on the city like comedic fire and brimstone; they are believed to have contributed to the deaths of two missing fishermen, the search for whom was hindered by the hundreds of thousands of balloons that landed on the waters of Lake Erie.

There is an emptiness in the city, a vacancy that corresponded to
an absence of the human form in many of the triennial’s works.

The balloon stunt, which reportedly cost $500,000 to stage, was a shrinking city’s exuberant, if desperate, plea for positive attention. By the 1980s, Cleveland’s population had decreased by roughly one-third from its peak in the ’50s. Numbers continue to dwindle today, and the local urban ecology reflects this trend. Entire blocks where homes once stood are vacant; a disproportionate percentage of children live in poverty relative to national averages; and parts of the city are so-called food deserts, where people lack easy access to fresh produce. The organizers of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art sought to give prominence to Cleveland with “An American City,” its inaugural edition, which brought the work of more than one hundred artists to twenty-plus venues throughout northeast Ohio. Quite unlike the balloon debacle, the show’s offerings—which included exhibitions, a film series, community conversations, and artist residencies—were refreshingly unspectacular, providing a sober view that revealed the complex web of social, political, and historical forces that give shape to this Midwestern urban center.

Cyprien Gaillard, Nightlife, 2015, 3-D HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes 56 seconds.

The city’s recent past occupied a central role in Michael Rakowitz’s A Color Removed, 2017–18. The work began with the artist’s entreaty that the color orange be removed from Cleveland’s public spaces to honor the death of Tamir Rice, who, at age twelve, was shot and killed in broad daylight in a park adjacent to an elementary school by a police officer who claimed to have mistaken his toy gun—with its orange safety tip removed—for an actual weapon. During the triennial, Rakowitz invited community members to deposit orange items in collection bins at cultural institutions and nonprofit organizations located throughout the city. Next, these items were haphazardly displayed on the walls and floor and on shelves at the Cleveland gallery SPACES. The white-box interior took on a vibrant orange color as everything from life vests and earplugs to parking violations and traffic cones accumulated over the course of the exhibition. The venue also hosted community discussions about racism, policing, and militarization, for which recipes derived from Tamir Rice’s favorite meals were used to prepare food in a temporary kitchen. These conversations framed state violence as a transnational concern; indeed, the collection bin outside SPACES read CLEVELAND IS RAMALLAH, IS FERGUSON, IS SOWETO, IS KABUL, IS BELFAST, IS BAGHDAD, IS STANDING ROCK, IS SYDNEY, IS BETHLEHEM. . . . Rakowitz’s work cuts close to the bone. And the impossibility of its premise—of entirely removing a color from an environment—induces lingering effects. After one left the gallery, it was difficult not to notice the otherwise inconspicuous orange objects that dot Cleveland’s urban landscape, such as the city’s seventeen thousand fire hydrants. The size of a small child, they also seem strangely vulnerable, standing precariously close to traffic along formerly grand boulevards.

Dawoud Bey, Night Coming Tenderly, Black: Untitled #3 (Cozad-Bates House), 2017, ink-jet print, 30 × 40".

Like other artists in the show—including Yinka Shonibare MBE and Philip Vanderhyden, at the Cleveland Public Library and Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, respectively—Dawoud Bey integrated his work, Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017/2018, with a socially charged site: Saint John’s Episcopal Church, thought to have been a station along the Underground Railroad in antebellum Ohio, where fugitive slaves hid before crossing Lake Erie to freedom in Canada. Bey drew on the poetry of Langston Hughes, a graduate of Cleveland’s first public high school, and the low-key photographs of Roy DeCarava in conceiving fourteen images of real and imaginary landscapes encountered by clandestine passengers traveling under cover of darkness. Some of Bey’s pictures, which were suspended throughout the church’s sunlit nave, are so dark that one needed to move into the pews and sit before them to discern their subjects: a farmhouse seen through a grove, a marshy landscape, a shoreline. Bey thus insisted that one face the church sanctuary—like a parishioner—and simultaneously obscured one’s view of it. Like Rakowitz, Bey directed the viewer’s perspective, in this case, toward the abolitionist significance of the region, its necessarily elusive history, and the darkness that so often comes before safety.

Josh Kline, Civil War, 2017, polymerized gypsum, sand, gravel, urethane foam, steel, acrylic. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Photo: Field Studio.

Local markers obliquely associated with racial politics also assume a starring role in Cyprien Gaillard’s nearly fifteen-minute 3-D video Nightlife, 2015, displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Rather than the eerie stillness of Bey’s subdued photographs, Gaillard’s work possesses a peculiar rhythm. Junipers and Strelitzia bounce and sway as if dancing to the hypnotic soundtrack, which is largely composed of Gaillard’s repeated manipulation of a sample from Alton Ellis’s rocksteady track “Black Man’s World” (a snippet that was itself sampled from Derrick Harriott’s 1967 song “The Loser”). Nightlife is unapologetically lush and sensual. Indeed, it affords its audience raw sensory pleasure to a degree only matched, within the triennial, by John Riepenhoff’s delectable Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst, 2018, a commissioned sausage made with local chef Jeremy Umansky from ingredients either grown at an urban farm or sold at the city’s famous West Side Market. Other works on view, such as the piles of consumer debris that make up Josh Kline’s dystopian Civil War, 2017, at MOCA Cleveland, were far drearier. Gaillard’s film is also on point. The first and last of its four parts consist of aerial shots of Cleveland. In the opening sequence, the camera traces the damaged contours of Rodin’s The Thinker, 1880–81, installed in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The cast-bronze sculpture was partly destroyed in 1970 by a bomb allegedly made by the Weather Underground Organization, a group allied with the Black Panther Party. In the film’s final sequence, the camera captures the spotlit, windswept movement of the so-called Olympic oak that stands outside Ford Rhodes High School. The tree is one of four saplings that were presented to the Cleveland-raised Jesse Owens after he won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where he came to symbolize resistance to the racism of Nazi Germany. Yet it was not until 1945, and legislation subsequent to the creation of the Cleveland Community Relations Board, that racist and segregationist policies at home began to loosen. Then as now, Owens’s oak tree—an emblem of endurance—and Rodin’s manifestation of the dialects of physical strength and introspection bear witness to dramatic civic and cultural change.

Barbara Bloom, THE RENDERING (H X W X D =), 2018, mixed media. Installation view, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, OH. Photo: Field Studio.

Still, there is an emptiness in the city, a vacancy that corresponded to an absence of the human form in many of the triennial’s works. (Noteworthy exceptions included pieces by Kerry James Marshall and Martine Syms.) Although the art of Rakowitz, Shonibare, Bey, and Gaillard undeniably concerned people, they were unpopulated. Likewise, Barbara Bloom’s conceptually rich THE RENDERING (H x W x D =), 2018, featured a suite of paintings and prints, borrowed from the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Ohio’s Oberlin College, with all but the architectural elements in most masked out. With merrymakers shielded from our view by a panel, we saw only the triumphal arch that occupies the background of Jan Weenix’s Decorative Panel with a Musical Party, ca. 1700. And Jessica Vaughn, whose After Willis (rubbed, used and moved) #007, 2017, was among a conspicuously small number of works made by women artists—let alone by women of color—in a show ostensibly about an American city, used retired Chicago Transit Authority seats in her piece at the Akron Art Museum. These stand-ins registered traces of hundreds of thousands of people who once moved through the circuits of urban space. Despite the triennial’s earnest intentions, the fact that roughly two-thirds of the artists involved were men gives one pause. If, as the organizers contend, rethinking the periodic exhibition as a genre was among the enterprise’s broadly cast and, at times, inconsistent goals, this absence revealed more serious—and all too familiar—problems at the core.

Jeffrey Saletnik is an art historian. He teaches at Indiana University Bloomington.