“About Place: Recent Art of the Americas”

In 1888, the Art Institute of Chicago inaugurated “The American Exhibition,” an event designed to bring contemporary art to midwestern audiences. If this influential show (for many years a biannual event) has an institutional counterpart, it’s the Whitney Biennial, although in look and conception the 1995 versions of these two exhibitions could not have been more dissimilar.

The title of the 76th incarnation of “The American Exhibition,” “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas,” signaled not only geographic expansion (artists from Canada and South America were included for the first time) but also a specific theme—place as body and home, nature and geography. Curator Madeleine Grynstejn’s laudable objective was to assemble a cross-generational ensemble of works that varied in style from Brice Marden’s classical abstraction to Doris Salcedo’s shoe mausoleums. Rather than becoming enmeshed in the predictable politics of sexual, racial, and national identities, Grynstejn, who was born in Venezuela, attempted to construct something more difficult and finally elusive: a poetics of place.

What marked this end-of-the-century summation was the migratory character of many contemporary artists as well as the revolutionary shifts in collective national identities characteristic of our postcolonial age. Bolstered by numerous citations from sources as diverse as Maurice Blanchot, Jorge Luis Borges, Michel Foucault, bell hooks, James Joyce, and Wallace Stevens, the essay focused on issues of transnationalism and translation. Highly self-conscious, this balanced exhibition was so carefully contextualized that crude catchwords like multiculturalism and post-Modernism were insufficient to describe the show’s apparent yearning to locate, if not to recapture, some shared notion of esthetic experience.

Here at last was a show where artists came first: nearly all 16 were able to install their work in an individual gallery. The sequence of the works charted an ambulating narrative of global contingencies, insights into an art world whose borders have already been breached and eroded by demands for broader inclusion. Identity, like location, proved to be relational; for example, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ elegiac light-bulb festoons commemorated loss, while Andrea Zittel’s clever domestic modules ironically reflected an efficient Modernism. Vija Celmins’ intimate paintings of vast spaces represented the pictorial transformation of material observation, Marden’s imposing canvasses stood for New York abstraction, and Jeff Wall’s back-lit Cibachromes depicted North American reenactments of the power politics of art history.

In the room adjacent to Gonzalez-Torres’ dim memorial, hung Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of the failed utopias of Chicago Public Housing projects populated by powerful African-Americans who seemed lit up with energy, anger, and possibility. Rodney Graham’s huge, upsidedown, sepia-toned photographs of giant cedars from his native Stanley Park in Canada were displayed in the gallery next to Marden’s looping, colored streamers. In another gallery, seemingly dedicated to ideas of cultural migration or transportation, Jac Leimer’s endless strings of stolen airline flatware and devalued currency were shown with Eugenio Dittborn’s airmail paintings. Together, these read as fragments of a nonlinear history, letters from home to the museum. In particular, Dittborn’s images, collaged from Seurat’s Grande Jatte, meditate on the distant realities of Chile and France in the 19th century and illustrate the absurdity of cultural consumerism. Not only artists, but theories and curators are on the move now, traveling on roads such as the ones that crisscross the upholstered maps of Guillermo Kuitca, as if to emphasize the necessity for trade between cultural capitals. In one of the few animated works—Ann Hamilton’s installation of filmy, floor-to-ceiling curtains on a track that moved around the perimeter of a long narrow room—viewers entered a dreamlike space in which bells were rung every five seconds by a young woman, a “conductor” in charge of both ringing and counting.

The success of this “American Exhibition” was the creation of an illusion—an illusion of hemispheric unity, of the museum as a place where the foreign and the political become familiar and diffused. Yet the paradoxes of this exhibition are obvious: on the one hand, extending a major exhibition beyond national concerns to begin a global dialogue is a bold gesture; on the other hand, only an institution dedicated to encyclopedic collections can afford to undertake such an effort. This essential paradox was dramatized when Anna Deveare Smith performed in the museum for two hours to a packed house. With her sharp-tongued immediacy and talent for exposing the most illuminating moments of urban racial stereotypes, Smith’s self-narration placed the dialogues so gently represented in the exhibition into high relief. In the exhibition proper, the incompatibilities in expression, style, and voice easily slipped into an international post-Modern esthetic that arises, in part, from the institutional compatibility of contemporary art. The show presented no real clash of cultures, no loud debate about imperialism, but, rather, a kind of United Nations where more voices, more politics than usual inform the discussion.

Major museums are constituted to be the guardians and interpreters of culture; the transported tarpaulins of Dittborn, like the Dutch masters and French Impressionists in the Art Institute, are part of the historically displaced and geographically dislocated patrimony of other civilizations. In the end, this grandly titled exhibition served its many masters and their conventional goals appropriately. What “About Place” did was confront the museological limitations of collection and display, value and status; its success was how well it told us about our place, the museum.

Judith Russi Kirshner