Santa Fe

“Site Santa Fe”

New Mexico has always been about tourists—one way or another. It was settled by them, and kept alive economically for centuries (Spaniards, Old Mexicans, Texans, and Californians, in order of appearance). So it’s fitting, in a way, that “SITE Santa Fe,” Santa Fe’s new biennial, was curated by tourists (Bruce Ferguson and Vincent Varga) for tourists (the “contemporary art world,” whoever that is nowadays). And since “place” seems to be the theme of choice for international-scale exhibitions this year, “SITE Santa Fe” carries the subtitle “Longing and Belonging: From the Faraway Nearby.” Which serves to locate the whole thing squarely in the midst of a larger discourse, about, among other things, being a tourist. Or at least feeling like one.

So it’s also fitting that much of the best work in “Longing and Belonging” is actually about that peculiar activity of going from one place to another with no intention other than surveying the flora and fuana. Carlos Capelán’s fake museum installation gives one a sense of what it’s like to actually live in a “tourist destination,” where the feeling that you’re just part of the attractions is occasionally overwhelming. Chie Matsui’s installation works a similar vein, reproducing that ’70s funk retro attempt to break with “Santa Fe Style”: big cubes with little round mirrors, bright-red paint, and fun fur. Imre Bukta’s installation of railroad ties, figures skating, and photos is definitely sweet, hovering in that space between “quaint” and “lovely,” just like an actual tourist spot. Bruce Nauman’s piece pretty exactly reproduces the experience of dealing with tourists in the New Age capitol of the world. In one room, two video monitors emit an endless discussion about talking and listening, only completely out of synch. But it was Tseng Kwong-Chi’s self-portraits that seemed to be most emblematic of “SITE Santa Fe’s” best intentions.

Tseng was a tourist for a living, cruising around from one horrible tourist trap to another, snapping photos of himself in Velvet Underground-style wraparound shades and a Mao suit. The photos look great here, reading as a kind of touristic Chinese nesting egg: layer upon layer of intricate, filigreed claptrap with a tiny empty space at the center. Except that here, the empty place in the middle is staring back at you staring at it.

In the end though, you got that feeling a lot actually—empty I mean—walking around the “SITE Santa Fe” exhibition halls. The show as a whole had a cynical feel to it, as though it had been curated by someone rounding up all the usual suspects, shaking well, and then wedging the whole thing under the umbrella of the fashionable issue of the moment. All of the artists in the show are old hands at this by now—they do what they do, and the fact that they’ve been in similar events is enough to justify their presence in this one. The same goes for the curator: it’s as if Ferguson figured that by coming up with a sufficently vague idea, he could justify any choice he made. Especially out here in the sticks. This is the kind of thinking that leads to moves as cynical as putting Andres Serrano’s already abject “Nomads” photos in the same room as Edward Curtis’ equally dubious “Indian” photos. And then trying to palm the whole thing off as something new: you might have gotten away with stuff like this years ago, back when there really were hick towns, but not when the faraway is already too nearby, and especially not when you’re pitching your work to the international floating cocktail party that currently constitutes the art world.

Mark Van de Walle