“No Place (Like Home)”

As implied by the cover image of its catalogue—a bird’s-eye-view of a suburban housing development, juxtaposed with a separate picture of clouds—“no place (like home)” aimed to unmoor comfortable museum-goers from their familiar notions of home and set them floating off to other worlds. But this was no flight of fancy; curator Richard Flood’s mission was to show the irrevocable global effects of technology, geopolitics, and the media. Then there’s social alienation and political upheaval, racial conflicts and cultural displacement, the lure of nostalgia, the vagaries of memory, the powerful perversions of history: a veritable grand tour of late-twentieth-century anomie. Paradoxically, the exhibit itself, with just eight artists, felt rather thin (unlike the curator’s last big splash at the Walker, “‘Brilliant!’ New Art from London,” which crowded installations from twenty-two artists into the same three galleries).

Kara Walker’s cyclorama installation was one of many commissioned for the show, and one of few that successfully lived up to this unwieldy theme. It was, of course, another installment in the artist’s narrative created from saucy-but-savage nineteenth-century-style silhouetted cutouts. Bristling with contradictions and cheap titillation, it was at once repulsive and irresistible, engaging the viewer in the same manner as a roadside disaster.

The work from Nick Deocampo and Willie Doherty is rooted in the contemporary upheaval of their homelands, the Philippines and Northern Ireland, respectively. Deocampo’s films are, in their own low-tech way, multifaceted and ambitious enough to match the complexity of “no place (like home).” A rough mix of documentary and allegory, fact and fiction, past and present, they portray Filipinos desperately eking out an existence in a place where hopelessness seems to be the norm. It’s not just their lives that are on display, however, but their stories, as well as the history of a country beaten down by centuries of colonialism. Doherty’s depopulated landscapes are charged with the physical and psychological residue of the war in and around Derry; their lush color and high-gloss format, reminiscent of commercial photojournalism, is overlaid with a vaguely sinister pall of dark-purplish tones. No Smoke Without Fire, 1994, his large-scale projected video, is like an evil funhouse gimmick, putting the viewer in the place of the cameraman tramping through nighttime fields like a fugitive, or a paranoid seeker of something unknown.

Like Doherty’s work, South African artist Kay Hassan’s installations also have a distinct sense of absence. Migrant Worker’s Quarters, 1997, re-created the cramped, lonely room of a migrant worker; Esiphothini (Shebeen), 1997, a meticulous simulacrum of a shebeen, a kind of South African domestic speakeasy, was replete with empty beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays, and the sounds of pop music and partyers’ voices. But for all their vérité, the effect was predictable; though they may have seemed far from the sumptuous period rooms of historical museums, Hassan’s re-creations were just as conservatively didactic. On the other hand, Zarina Bhimji, best known for her installations that question the racism of nineteenth-century eugenics, offered the most enigmatic work in the show with six light-boxed transparencies that were almost overwhelmed by their dimly lit surroundings. It was as if an opaque barrier of Theory had been thrown up between the luminous photographs (all 1997), their titles, and the viewer: three octopi spread across what looks like a fake alligator skin (a woman with loose guts in her hands); a gruesome pair of disembodied feet, submerged in a tank of formaldehyde (the terror was so strong). Only pleasure deferred (woman with towel) registered any gut-level reaction: drenched in a dreamy blue, its image of treelike clumps (petals and a hairnet) on a rubber surface is a kind of inner landscape, intimate and expansive at the same time.

Meyer Vaisman’s installation was also problematic. A doorless, windowless shanty with peephole views that look into a hallway (actually lifted from the home of Vaisman’s parents, who migrated to Caracas, Venezuela, from Eastern Europe), it employed the easy seduction of the viewer-as-voyeur, but never effectively followed through on the issues raised by wrapping a bourgeois interior in a shanty shell. Moreover, Vaisman modified the installation to indulge an irrelevant observation about the supposed similarity between Venezuelan shanties and a type of Minnesotan architecture: this 1997 incarnation was dubbed Green on the Outside and Red on the Inside (My Parents’ Closet) MN Ice Fishin’ House Version. (No place like home, indeed: Vaisman’s gesture was the only hint that the show was located in Minneapolis, rather than Moscow or Missoula.) Kcho’s El Camino de la nostalgia (The road of nostalgia, 1994–95) is a reconstructed dock; in this frosty white gallery setting, the piece looked remarkable only to the extent that it seemed out-of-place. The artist’s other “installation,” Memoria construida (Constructed memory, 1989– )—a series of thirteen sheaves of drawings with a “Do Not Touch” sign and a few sets of photocopies available for browsing nearby—would seem lazy even in a coffee-shop exhibit.

Finally, Time Peace and Home and Away (both 1997), two massive slate paintings by Gary Simmons, were almost too easily elegiac for this show; the juxtaposition of their cool, dusky blue surfaces with the rough-hewn naiveté of Kcho’s piece in the same gallery rubbed the wrong way. Given the unwieldy curatorial theme, “no place (like home)” as a whole felt similarly disjointed, as if the artists’ “very different sensibilities” were an excuse for the show’s lack of coherence. One wonders whether Simmons, who opined in his catalogue interview that thematic shows “almost always do a disservice to the artist,” had “no place (like home)” in mind.

Julie Caniglia