Santa Fe

“Looking for a Place”

SITE Santa Fe

Visitors to Santa Fe who like to take their high culture with a heaping spoonful of counterculture probably came away from the Third International SITE Santa Fe Biennial with a lot to ponder. Organized by Rosa Martínez under the dreamy rubric “Looking for a Place,” the exhibition projected a consistent, provocatively idealistic tone that proved infectious to the participating artists and most local viewers. Still, it was not as immediately user-friendly as the previous editions, and the confrontations it provoked were not meant to be brushed off lightly. In this sense, the biennial was closer in spirit to such landmark site-specific projects as curator Mary Jane Jacob’s 1991 Charleston exhibition, “Places with a Past,” than to conventional museum surveys.

The difference in Martínez’s approach became evident the moment you entered SITE Santa Fe’s premises. A photomural of Greenpeace-niks challenging a nuclear-powered battleship from their rubber dinghy sounded a dramatic note of courage and conviction, with perhaps a faint overtone of futility. The notion that we must take responsibility for our surroundings, even when the odds against us are overwhelming, resonated throughout the exhibition. In the cavernous main gallery, a massive floor piece by Mona Hatoum played off three surrounding walls displaying photographic works by Zwelethu Mthethwa, Bülent Sangar, and Greenpeace. Hatoum’s work, a map of the world realized in transparent marbles arranged on the floor, provided a clear statement about the fragility of the planet and the carelessness of its inhabitants, a point driven home by the hapless passerby whose shoe would lop off a corner of New Zealand, sending the unfixed marbles skidding across the concrete floor.

Having achieved a high degree of direct viewer engagement from the start, Martínez’s exhibition succeeded brilliantly whenever the same intensity was duplicated. A room devoted to work by the late Brazilian artist Lygia Clark was perhaps the best summary of the artist’s accomplishments yet assembled for American viewers. Spanish newcomer Francisco Ruiz de Infante invited spectators to climb tall stepladders up to the building’s rafters, where a labyrinthine interplay of shadows and searchlights suggested a parallel world floating above the heads of unsuspecting visitors. Monica Bonvicini’s contribution took the form of a paperbound book stacked unceremoniously on a wooden construction palette. The very premise of the show made the inclusion of certain artists seem inevitable, but even some of the obvious choices made a lasting impression. Carsten Höller’s installation and sculpture wittily played off mankind’s deployment of science to dominate nature, while Sergio Vega’s use of a diorama and fantastical wall text to tweak the stereotypical notion of a tropical paradise signaled a giant leap forward in this young artist’s career. An especially compelling part of the exhibition was provided by a handful of artists working in video projections, such as Tania Bruguera, Nikos Navridis, and Shirin Neshat, all of whom movingly articulated the ceremonial dimension to the spiritual quest.

Where “Looking for a Place” did not generally succeed was in the marshaling of star power to lend the project a bit of art-historical clout. Louise Bourgeois’s presence in a show like this, which purports to be about new information, came off as a bit perfunctory, while the video contributions by superstars Gabriel Orozco and Pipilotti Rist seemed isolated and self-absorbed. Perhaps the most unfortunate project was by Cai Guo-Qiang, whose remarkable contribution to the Venice Biennale quickly faded in the minds of viewers confronted by his whimsical rooftop assemblage from local debris. In light of these missteps, one can only imagine what this exhibition would have been like had Martínez more globally applied her considerable skill in harnessing the vision of lesser-known artists. Nevertheless, viewers open to the work of, say, Helena Almeida, Dr. Galentin Gatev, or Zwelethu Mthethwa took a lot more home with them than those who came merely to have their tastes confirmed by a handful of familiar names.

Considerable press has already been devoted to SITE Santa Fe’s ambitious series of projects set outside the building’s perimeters—or at least the handful of local controversies taken by some to symbolize the exhibition’s idealistic themes backfiring in the faces of its organizers. In a sense, Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s and Yolanda Gutiérrez’s run-ins with irate locals over a cemetery bathed in red light (his) and a large floating snake made of styrofoam and corncobs (hers) were interchangeable incidents, since they pointed to more intractable issues that the visiting art community breezily overlooked. Still, the fact that these works were shut down, and that Simone Aaberg Kaern’s aviation project at Los Alamos never really got off the ground, doesn’t mean that such disappointments should be construed as artistic failures. Regardless of the tribal elders’ objections to it (for what seemed to be extra-aesthetic reasons), Gutiérrez’s piece was a powerful reminder that nature and myth are permanently fused in local culture. One public work that wasn’t shut down, New Mexican artist Charlene Teters’s adobe “monument” to the legacy of local anti-indigenous sentiment, brought the notion of environmental responsibility back home. In the case of other offsite projects that never really clicked, like those by Ghada Amer, Diller + Scofidio, and Miwa Yanagi, the problem was more a case of the artists’ overextending themselves than of failing to engage sufficiently (and respectfully) in the particularities of place. For this reason, it’s hard to criticize either Martínez’s ambition or SITE Santa Fe’s public relations, since one of the underlying themes of “Looking for a Place” is that the risk of failure intrinsic to high-stakes artistic ventures should, on occasions such as these, take precedence over artworks that already know their place and concede it without struggle.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.