Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization—After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, 2000–2003, still from a color digital video, 17 minutes 20 seconds.

Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization—After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, 2000–2003, still from a color digital video, 17 minutes 20 seconds.

the 2004 Carnegie International

A couple basic premises for large-scale international art exhibitions over the past few years: Theory is over—and it wasn’t that great for art, anyway—but the market is pretty gross, too; and since September 11, everything seems so serious. Notwithstanding the portentous superficiality of this curatorial temperature taking, it’s a reasonably accurate assessment of the current state of affairs. Nevertheless, after this diagnosis, what’s a curator to do? In the 2004 Carnegie International, Laura Hoptman’s self-consciously ambitious answer moves beyond art-world discourse to themes increasingly central to American culture: spirituality, ethics, and “values”—what she calls the “Ultimates.” Even presuming the validity of this effort, her inquiry is, ultimately, limited.

These big ideas can be hard to spot in the exhibition, but certain related themes and attitudes do emerge. One is a tale of two ’60s: its political legacy and its introspective, psychedelic impulse. Summoning the former, Kutlug Ataman opens the exhibition with a grid of forty televisions showing residents of Kuba, originally an outpost of ’60s radicals on the edge of Istanbul, now home to a range of marginalized people including criminals and religious fundamentalists. Fernando Bryce’s drawn copies of (mostly Cuban) magazines depict pan-American relations in the ’50s and ’60s; although no clear message materializes, pictures of Che pack the predictable punch. Paul Chan picks up the utopian-dystopian theme as well with his cheerfully awkward animation depicting the rise and fall of a polymorphously perverse society at the hands of repressive fascists (do they really hate us because we’re fun?). On the other hand, examples of individual strangeness include Kathy Butterly’s small, colorful ceramics, and the almost belligerently modest photographs of Saul Fletcher depicting mysteriously insignificant subjects in his signature small-scale format. R. Crumb manages to bridge the two modes, making self-absorption not only compelling but also political.

Crumb’s comics and drawings are the strongest figurative work here (although the fiery mural in the lobby by Chiho Aoshima, also from a comics background, grabs as well). It’s not art (comics are not “lower” than art, simply a different social category of production), but it’s better than most of the art here, and that’s the problem. Crumb has what the other artists in the exhibition want—intense, idiosyncratic personal involvement in a small, low-tech enterprise that offers control over your work and draws a devoted following of like-minded fans—and their work suffers by comparison. Anne Chu, Kaoru Arima, and Neo Rauch seem opaque, their historical references unmotivated, their meanings unclear. Mamma Andersson and Peter Doig, mixing Luc Tuymans’s aesthetic of withdrawal and nineteenth-century Symbolism, look wan. One exception is a beautifully installed room of sculptures and small, tender paintings by Francis Alÿs in which sleeping soldiers and children with guns come together with fantastic natural scenes. The fragility of the paintings reads as an appropriately diminished sense of the artist’s power with respect to the terrors of the world, bespeaking a mysticism that refuses to choose between sensitive solipsism and realism.

The second wing of the museum galleries houses surprising examples of formal strength. The funk of Senga Nengundi, Lee Bontecou, and John Bock rubs up against the more geometrical and/or mass-produced materials of Jim Lambie, Rachel Harrison, Eva Rothschild, Tomma Abts, and Mark Grotjahn. Even more compelling than this contrast are the connections among the latter artists. All use tensions between front and back, materiality and illusion, and two and three dimensionality to enhance the physical experience of looking at art. A livelier installation that hung these works in closer proximity would have forced a productive dialogue, but the room of Abts’s intense abstractions is itself worth the trip.

Harun Farocki, whose videos I often like, is represented by a weak installation here. Piecing together clips of warfare and its representation in the media to highlight the role of vision, Farocki fails to exploit the powerful physicality of his subject. Elsewhere, documentary itself was almost pointedly rejected as an answer to what artists (or curators) should be doing now. Ugo Rondinone’s tediously affectless video of scruffy bohemians walking urban streets, the film trailer promoting Pawel Althamer’s live performance of everyday life in Pittsburgh, and Nick Relph and Oliver Payne’s lovely, much-shown video Driftwood, 1999, all treat their quotidian (rather than newsworthy) subjects with a nondocumentary subjectivity.

Strangely, even though Hoptman has eschewed in her selections both art celebrity and navel-gazing autobiographer (the latter she dismisses specifically in her catalog), the personae of the artists haunt her exhibition. That Carsten Höller was originally a scientist; that Doig lives in Trinidad; that Bontecou bowed out of the art world for a long time; that Kaoru Arima runs the Art Drug Center in Japan; that Mangelos was the pseudonym for a Croatian art historian; that Relph and Payne were kicked out of art school—all hang heavy, figuring as part of the aesthetic and importance of their work. It is Crumb’s oddball image, rather than his skill, that makes him emblematic of this exhibition.

Walking through the museum, the visitor gets a sense of individuals locked in their own psyches and practices without much reference to each other, or to whatever it is that we mean when we say “the art world,” or even “the world.” Many of these artists tend to look inward rather than project out, and curatorial choices amplify the rather dispiriting feeling. For better or worse, the Ataman installation really does announce the show: forty voices that, rather than acknowledge the viewer or engage in a larger discussion, remain separate in the end.

The 2004 Carnegie International remains on view through March 20, 2005.

Katy Siegel is a contributing editor of Artforum.