Santa Fe

SITE Santa Fe

IN ORGANIZING this year’s SITE Santa Fe Biennial, Klaus Ottmann made two decisions that stood as curatorial provocations, both for this show and for big, pulse-taking exhibitions more generally. First, he pronounced that no peremptory theme would get in the way of the art itself. Second, he disallowed the dizzying glut of work typical of today’s endless biennials and fairs in which no piece is given the contemplative space it needs. In fact, there are so few artists in Ottmann’s exhibition—thirteen in all—that it’s possible to list them swiftly and savor his sense of curatorial modesty. They are Mirosław Bałka, Jennifer Bartlett, Patty Chang, Stephen Dean, Peter Doig, Robert Grosvenor, Cristina Iglesias, Wolfgang Laib, Jonathan Meese, Wangechi Mutu, Carsten Nicolai, Catherine Opie, and a musical collaborative from Norway, Thorns Ltd.

Ottmann’s challenge to the hegemony of concept-heavy global shows plays itself out in the thicket of philosophical quotations and literary allusions that pack his elegantly written catalogue essay. The very title of the exhibition, “Still Points of the Turning World,” borrows from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Ottmann is clearly sympathetic to its emphasis on paring away the distractions of the world and concentrating on the meaning beneath the patterns of the quotidian. He bolsters this notion by citing Susan Sontag’s famous admonition in “Against Interpretation”—“We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” He could just as well have quoted another Sontag formulation—“Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself”—because his familiar, if not unjust, premise is that we’ve lost this transparence, along with the ability to see, hear, and feel enough. Curators who strong-arm viewers and artists with their big-bang themes, he implies, have only added to our sense of removal from the essence of pure experience.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that he also quotes Robert Smithson’s grievance that “artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories.” But his logic is faulty in asserting that curators must abandon all categories (and therefore themes) to avoid fraudulent ones, or that a selection of objects based only on a curator’s taste is any less mediated by biases and interpretations. Still more, it is by no means clear that the pure, feeeling experience of art is finally superior to a more analytical approach to its content—or that we can or ever do segregate feeling from interpretation. The ability to value the grain, the succulence, the weight of various aesthetic experiences, and to assess the consequences of their affinities and disagreements, is what enables us to illuminate the thing in itself and the thing in the world. This is what curators can do for viewers—or should.

Inevitably, Ottmann’s celebration of the haptic, the momentary, and the direct excitation of the viewer attracts him to kindred artworks, so themes take shape, whether he names them or not. For example, there is a dialogical thread, at once solipsistic and devout, expectant and melancholy, between Chang’s video Condensation of Birds, 2006, in which various spiritual seekers speak of the invisible energy of unified Being, and Bałka’s Sza (Shhh), 2006, in which newspaper obituaries are folded and linked in chains draped from a gallery’s ceiling: life’s stories glimpsed, yet always partially obscured. The works cast a rueful glance at the legibility of knowing and the weight of posterity as they conjoin the half-expressed, the inexpressible, the transitory, and the immanent. The Thorns Ltd. sound piece 0.0., 2006, an electronic work that plays for the duration of the show without repeating itself, echoes this notion of the impossibility to apprehend the wholeness of things, while Laib’s gorgeous, heaven-climbing staircases are also earth-descending—no single consummation of experience is ever assured.

These works embody Ottmann’s purist ideal of art as an ontological event launched from magic circles of artistic potency, which bears out the Sontagian theme that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Of course, the relativism of this richly indulgent assertion blunts the critic’s authority just as it does the curator’s—no one’s epiphany or taste is superior to anyone else’s. But confronted with rooms of art, we are congenitally drawn to consider them together, and so assessing Ottmann’s show finally comes down to interpreting his taste as much as he presses us to rely on our own. (Meanwhile, the underlying social issues of taste go unexamined. Taste aspires to turn style into soul. On the most serious level, the expression of taste is the expression of an ethics.)

Thrown back on my own taste, then, there are other works here worth noting. Nicolai’s engrossing Spray, 2005, continues the theme of burgeoning Being, with its Suprematist-inspired digital projection of animated white squares stuttering across a black background that feels as vast as interstellar space. Bartlett’s series of enameled panels literally dotted with images and often barely decipherable texts about companionship and death feels finally inert, while only the opposite can be said of Meese’s wild performance piece TOTAL REVOLUTION = DR. ELDORADO, 2006. This specially commissioned work, in which the artist ran around Santa Fe’s sun-bleached Paolo Soleri Amphitheater, half-naked, singing, tossing out Hitler salutes and proclamations like “Art is total radicalism, friendly but deadly,” while his mother quaked nervously on the stage, showed how entrancing such retardataire Germanic egoism can still be in its madness and freedom and self-absorption.

In the end, I think, Ottmann is half-right. With the ceaseless data stream of art today, there is no longer a vital aesthetic need for elephantine surveys that cling paradoxically to atavistic suppositions of rarity and isolation based on long-overcome inefficiencies in the distribution of cultural goods. We’ve gone so far the other way that what we need now isn’t a forced reinvention of scarcity, but precisely filtered readings—concepts and themes that offer us, if not Sontag’s transparence, then points of incandescence that unearth new meanings, both private and collective. Ottmann’s small exhibition is a luxuriously calm respite but not a cure. In place of his unstructured erotics of art, we need the curatorial equivalent of creative search technology—ways in which we can be guided smartly, rigorously, surprisingly, and with infinite variety through the parsing of the visual world.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum