55th Carnegie International

THE CARNEGIE INTERNATIONAL is the oldest contemporary art exhibition in North America—second in age worldwide only to the Venice Biennale—so it seems apt that its fifty-fifth incarnation is ambitious in scope and duration. Not only does this year’s installment, “Life on Mars,” take over almost the entire square footage of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, but it also has an unusually long run of eight months, through January 2009. Scope and duration are not virtues in themselves, however, and here they may in fact accentuate many of the problems critics regularly find with such large-scale shows, particularly as these exhibitions increasingly share an all-inclusive, globalist, and even “heterochronic” approach. Forty artists are too many for even the most intrepid viewer to fit into a comprehensive thesis; there are too many predictable names (Doug Aitken, Thomas Hirschhorn, Wolfgang Tillmans); and there are too few non-Westerners to warrant the weighty term international. The bulk of the exhibition’s installation is composed of an endless succession of white cubes that—though painstakingly designed by Californian architectural firm Escher GuneWardena to reflect the Fibonacci sequence in their dimensions—create much the same impression as generic art fair booths. Finally, and most disconcertingly, the show’s concept is packaged in the simplistic rhetoric of art as a magical mystery tour, with repeated references to the artists’ expressive use of “humble materials” and their “transformation of everyday objects,” as if either were novel (let alone ipso facto valuable). In fact, as a “metaphorical quest to explore what it means to be human in this radically unmoored world”—in the wording of the show’s curator, Douglas Fogle—this Carnegie International risks generalities familiar at least since Edward Steichen’s 1955 “Family of Man” blockbuster at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Of course, Fogle’s thinking about humanity is framed quite differently, taking up three key questions in what he calls a “poetic gesture”: “Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?” More than tropes of space exploration, science fiction, or pseudoscientific leanings in contemporary art, and certainly more than any notion of extraterrestrial life forms, it is this final question that anchors the exhibition. Indeed, the very title “Life on Mars” is intended less as a thematic pointer than to evoke the related notions in David Bowie’s eponymous 1971 song. For the curator, the track is less about escapism in a world spinning out of control than it is about “the human desire to connect.”

Such an interpretation may overemphasize the smattering of optimism in Bowie’s lyrics, but Fogle’s project depends upon the most hopeful reading possible. And though one might think that his essentialist language—about human desire, and our “collective whisper in the dark: ‘We are here!’”—sounds (in Bowie’s words) like “a sadd’ning bore” we have heard “ten times or more,” Fogle’s dogged attachment to such phraseology should perhaps give us pause: Do the complaints we typically hear about biennials and other such large exhibitions—which are perhaps as generic as the shows themselves—mask the possibility of his language bearing real meaning? Fogle’s exhibition aims—ambitiously, perhaps even nobly—to reinvigorate the vocabulary of grace, tenderness, and poignancy for a contemporary-art public. In his catalogue essay, right alongside Bowie, actually, he also invokes Gaston Bachelard and his concept of “immensity . . . within ourselves.”

It is, in fact, only in two works that the otherworldly is explicitly evoked. In one of them, Paul Thek’s delicate unfinished painting on newspaper, Untitled (Earth Drawing I), circa 1974, Earth, seen from space, hovers in an expanse of black ink that fails to fully overrun the trivialities of the everyday: Stock and commodity prices, comic strips, and advertisements refuse to be occluded by the vastness of outer space. In the other, Mike Kelley’s series “Kandors,” 2007, seven futuristic cityscapes trapped in bell jars are accompanied by brassy pink, green, and purple video projections. (The title refers, of course, to the capital of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. In the comic, Kandor was miniaturized by an evil villain before being rescued by Superman and kept safe in the Fortress of Solitude.) Kelley’s sculptures have been exhibited before, at the Jablonka Galerie in Berlin last year, but this is the first time these bubble worlds seemed imperative rather than mere fluff. In “Life on Mars,” they are installed throughout the Carnegie’s Hall of Sculpture—itself a replica of the Parthenon’s cella—with several of them placed, brilliantly, next to a walnut-paneled side gallery containing the museum’s “collections of miniatures,” a set of small models of rooms in the home of the museum’s benefactor Sarah Mellon Scaife, with artworks in situ that were subsequently donated to the museum. This placement gives Kelley’s worlds a certain edge, pointing up their dollhouse aspect and making them also seem like museums within the museum.

The majority of the works in the exhibition, however, are located in the sterile environment of the main hall. The succession of white boxes here undervalues one of the Carnegie’s most unique attributes—that it allows contemporary art to be shown in the context of an encyclopedic museum, thus opening it to a greater context of disciplines and, by extension, to the everyday world. Moreover, since most exhibition spaces are anyway little more than such nondescript, supposedly neutral spaces, it is particularly disappointing that “Life on Mars” does not take into account the fact that the Carnegie Museum of Art feels something like a house, with all the individuality and idiosyncrasy such a word implies. It does not try to reconcile its spaces under a single veneer, nor does it try to hide its cohabitation with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The distinctions between the two institutions are pleasantly unpronounced; without a map, it is as easy to end up in the Hall of Gems and Minerals as in the Hall of Architecture.

A dozen of the strongest artworks in the show, however—Kelley’s included—escape the sepulchral plaster-boarded space. The directions to these works are printed on ramshackle corrugated plastic signs propped against the walls, which recall the signs Joseph Beuys used in Dürer, ich führe persönlich Baader + Meinhof durch die Dokumenta V (Dürer, I Will Personally Guide Baader + Meinhof Through Documenta 5), 1972, and are thus at odds with the slickness of “Life on Mars” as a whole as well as the opulence of the Carnegie’s architecture. These signs—which show the way to pieces installed in stairways, corridors, and side rooms—assist in navigation only minimally, but they serve as pointers to an awareness of institutional forces that is absent from the majority of the exhibition, and counter the historical disconnect that occurs when works are cut off from the context of the exhibiting institution.

The artworks these signs lead to are themselves positioned with a keen sense of site. If they are not quite site-specific, for they have no particular prior relationship to their location, they nevertheless gain from their immediate physical settings. Take, for example, Bruce Conner’s “Angels” photograms from the 1970s, which are placed along the balcony of the Hall of Sculpture opposite a progression of cast plaster sculptures. As the marblelike color of Conner’s twelve life-size images echoes that of the sculptures they face, the ephemeral photograms seem to take on the materiality of stone. In addition, Cao Fei’s lyrical video Whose Utopia, 2006–2007, which is placed at the bottom of a staircase; David Shrigley’s taxidermied kitten holding a sign reading I’M DEAD, which is housed in a dusty vitrine in the so-called Treasure Room; and Susan Philipsz’s Sunset Song, 2003, set in the museum courtyard, its volume proportional to the sun’s strength, are likewise exceptional works that benefit from the contingencies of their location.

Perhaps the most literal example of the desire to connect is Rivane Neuenschwander’s I Wish Your Wish, 2003. The piece is light fare, though heartfelt: It is a wall of colored ribbons, each emblazoned with a wish—for example, I WISH FOR NO MORE POLITICAL CRIMES IN LEBANON, I WISH I COULD SAY AN UNCONDITIONAL YES, or, I WISH I HAD A BIG FLAT AND STUDIO IN THE CENTRE OF A BIG CITY. Visitors may remove these ribbons—thus taking seriously the wish of an unknown individual—and replace them with wishes of their own. But it is Phil Collins’s piece that is the most successful in engaging Fogle’s premise. His zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom) (Why I Don’t Speak Serbian [in Serbian]), 2008, commissioned for the exhibition, is the highlight of “Life on Mars.” The thirty-five-minute film consists of three parts. The first records testimonies by various prominent ethnic Albanians in Kosovo—an actor, two former politicians, and a journalist—about why they do not speak Serbian, in Serbian. The answers are halting, not just because the speakers’ skills are rusty: Since the fall of the Yugoslav Republic, and even more so since the end of the Serbian occupation of Kosovo, use of the language has become increasingly taboo. The second part of the film consists of footage filmed in a refugee camp in Macedonia in 1999; and in the third section, a woman who formerly taught Serbian to Albanian children talks about the kidnapping and execution of her son. She struggles throughout the interview to hold back tears and to try to fathom why her child was killed. The quavering of her voice reverberates in the mind well after the projection has ended.

Fogle does not mention it, but “reverberation” was Bachelard’s term for the encounter with poetry. It described for him the immediate emotional impact of an image that resonates in the reader’s mind: “After the original reverberation, we are able to experience resonances, sentimental repercussions. . . . But the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface.” If Collins’s film might, in the context of Fogle’s desire to connect, seem a manipulative piece of emotional string-pulling—how could the viewer not feel sympathy for the mother clutching the photo of her lost son?—it nevertheless manages to create an authentic reverberation, by means of Collins having masterfully framed the story so that its effect on the viewer is tied into a reflection on the nature and consequences of power, both institutional and linguistic. Such complexity is missing from too much of “Life on Mars.”

Rachel Churner is a New York–based art historian.