Banu Cennetoğlu, right?, 2022, string, helium, Mylar balloons. Installation view. Photo: Sean Eaton.

Banu Cennetoğlu, right?, 2022, string, helium, Mylar balloons. Installation view. Photo: Sean Eaton.

58th Carnegie International

Banu Cennetoğlu, right?, 2022, string, helium, Mylar balloons. Installation view. Photo: Sean Eaton.

HISTORY IS WHAT HURTS, Fredric Jameson quipped forever ago. There is a lot of history in the Fifty-Eighth Carnegie International, which reminds us that art should hurt, too. Unlike the previous International, which exulted in “museum joy”—as curator Ingrid Schaffner’s termed the epiphanic wonder that arises through experiencing artwork with other people—the latest edition of North America’s longest-running survey of international contemporary art slices through our relentless positivity culture, delivering instead a manifesto on art as survival, as open wound, as an accumulation of absences. In his introductory essay for the show’s catalogue, curator Sohrab Mohebbi, the director of New York’s SculptureCenter, finds refuge in philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s understanding of negativity, which carries “the invigorating force of life” and forms the “essence of beauty.” And the heart of beauty, Han claims, is a broken heart.

Unsurprisingly, this edition of the International, which occurs every three to five years, forgoes the original criterion of mastery (Andrew Carnegie wished to discover “the old masters of tomorrow”) for an aesthetics and ethos of fragility that is prevalent on the global exhibition circuit today. Its title, “Is it morning for you yet?,” is a Mayan Kaqchikel greeting. The phrase suggests an intent to meet people where they are and perhaps, homophonically, the work of mourning ahead. The survey’s more than one hundred artists—the majority from the Global South and Asia, many showing in the United States for the first time—chart a still-unfolding long twentieth century riven by the compounding impacts of war, colonialism, and oppression and trace the dislocations, political movements, and cultural upheavals that continue to occur in the wake of these epochal atrocities.

Hiromi Tsuchida, Watch, 1982/2022, ink-jet print, 46 7⁄8 × 33 1⁄8".

As a kind of disorganizing principle, Mohebbi invokes “imperial debris,” Ann Laura Stoler’s term for “the less perceptible effects of imperial interventions that settle into the social and material ecologies in which people dwell, and survive.” The exhibition is replete with ruin. Dala Nasser’s Tomb of King Hiram, 2022, reconceives the Phoenician ruler’s limestone sarcophagus, recently the site of two civilian massacres by the Israel Defense Forces, as a tumbledown scaffold draped with naturally dyed fabrics. Dia al-Azzawi’s razed resin landscape Ruins of Two Cities: Mosul and Aleppo, 2020, paves an entire gallery floor. Aziz Hazara’s proposal to exhibit the garbage left by US troops when they withdrew from Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base is a gesture no less profound for going unrealized (as of this writing) because of permit delays. Refusing to foreground the United States, the show nonetheless forges its internationalism in relation to a US hegemony now well into its decline, transforming the Gilded Age palace of the Carnegie Art Museum into a pungent symbol of decay.

Anyone curating a large-scale exhibition centered on transhistorical trauma will confront a particular challenge: Pain reduces the world; art should expand it.

In the Hall of Sculpture, a lavish atrium modeled after the inner chamber of the Parthenon, ten colossal bouquets of helium-filled gold letters gently sway beneath the cold, pupilless gaze of the balcony’s Greco-Roman-style statuary. Composing Banu Cennetoğlu’s newly commissioned right?, 2022, the clusters of balloons each spell out an article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (for an overall effect that helplessly evokes the Mylar heaven of Pittsburgh son Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds). On the walls of the hall’s lower level, Hiromi Tsuchida’s stark black-and-white close-ups of artifacts scavenged from an atom-bombed Hiroshima—a lunch box, a fingernail, a frozen watch—serve as a contemplative foil to Cennetoğlu’s lustrous spectacle, which will gradually deflate during the show’s run. Above the hall’s balconies, Thu Van Tran’s frescoes of smeared, iridescent color fields refer, per the wall text, to the “rainbow herbicides” (most infamously Agent Orange) deployed by the US military in Southeast Asia during the war in Vietnam.

Daniel Lie, Grieving Secret Society, 2022, turmeric dye, dried mud, and mold prints on cotton, flowers. Installation view. Photo: Sean Eaton.

Mohebbi and his team (which includes associate curator Ryan Inouye and curatorial assistant Talia Heiman) have orchestrated the International along two tracks, setting new commissions and recent art beside “historical” works produced since 1945 in response to “particular events.” Many of the latter works are on loan from estates, private collections, or other institutions. This dualistic approach (which also manifests, somewhat peskily, in the catalogue’s bipartite page layout) aims to encourage a more capacious understanding of contemporaneity by reading past and present through each other. However, the new and old works are largely segregated, and what pairings there are often appear arbitrary. (Kate Millett’s sepulchral 1960s and ’70s cage pieces, for example, have seemingly little to say to Daniel Lie’s fermented and decomposed banners strewn along the Grand Staircase.) A mini-exhibition titled “Refractions” convenes dozens of historical works, many intensely moving—notably Carlos Cañas’s Sumpul, 1984, a wrenching depiction of El Salvador’s Sumpul River massacre; Joong Seop Lee’s Family in Paradise (Number 50), 1950–52, a yearnful painting on foil made when the artist’s family was separated during the Korean War; and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s too-seldom-shown Forbidden Colors, 1988, a monochrome quadriptych in the colors of the Palestinian flag. But their cordoned-off, cheek-by-jowl presentation appears less like a dialogue across time than a thicket of footnotes.

A global art show ought to confirm the staggering multiplicity of the world while also posing encounters that are tense, mysterious, untranslatable. Yet anyone curating a large-scale exhibition centered on transhistorical trauma will confront a particular challenge: Pain reduces the world; art should expand it. The work in “Is it morning for you yet?” can feel subsumed by its nebulous thematization of solidarity and resistance. Slowly, though, the exhibition’s strengths dawn: not as an identifiable position or statement, but as a sweep of imaginings irreducible to any simple rubric. Exemplary are Yooyun Yang’s lambent, photo-based acrylics on jangji, which flicker between anonymity and exposure; Patricia Belli’s rueful, rutilant elegy for her dead mother’s unretrievable memories; and the imagistic figurations of the Balinese painter I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih (1966–2006), who riotously mingles sex and sequelae.

Kustiyah, Torso, 1960, oil on canvas, 33 7⁄8 × 26 3⁄4".

In the Heinz Architectural Center upstairs, a selection of North Vietnamese agitprop poignantly literalizes art’s two-sided nature as creation and destruction. In these vivid posters, culled from the private archives of Ho Chi Minh City’s Dogma Collection and here suspended from the ceiling, women brandish machine guns and soldiers load missiles as American jets soar overhead. On the versos, naked bodies rendered in charcoal recline in exhaustion against an empty ground. The propaganda, we learn, was repurposed by students practicing figure drawing during the war, when paper was scarce; their shadowlike portraits steal glimpses of life at its most vulnerable.

Oases of visual splendor crop up in three additional mini-exhibitions—these, unlike “Refractions,” entrusted to other curators (or to an entire institution, as with a presentation by Santiago’s Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende). A compact show organized by the Indonesian Hyphen— group surveys the overlooked oeuvre of Kustiyah (1935–2012), who became a key figure in Indonesia’s postindependence art scene as a member of the Yogyakarta Artists’ Wives Association. Hung salon style alongside canvases by contemporaries, her roiling, darkly silent images—of watermelons, fish, frangipani flowers, and herself, often dappled with a charged, bloodred hue—dramatize, brushstroke by brushstroke, tensions between the repressed memory of political slaughter and the desiderata of truth and serenity instilled in artists of her milieu. Another show-within-a-show draws from the collection of Iranian collagist Fereydoun Ave. Amid the cultural desolation and censorial atmosphere of post-revolution Tehran, Ave opened an avant-garde art space in a disused garden shed near Vanak Square, originally exhibiting one work at a time in a spotlit window display. Unfettered by such spatial and artistic constraints, this room, cocurated with Negar Azimi, revels in the visions of thirty-three artists—among them Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Leyly Matine-Daftary, and Shideh Tami—who constellate the idiosyncrasies of a singular sensibility.

Pittsburgh is decidedly absent from the museum, with oblique exceptions. Braddock, Pennsylvania–born LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “More Than Conquerors: A Monument for Community Health Workers of Baltimore,” 2021–22, a commissioned series of portraits and oral histories mounted on socially distanced IV poles, gains resonance in a deindustrialized steel town whose working class has transformed with the rise of a precarious care economy. Zahia Rahmani’s Seismography of Struggle, 2018–22, invites viewers to browse radical periodicals from the American Left Ephemera Collection, on loan from the University of Pittsburgh. For off-site commissions, Tony Cokes has lit up digital billboards on Route 28 with his signature slideshows, and local artist James “Yaya” Hough painted an uplifting community mural in the Hill District. (Inside the Carnegie, both artists examine the surreal horrors of American captivity: Hough with his oneiric ballpoint renderings of prison life, Cokes with a new video dissecting #FreeBritney.)

Édgar Calel, Oyonïk (The calling) (detail), 2022, seventy clay pots, rose petals, fruit-tree branches, water, colored pencil on paper, oil on canvas. Installation view. Photo: Sean Eaton.

Mostly, though, there is a certain anywhereness (no here here, to riff on Gertrude Stein, an Allegheny native) that can prove uncongenial to work steeped in the memory of a specific place. Consider Kaqchikel artist Édgar Calel’s Oyonïk (The calling), whose colored-pencil drawings index an assortment of clay shards discovered by Calel’s father beneath their family home in present-day Guatemala. The pottery, his father determined, was intentionally shattered and buried by ancestors, lest its knowledge fall into the hands of colonizers. The work also saw Calel fill seventy clay vessels of varying size with water, rose petals, and fruit-tree branches as part of a Kaqchikel ritual intended to create a way-finding station for lost spirits. Although haunting in its willful unknowability, Calel’s installation seems ill-served by a white cube in an encyclopedic museum—instruments rooted, after all, in colonial politics of possession. In its centering of the so-called periphery, its deprioritizing of universal legibility, and its delegation of curatorial authority, this International shares common ground with ruangrupa’s Documenta 15 and possibly suggests the emergence of a new paradigm for sprawling periodic exhibitions. But whereas Documenta ranges across Kassel, establishing different relationships to different environments, this show is mostly confined to a single building that is itself an ostentatious and unignorable signifier of racial capitalism.

Nevertheless, “Is it morning for you yet?” evinces a kind of grudging faith in art institutions as arbiters of beauty and history, leading one to wonder if, perhaps, Mohebbi’s sublime negativity and Schaffner’s “museum joy” are not so far apart after all. Then again, if on opening day you desired a fuller picture of these institutions’ complicated role in radical politics, you would have found it courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s employees, who had gathered in front of the main entrance to demand a living wage. 

The 58th Carnegie International is on view through April 2, 2023.

Zack Hatfield is a senior editor of artforum.com.