On the Ground: Pittsburgh

Suzanne Hudson on the 57th Carnegie International

View of El Anatsui’s Three Angles, 2018, mixed media, dimensions variable.

PITTSBURGH IS A CITY OF THREE RIVERS and many more bridges, the latter cutting across steeply rising banks verdant and overgrown from a year of record rainfall. In many ways this is still Andrew Carnegie’s Appalachia, with the Carnegie International—this year sited exclusively in the institution if not the actual building that he opened in 1895—an emphatically historical bequest. Ingrid Schaffner, a Pittsburgh native, suggested as much in her opening remarks to the fifty-seventh edition, which she helmed, calling the show “august” and everywhere relating it to its place of becoming. There is boosterism to be sure, hometown pride cut with unapologetic, but equally homegrown, camp. Fifty-seven is also, she reminded the audience, an auspicious number for residents, as in Heinz 57 (this from the H. J. Heinz Company’s erstwhile ad slogan, “57 Varieties of Pickles,” through which it came even more vernacularly to mean something like a cornucopia of choice). In what is one of the strongest works on view, Alex Da Corte’s Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018, the artist made the magic number of videos. These fifty-seven desublimating shorts are screened in a house made of neon that twists into dumb seasonal marketing signs (Christmas wreaths, Valentine cupids, and grinning Jack-O-Lanterns), set atop a polka-dot floor. The rainbow pebbles cue “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”—and indeed some of the television program’s original sets are still maintained at the Heinz History center nearby, where they remember another native son.

If I am starting with an acknowledgement of Schaffner’s imbrication in this context it is because the whole show feels like a love letter to the place and its residents. The thirty-two participating artists and collectives all seemed to have spent real time there in the lead-up to this October’s unveiling, and it makes a difference. No opportunistic in-and-out social practice situation, this. If anything, projects comfortably inhabit the building and make reference to proximate, sometimes adjacent worlds. They swathe the exterior like a second skin (El Anatsui’s Three Angles, 2018, a characteristic but newly specific assemblage of bottle caps, mirrors, and discarded printing plates from a local press hugs the façade of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Scaife wing, designed in 1974 by Edward Larabee Barnes); they transmit through its halls and stairwells (Kevin Jerome Everson’s eight-hour film Park Lanes, 2015, follows a day at a factory in Mechanicsville, Virginia, and fills the ornate vestibule with noises of hammering and soldering); they nestle into interstitial areas or actively recode them (Park McArthur pipes sounds of the building itself back into it in places other than where they were recorded and elsewhere designates an all-gender bathroom); or they shrink to fit the scale of extant miniatures (Jeremy Deller’s historic wars on tiny tvs, 2018, reprises a contribution to the 2004 International, this time playing the videos of war reenactments on Lilliputian televisions set in permanent collection’s dollhouse period rooms).

View of Alex Da Corte’s Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018, aluminum, neon, rubber, automotive paint, velvet, glass, vinyl, foam, hardware, Plexiglas, plywood, speakers, monitors, folding chairs, HD digital video, 16 x 22 x 16’.

Among the monumental fragments of architectural ruins in the Carnegie, Saba Innab placed What Is Unseen Cannot Be Broken, 2018, a concrete and steel evocation of a subterranean passageway dug in Gaza. In the central court of the neoclassical atrium, the collective Postcommodity laid down From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home, 2018, an angular composition of coal, glass, and scrap metal, carpeting the space with a kind of sand painting that is also a score that will be interpreted by musicians each week. For the opening weekend, Aaron Johnson responded to the invitation with a trombone and various conches, breath becoming amplified, abstract song. The building, a veritable microcosm of the wider world, represents a Gilded Age attempt at enlightenment, containing human knowledge across the fine arts, architecture, and music, as well as natural history. During Johnson’s performance, the door between the Hall of Sculpture and the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems was opened, a rare occasion; the portal closed again at his conclusion. Koyo Kouoh brought together artworks, books, and artifacts from the collections of the Carnegie and the Natural History Museum in her excellent show within the show, “Dig Where You Stand,” which occupies galleries typically devoted to anchoring narratives of chronological cultural “beginnings”: art before 1300 and African art. Kouoh installed thematic groupings—“Coloniality and Agency,” “Speculative Temporalities,” and “Mobility and Exchange”—of objects that together admit what American wealth bought and at what cost it constructed its own legacy. Particularly potent in this regard is a taxidermied bird with milky eyes that on closer inspection is revealed to be a bald eagle shot down during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin mined the museum differently, their project less accusatory than elegiac. Taking archival records of paintings submitted for the open calls that characterized the International between 1896 and 1931, they compiled a list of some 10,632 rejections, their records detailing artists’ names as well as works’ titles and dates. Clayton and Rubin have hired sign painters to sit at facing easels in the gallery off the lobby, where they paint each and every title—one: A Quiet Landscape—in alphabetical order. These new paintings dry on the walls when completed, forming a horizon of language that conjures scenes for which no visual correlate survives. Made to be removed, such display is provisional; each sheet is finally very carefully packaged in a plastic sleeve along with a panel detailing the provenance and slender volume enumerating of all of the titles. A gift for the viewer, the act exemplifies what I take to be Schaffner’s thesis, which is perhaps not so much an argument (the show is explicitly anti-theme and for the most part, against explicit politics) as an orientation to a surprisingly guileless promulgation of what she terms “museum joy.” This emotion is to be arrived at, one surmises, by means of a deepening, experiential knowledge—a democratic promise that she extends as curatorial intention and also maintains as the exhibition’s responsibility to facilitate.

View of Postcommodity’s From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home, 2018, mixed media, dimensions variable.

A related publication—edited by Karen Kelly and Barbara Schröder from Dancing Foxes, and designed by Prem Krishnamurthy and Max Harvey from Wkshps—is wholly structural to the exhibition, the official title itself (57th Edition, 2018) functioning as one that could as readily append to a book. In the works for three years, The Guide is a lovely object, just-under-an-iPad-sized, that takes its inspiration from old travel handbooks. Armed with it, one is expected to navigate the displays aided but not impeded. As Schaffner writes without irony, adapting the preface of the 1907 version of Baedeker’s Switzerland, the Guide serves “to supply the traveler with all needful information, to point out the most interesting places and the best way of reaching them, to render her comparatively independent of the services of guides and others, and thus to enable her thoroughly to enjoy her tour in this magnificent exhibition.” It can be purchased or borrowed, with the idea that marginalia will accrue over the run and will further mediate engagement. Either way, it takes the place of in-gallery didactic materials, with interpretive tombstones eschewed for references to page numbers in The Guide: a linking system, or hypertext in analogue. In its pages, Schaffner exhorts that “museum joy. . . comes from the commotion of being with art and other people actively engaged in the creative work of interpretation.” She suggests drawing on what one already knows and responding directly to what exceeds this, and also sharing resources. The language throughout is direct and often exuberant, liberally peppered with exclamation marks. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, it is a manifesto. A second book, a more straightforward collection of install shots and checklists, a record of what was, is underway, forthcoming in the new year.

Yet here, under the twee graphic curlicues, is an understanding of the harnessing of capacities, creative and otherwise. The whole thing exudes a distinctly American, or at least quasi-Emersonian, mode of self-reliance. This is a strain of exceptionalism that somehow must be thought together not only with the larger social democracy against which it operates, and from which it cannot retreat, but also—in what is one of the animating tensions from the Trump-led US out—with the “international.” A garland ringing the upper story of the atrium of the Hall of Sculpture—the same spot that contains Postcommodity’s floor-work, grounding the lower level—images the Rio Grande, impenetrable beneath the elemental photographic surface that shifts from small C-print to print. Zoe Leonard’s Prologue: El Rio/The River, 2018, shows up-close the watery boundary between Ojinaga, Chihuahua, and Presidio, Texas, in what is a quietly devastating series about forces acting at a distance through a channel that might soon contour a wall. I cannot stop thinking about it. Like its book, this edition of the biennial was three years in the making and thus straddled a before and after that can only feel like an interminable and ever-worsening aftermath. How different might the proximity to “museum joy” have felt back then? How much do we want, do we need, these assurances of possibility now? As I wrote this, a caravan of Central American migrants approached ever closer to a border that may soon for the first time in this country’s history be closed. As I turned to edit it, I regarded my words and their destination through sorrow for the lives claimed at a synagogue east of the Carnegie, a temple collaborating with HIAS and working to resettle so many refugees. These congregants were slaughtered on a day when the Torah reading involved a story from Genesis, of Abraham and Sarah sitting in a tent open at the sides, in wait and welcome.

Suzanne Hudson is an art historian and critic based in Los Angeles, where she is Associate Professor of Art History and Fine Arts at the University of Southern California.