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Istanbul Dispatch: Ceren Erdem on the Gezi Uprising and Beyond

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning. It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is […]

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered with banners by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning.

It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is no need to talk now; you’ll see it.” In an attempt to write about the early summer days in Istanbul, I began to draft this text admitting that I may fail, for I feel the necessity for a new vocabulary to refer to the qualities of the ongoing uprising and resistance of the people of Turkey, and I fear I will be barred with the limits of any language. It is equally hard to make judgments on such a thing as it’s happening. Hence, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I find it useful to present the causes and a subjective summary of the resistance that stemmed from Gezi Park and spread across Turkey.

Background: Why have the people of Turkey — a favored ally of the US, a growing economic power, and a regional leader-wanna-be — demonstrated civil unrest? Behind all the glory of the international reputation, the governance of PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become more oppressive in their third go-round. Faking close friendships with the liberals and empathy with the oppressed were not strategies with longevity. New laws have been implemented that restrict a woman’s ability to choose a Caesarean section (they’re only allowed in cases where they’re necessary to save the life of the mother or child) and that govern when alcohol can be purchased and how it can be advertised. Many journalists, writers, and professors critical of the government have been arrested and silenced. And in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, profitable lands have been turned into huge construction sites where international companies, mainly from the Gulf, partnered with local ones that are affiliated with the PM or other ministers. In December 2012, the people of Roboski, a Kurdish village, were bombarded “by mistake,” killing 35. In May 2013, two bombs exploded in a Reyhanli district on Syrian border of Turkey. At least 57 people died. In both cases, no one has been held responsible. Not all, but a few reasons of our “disorder.”

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Facts: For a year and a half, Taksim Platform, a civil initiative comprised of a diverse group of people who live, work, or pass by Istanbul’s Taksim district, gathered to monitor and create awareness about the major urban planning project for Taksim Square. It goes without saying that this ugly, little square is the heart of Istanbul of modern times. The project includes building bulky tunnels on the wide avenues that lead to the square for the sake of directing the vehicle traffic underground and therefore “pedestrianizing” the square. PM Erdoğan also wants to take over the square’s Gezi Park in order to build a giant shopping mall/hotel/residence in the form of a replica of the Artillery Barrack that stood there until 1940. Further, he wants to replace the Ataturk Cultural Center with a new baroque-style opera building.

Taksim has some value as a symbol: Nearly all political demonstrations and marches end up at Taksim Square. It is packed in any given time of the day. The project, as seen on the official animation video prepared by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, shaves off the pavement for the sake of building these subterranean tunnels, a move that would limit pedestrian traffic to the square and basically butcher the prospect of any demonstrations. More importantly, Gezi Park is the only green area in Istanbul’s center, and it serves as the emergency evacuation zone for a city that has been built on an active fault line. In the light of these facts, Taksim Platform’s major task is to stop the project through legal means and create a platform to ensure that such projects should be planned in conversation with both area residents and urban planners. However, despite a court ruling suspending construction on the tunnels, the PM was determined to realize his dream project. Bulldozers went in to Gezi Park and illegally started uprooting the trees. That’s why people ran to Gezi Park to reclaim the public space, to protect their trees and their right to choose the way they want to live their lives.

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

By the time I arrived in Istanbul and got close to Taksim Square, I knew what my brother’s words on the phone meant. After searching for a way to get there, I first found myself in a hot zone. The police were constantly bombarding demonstrators with tear gas while some protestors were trying to build a high, strong barricade to stop them. Every single piece of material that could be added to the barricade was carried hand-in-hand by a human chain, the same way all the other barricades had been built. People were injured; doctors, like everyone else, were running around to bring medicine, to carry the injured into a mosque that had opened its doors to operate as infirmary. Later, Erdoğan dared to declare that people had disrespectfully walked into that mosque with their shoes on and drank alcohol, demonstrating he couldn’t understand why an imam preferred to help innocent, peaceful people over being loyal to the PM.

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

The same night, a smart group of people managed to operate a bulldozer and chased the police with it for some time. It was a heroic moment for all of us. Walking to Gezi Park, I came across the self-made barricades surrounding the area. Inside its borders was an autonomous zone. Feeling like I was moving within a movie studio, I tried to perceive every detail I saw and adapt to this new reality.

When I reached the park I thought, and I still do, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. At a time when you had been feeling most hopeless about your country, this awakening was shocking and thrilling, to say the least.

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

Having suffered from military coups and oppressive regimes, our parents raised us to be as apolitical as possible. I am sorry — no, actually, pleased — to say that it didn’t work. However, people are politicized in a new way now, beyond the mainstream definitions of left, right, religion, etc. Based on demands for freedom and human rights, the uprisings managed to bring many diverse groups together in the park, groups that might otherwise feel uncomfortable standing side by side. Women have always been in the forefront. Many LGBTQ people were not there only for the resistance, but also to face their prejudices 1. Anti-capitalist Muslims revealed the difference between being religious and utilizing religion for political ends, while environmentalists brought in their knowledge and injected their awareness. Nationalist Turkish groups could not stand but set up their tents close to Kurdish groups. Football ultras2 brought in their endurance and joy, and the hacker group Redhack (@TheRedHack) has built up the virtual castle of the resistance. Everyone but everyone brought in endless love.

A restauran's daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

A restauran’s daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

We shared our food, built up our library, and seeded our new garden. We slept, cooked, and cleaned together. We were tear-gassed together. Local media, with only a few exceptions, either avoided the protest or preferred to show it as a menace to society. However, while Erdoğan turned the police into his own army, their disproportionate violence was met with disproportionate intelligence. Resistance took different forms, from reading books to the police to playing guitar in front of water cannons. Stencils and spraypainted texts of humorous political satire filled the walls. As people insisted on being peaceful and unarmed, facing with this unknown format of protests, the police, acting on Erdoğan’s behalf, got more violent. The stronger they attacked, the stronger our connections became.

Yet, in the end, we are all flesh and bone. While nearly 7,500 people have been hospitalized due to plastic bullets, pressurized water, tear gas, and aimed tear gas canisters, five protestors lost their lives.3 The policeman who killed Ethem Sarisülük with a bullet in his head was released with claims of self-defense. The final attack to the park on June 15 ferociously evacuated everyone, including children and the elderly. Immediately after that, public assemblies started to gather every night in parks across Istanbul and in other cities. Until July 7, Gezi Park was closed to the public but occupied by the police. Meanwhile, a court released its final decision on the Gezi park project — in favor of stopping it. Finally, when the mayor decided to open the public park to public, it only lasted for a few hours and resulted with 37 protestors being taken in police custody, including the members of Taksim Solidarity4. Was this a trap? We don’t know. Since May 27, approximately 4,000 people have been taken into custody (official numbers by human rights organizations and the Ministry of Internal Affairs vary from 3,366 to 4,900), some randomly on the streets, some from their homes. Seventy-eight have been arrested. Gezi Park is open to public use, for now, and public assemblies continue with hot discussions on democracy, new strategies, tolerance, and coexistence.

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Where does art stand in this picture?

To my mind, there is no need to attain a special role or expect one from the art community in the matter of emergencies. Artists, curators, writers, and overall producers of the contemporary art scene have been actively involved in the process from the very beginning. We have taken the advantage of one our strengths and our international networks, to spread our voice around the world. We have also observed that we are surrounded with highly creative people. In the most depressing moments, a massive collection of humor was produced. They gave us moments of laughter. When the police took over the park in mid-June, we all learned to simply stand up against injustice from The Standing Man (duran adam), Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist who stood still on sealed-off Taksim Square for hours and initiated a new form of passive resistance. Yet, I believe it is extremely hard for any art project to beat the “earth fast-breaking” organized by anti-capitalist Muslims on the pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue leading to Taksim Square, where people of Gezi Park, regardless of their beliefs, set up a 700-meter-long communal dinner to celebrate the first meal of Ramadan.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

On the other hand, the Istanbul Biennial will take place around the corner beginning September 14. Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the coming up edition, had announced her focus will be the notion of public space as a political forum. Who would have guessed that Turkey would witness the biggest civil uprising in its history, and public space would extensively be politically engaged in an unprecedented way? If art is to trigger questions, feelings, or social change, Gezi Park has certainly achieved it all and challenged our past and future experiences.

We are thinking anew. And it is only the beginning, our struggle continues.

Two views of the "earth fast-breaking" meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Two views of the “earth fast-breaking” meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Ceren Erdem is a curator and writer based in New York and Istanbul. Born in Gaziantep, Turkey, she has lived in New York since 2010. For more images from Gezi Park, visit #occupygezi


1 Gay Pride Istanbul has been taking place each year since 2003 on the last week of June. As a part of the resistance, this year’s march was supported largely by Gezi protestors and attended by around 100,000 people.

2 The fans of three major football teams of Istanbul, Besitas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, have united under the name “Istanbul United.” Istanbul United, the movie, is seeking donations for its completion.

3 Medeni Yıldırım (18), Ali İsmail Korkmaz (19), Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20), Abdullah Cömert (22),  Ethem Sarısülük (26) lost their lives during the protests.

4 Taksim Solidarity is comprised of 124 NGOs, chambers, and other civil initiatives.

Post–The Exception and the Rule

By Susy Bielak, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Yesomi Umolu We are about to tell you the story of a journey. An exploiter and two of the exploited are the travelers. Examine carefully the behavior of these people. Find it surprising though not unusual. Inexplicable though normal, incomprehensible though it is the rule – Bertolt Brecht, […]

By Susy Bielak, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Yesomi Umolu

We are about to tell you the story of a journey.
An exploiter and two of the exploited are the travelers.
Examine carefully the behavior of these people.
Find it surprising though not unusual.
Inexplicable though normal, incomprehensible though it is the rule

- Bertolt Brecht, extract from The Exception and the Rule

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

Last Thursday night, in the midst of a blizzard, a collection of players and spect-actors created a forum in the Museum of Non Participation. Within the space of the gallery, we enacted a play, Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule, whose very subject was on trial.

Also, on trial, were these questions:

  • Where does power reside in the room?
  • Who gets to speak, and who is silenced?
  • Which facets of a narrative will come to light?

Within Brecht’s play , the “rule” implies a legal language or a directive, while the “exception” evokes being ungovernable or searching for an alternative to either the state or the free market. Together, they act as both a statement, that “the rule cannot exist without the exception,” and a question, as to what a state of exception might be. Through the story of a merchant and his servant, The Exception and the Rule explores themes of capitalism and economics, labor and hierarchy, legislation and state ideology, hiding and secrecy, and the lack of union rights.

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

As described in our prior post, a significant part of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s engagement at the Walker and in Minneapolis was working together with Twin Cities’ citizens to translate this play, using methods of Augosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in a series of four day-long workshops. The performance—presented as a one-night only event–was the culmination of this immersive work. How do you take process-based practice and the intimate space of a closed workshop to the open and very public space of the gallery? These were the challenges and the risks at play as we presented our interpretation of the play to an audience of between 80 – 120 people.

                 7

I am the narrator
I am the translator
I am the transcriber

I am the one who bears witness
To the uncomfortable being of other
In that in-between space

Who holds the tension in this space?
Who has author(ity) here?

- Andrea Jenkins, extract from Deep Privilege

The audience, or spect-actors, were brought into the Rules of Engagement through the Games for Actors and Non Actors:

GameofActors

Within the performance, there were formal contradictions between flow and rupture. Ruptures came from literally breaking out of Brecht’s tale through freeze frames and Forum Theater. Through freeze frames, players and audience alike were able to pause and silence the performance in order to interject narratives/opinions/discontents from their own lives and experiences. In Forum Theater, a real event was enacted in which the spect-actors were invited to take up the position of the oprimido and re-imagine the scenario, in order to affect change.

co-erced, manipulated, guided, coaxed, rehearsed, coddled,
cajoled, nursed, pushed into…..forgetting a—l-l of that mess-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s through …..

- Veronica Ochoa, extract from of 13 ……

There were tensions between image (Boal) and narrative (Brecht). Throughout the course of the performance, players cycled as readers made their way through the script. Multiple players voiced single characters, while, simultaneously, others generated improvisational tableaus (the body as phonetics). Both pushed against binaries, engaging the simultaneous roles as oppressors and oppressed.

In conclusion, we find ourselves in a contraction, in the space of having generated new modes of language, and acknowledging the limits of language. There’s an inability to find a means to speak to all of the registers on which this work operates–mute, voiced, gestural, political, social, personal, anguished, agent.

(nos)-otr@s *

A reconfiguration of nosotros, the Spanish for WE. There is nos, the subject “we”. This is the people with power [the oppressor, colonizer, privileged] contained with-in—– hyphenated —–yet in constant exchange with the other, el otro, the oppressed. I add the @ to have both-genders-in-one and in order to neutralize the masculine predominance that exists within the Spanish language.

- Rigoberto Lara Guzman

This can’t be the conclusion.

The performance—an ephemeral, manifold act—was, and is, experienced through a host of positions (of body, perspective, etc.). We acknowledge that this work can only be documented collectively. We invite you to join us in the process by adding to the comments stream below.

Entering The Exception and the Rule

If your name is a sound, what does it move like? On Saturday April 6, fourteen people gathered in the Walker’s Barnes conference room for the first of four days working on radical political theatre practices in preparation for a performance piece applying working methods of Augusto Boal to Bertolt’s Brecht’s 1929 learning play The […]

Sketch1sketch2sketch3

If your name is a sound, what does it move like?

On Saturday April 6, fourteen people gathered in the Walker’s Barnes conference room for the first of four days working on radical political theatre practices in preparation for a performance piece applying working methods of Augusto Boal to Bertolt’s Brecht’s 1929 learning play The Exception and the Rule. The impetus for this gathering–a process of workshopping, translating, and performing–is a key element of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal.

Led by the artists, the workshops immediately established a space where institutional roles of curator/artist/producer/participant collapsed. From the onset it was clear that we would all participate equally in the activities to come. And the roles we each play daily– labor lawyer, father, educator, student, playwright, activist–would simultaneously materialize and dematerialize. During our time together, we would confront the fundamentals of where we stand and act in the world–politically, socially, morally–exploring our mutable positions (and positionalities) through movement and voice.

But first, we have to introduce ourselves. We each do this through performing our names– crossing a circle we’ve formed as a group, moving towards another participant, and enacting ourselves through sound and movement. A trilled erre, hurried consonants, languid strolls, skips, hops, leaps. Characters begin to form and morph within the span of a few paces. This sets the tone for the days to come– rich with movement, reflection, and rigor enacted through Boal’s games.

Brad and Karen led us through a rich and complex succession of games. Following is a taste of a few.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis a game of trust. It’s also a game of power. One person holds out their hand and the other keeps their face within four inches of it. The person with their hand out leads, the other follows, and then they switch. There are two rules. Both people must be silent and need to maintain four inches between the face and hand.

If you were to float above us during this exercise, you would see pairs of people respectively running, crawling, walking at snail’s pace. Some of the leaders did so gently. Others were more aggressive. Some pairs moved meditatively, like tai chi. Others moved acrobatically.

There were three progressions of this exercise:

First–One leads, one follows. Invert.

Second—Neither leads, neither follows. How do you move with mutuality?

Third: Both resist. How do you move?

We paused every so often to scan the room to see what positions bodies had found themselves, and to digest each as positions of power.

The game called up questions of parity, mutuality, leadership, internal conflict, and the ease and difficulty of trust. We formed a collective body– one that made clear the ways in which the position of being a leader or follower, are inherently precarious.

Image Work

We stood in a circle, turned outwards and closed our eyes. We were told a word and instructed to illustrate it with our bodies. Some of these words–like silence, trust, merchant, and coolie– came directly from the group’s response to the play. We made these images silently, first for ourselves and then for the group.

We then turned into the circle and presented our body images as body memories. With some of these, we were asked to hold our position and gravitate to others in the room with whom we felt some affinity. We clustered in groups that became tableaus  and were told to freeze in place. Group by group we showed each other our tableaus. Our fellow players were asked to describe what they saw in the happenstance scene, to tease out the hierarchies of power between bodies and gestures.

This is a just a brief fragment of how we worked, building a collective consciousness and a shared vocabulary that was at once physical, emotional and verbal– bringing the body to bear in the production of knowledge. During the performance due to take place tonight at 7pm, the audience will witness the slippage between Boal’s practice, Brecht’s narrative and the life experiences of the players. The event will be improvisational and open to contributions from its audience. This framework invites consideration of the subtleties of power, not only of the play’s characters, but of the players and the audience in the space. In this way, this moment serves to open the discursive space embedded in the exhibition itself. In place of being a finite performance, it serves as a rehearsal for how viewers might engage in the Museum of Non Participation throughout its Walker debut.

Eyal Weizman: Institutions and Initiative

It goes without saying that an art center such as the Walker is the sum of many parts: from the physical structure that holds a variety of discipline-specific content and acts as a beacon for publics from the Twin Cities and further afield; to its programming team and support staff who ride the hamster-wheel of […]

Walker Art Center plans & sections

It goes without saying that an art center such as the Walker is the sum of many parts: from the physical structure that holds a variety of discipline-specific content and acts as a beacon for publics from the Twin Cities and further afield; to its programming team and support staff who ride the hamster-wheel of cultural production, feeding an expectant audience near and far. There are also the artists who create artworks and choose this place to be the hallowed ground on which they stand and are consumed, whether permanently (through entry into the collection), or ever so temporally.  The Walker’s long  history exists not only as a reference to what has been achieved, but also stands as a tangible entity that the institution needs to answer to in the present in order to push forth a legacy steeped in time. Beyond this, there are of course other unseen realities, functions and qualities that make up the Walker – the sobering forces of economics whether monetary or otherwise, the cultural capital embedded in our collection and the caché this offers amongst a broader art world. There are of course power relations and political forces implicit in all these aspects of the institution.

Using these elements as fertile ground for discussion and collective thinking, the Interdisciplinary Work Group (IWG) has come together to assess the “pragmatic and more theoretical” concerns of engaging in and supporting interdisciplinary practices. This inquiry has been directed at both internal ways of working across programming teams as well as looking at how artists work today, which is in a manner that increasingly defies disciplinary divisions of performance, visual art, theatre, film/video. The group has been a somewhat self-sufficient initiative since fall 2011, inviting a selection of artists and thinkers to discuss interdisciplinary and collaborative practices and the spaces that support their growth and sustainability.

During one such session, which I initiated, the group met with architectural theorist Eyal Weizman to discuss his approach to similar questions that have arisen through his research-led practice. Below is a report from writer Susannah Schouweiler on our conversations. I have taken the liberty to highlight the points in the text that I feel have a particular pertinence to discussions the group has had to date, namely foregrounding the fact that this process can play a part in ‘institution building’. The work of the IWG need not just be about assessing the status quo, but can be about working with our colleagues to formulate a departure from existing models into as yet to be determined future ones.

As a point of reference, I also want to call out two institutions that share similar profiles of having once been ‘multidisciplinary art centers’: the Institute of Contemporary Art , London and The Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw (whose recent project Office of Possibilities covers similar terrain to the IWG). Emerging from questions of how multidisciplinary art centers continue to function in a climate where disciplinary boundaries are transgressed and blurred, the two institutions have evolved new structures that attempt to bridge the gap between disciplinary departments internally and promote new models for supporting interdisciplinary art practice. I also want to direct your attention to another project, Department 21, which took similar pains to re-imagine another great institutional context that has gone through major transition in recent decades – the art school.

___

A small group of Walker staff – researchers, educators, programmers and curators — convened in the center’s basement Art Lab last October to talk with Israeli architect, human rights activist, polymath artist and intellectual Eyal Weizman. All of us members of the Walker’s IWG, we met for an informal conversation led by visual arts curatorial fellow Yesomi Umolu, who’d invited Weizman to speak briefly with us.

Umolu begins by asking us to consider Weizman’s varied practice – in ‘forensic architecture’, human rights advocacy, collectively produced, activist art installations in Palestine — with an eye toward “the pragmatics and challenges involved in fostering and sustaining institutional support structures for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.” She notes that “aside from his theoretical aptitude, Eyal has been quite successful at establishing productive arenas for exchange, carving out spaces for interdisciplinary work in both heavily bureaucratic settings (like the university)” as well as in settings more politically charged and restrictive, like his work in Palestine.

Umolu particularly points to his efforts in the creation of an open residency model for the collective behind Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (D.A.A.R.) based in Beit Sahour, Palestine. According to the mission statement provided online, the D.A.A.R. “combines discourse, spatial intervention, education, collective learning, public meetings and legal challenges… to act both propositionally and critically within an environment in which the political force field is dramatically distorted. [To that end, the collective] proposes the subversion, reuse, profanation and recycling of the existing infrastructure of a colonial occupation.”

But before our discussion with Weizman begins in earnest, as with all meetings, members of the IWG begin by introducing themselves. Our introductions around the table stop for a moment with Susy Bielak, the Walker’s Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs. Weizman interjects with questions of his own for her – about Bielak’s role in the institution, her work at the Walker — upon hearing her title. He wonders aloud about the designation, “director of public and interpretive programs,” parsing the language of the title, noting how such a moniker in an arts center like ours betrays the changing cultural currents beneath the surface, the evolutions in institutional roles and intentions. Usually, he says, interpretation of art is left to the viewer. “What does it mean for an institution to invert the process of interpretation in this way? Does it amount to sampling the world?” Further, he wonders aloud, “all of these other roles we have in such arts centers, could they be inverted, too?”

He goes on, “There is a certain critical mass, beyond which institutions are no longer just a black box, a container for art to show, and for the public to see.” To remain relevant, Weizman reflects, “an institution has to be a step ahead, to anticipate and even to create the very conditions for the art it will later show.”

“It’s a question of scale, isn’t it?” he asks. “And that’s the wonder of what you have here: The ambition of creating quasi-think tanks within a center [the way the Walker has], across a variety of disciplines, and then dispatching those fine senses into the world, cultivating an institutional, interpretive practice that is mediated through artistic research… that’s very interesting.”

Take the Walker’s new website, he says. “It’s full of independently produced, outward-looking commentary. That’s such a change from the usual museum presence online, restricted to presenting the art and information particular to its own collection.”

He says, “To be relevant, your institution has created a free-standing information channel, providing news and commentary of its own [rather than relying on outside media to interpret the work].” Further, “it’s not about visiting that artist ‘over there’ anymore. Curators need to go ‘there’ before any art is even proposed, as part of the institution’s preliminary research. It’s the difference between institutional cultivation and discovery.”

***

After the introductions are complete, Weizman explains a bit about the origins and practical structures undergirding the practice and residency program of Decolonizing Architecture. D.A.A.R. was co-founded by Weizman, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, who currently manages the collective’s day-to-day activities and programs. The site, southeast of Bethlehem, has between three and 15 residents at any given time; the  Delfina Foundation fully supports two of those residents, selected through an open, competitive process.

Weizman laughs, “D.A.A.R. started as a $300,000 grant in search of a mission.” He explains, “Alessandro [Petti] is a writer; I wrote a book; Sandi [Hilal] wrote a book. In the course of our own research, we realized that a lot of people were interested in coming to Palestine. Slowly, what emerged from our work there was an entirely different type of architectural practice.” He goes on to note that, while there are other architectural residencies people can apply for, D.A.A.R. combines those residential residencies with a type of studio residency, putting artists and architects in residence together. He says, “What is interesting about colonizing the architecture [in these contested areas of Palestine], beyond the work itself, is that doing so involves bringing together a collective studio, creating a commons among us.”

What unites their various practices, he says, is “a very Godard question (i.e. Do you make political film, or do you film politically?). For us, that question is: Do we engage with existing political architecture, or do we work politically, actively creating the conditions for our practice?”

“For us,” he says, “any collaboration [with existing political architecture] would effectively amount to a normalization of the situation [in Palestine]– we just wanted to get away from all that.” He goes on, “The end of the Intifada was fuzzy, it was dangerous — the whole idea of cultural agency in the midst of that brutal repression. But afterward, you could see an A-list of international scholars passing through Ramallah; it was like a permanent biennale.” He goes on to note that “the area’s not under siege anymore; it’s actually very cosmopolitan: it’s like Tel Aviv, but with a wall around it, where you can’t move around freely. The time was ripe for a ‘cultural Intifada.’”

By way of its residency program, the D.A.A.R. collective has produced work shown in biennales and museums around the world — the Venice Biennale, the Bozar in Brussels, NGBK in Berlin, the Istanbul Biennial, The Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, Home Works in Beirut, Architekturforum Tirol in Innsbruk, the Tate in London, the Oslo Triennial, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and many other places.

Yesomi Umolu raises a practical but thorny question: “Given the collaborative manner of creation of work in the D.A.A.R., how does the group handle issues of co-authorship and credit?” Weizman shrugs, saying, “Our captions (for work) are a mess. We never managed to figure out how to credit all those involved our works’ creation; there’s always a diary, a description of where the work comes from, how it came about. But what we do is alive, it’s changing all the time, and so the notion of credit… we just figuring it out as we go. The end goal is to have co-authorship, of course, but the minute particular names are involved it gets complicated, too confined.”

Michele Steinwald, a curator of performing arts at the Walker, changes the direction of the conversation, referring to the more philosophical notions presented in Weizman’s talk the night before: ideas about art as truth-seeking, about the sleuthing, investigative work involved in “forensic architecture” and its slippery, aesthetically creative conclusions. She asks him to apply those insights to a question that’s been troubling her, to do with the implicit transactions involved in publicly presenting performance — transactional expectations framing the relationship between audience and performer, but also that of the commissioning institution and artist. Steinwald said she was curious how Weizman might “rupture” those expectations, re-negotiate terms and expectations on both sides to change the way work is created, presented and, ultimately, publicly received.

She says: “In the world of dance, there’s a sense that our audiences simply don’t understand contemporary work. So, as a presenter I’ve been struggling to find ways to be more generous about explaining, about arming the audience before the artists perform. I’m trying to work backwards from the conditions framing the transactional nature of buying a ticket, seeing a show.”

Steinwald puts it another way: “How do I unearth the ‘truth’ of artistic practice and process behind performance, the logic of choreography for the uninitiated? How do I tell the story of that work in a transformational way?” She goes on to tie her questions to Weizman’s own work: “Yesterday, in your presentation about the investigation and narrative creation involved in ‘forensic architecture,’ you talked about the inherent plasticity, the inevitable give in the truth-seeking process.”

She’s interested in the plasticity inherent in the transactions, the commercial relationships implicit in public performance, Steinwald says: “I’d like to break down audience presumptions surrounding monetary value, the expectations that follow when you buy and ticket and sit and watch something in a theater for a certain period of time. I want time to stand still during performance, to play with the framing conditions in such a way that we can cultivate altogether different audience experiences of dance.”

Weizman responds bluntly: “I don’t know. But I’m fascinated by your articulation of this idea of a contract [between ticket-buyer and performer, commissioner and artist], and what might be involved in the breaking of the contract.” He muses, “I’ve written [in The Least of All Possible Evils] about the process of seeing as something that needs to be opened or ruptured.” As in the situation you mention, he says, “there’s a kind of transactional contract involved in seeing,” and it’s one, Weizman notes, that warrants deconstruction.

He says, “There is a fabulous political theorist Ariella Azoulay; she writes about something she calls ‘the civil contract’, taking the idea from Rousseau.” With regard to Steinwald’s concerns, he says, an interesting line of inquiry can emerge from that starting point: “What is the civil contract involved here, and how might you open up the formalization of these relationships [between audiences and performers] in a way that transcends the transactions of consumption?”

Simply put: “What is in the ‘contract’ of dance performance? How might you present dance in such a way that disrupts that original, implicit contract [rooted in models and expectations of consumption], and which opens up new modes of relationality?” This isn’t so much an avant garde disruption of viewing you seem to be talking about, he says to Steinwald, as it is a shift in understanding of the “conceptual, political, intellectual” underpinnings of the work itself and how it’s conceived.

Weizman steps back from the specifics of dance, to more general notions to do with specialty and the privilege of expert knowledge or disciplinary fluency. “We need to think of the emergence of ideas as being part of their time. I’m less concerned with doubt or deconstruction, or the imagined oppression of specialists or experts.” The fact is, he says, “you don’t have to be expert to participate in the conversation.”

As for ‘truth,’ he says, that’s plastic too: “I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of doubt.” After all, Weizman says, “bringing doubt is what artists do — that’s the role of aesthetics, isn’t it? We need to be projective, we need to propose new worlds.”

He argues for artists to embrace “militancy – aesthetic, artistic, creative power focused like a laser beam.” He says, “I grew up in [Israel] — a country that is colonizing, killing – and we have to do better, we have to take sides. We need to think beyond artistic critique to partisanship, and the work of proposing something new.”

FireCliff 3: In the presence of Monster

Looking back on the evening of Thursday 30th May, when Minouk Lim in collaboration with Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson presented the performance FireCliff 3 in the Walker’s Burnet gallery, it is rather difficult to recall the intricacies of the piece. This is made ever more complex by the fact that I was privy to its […]

Photo: Gene Pittman

Looking back on the evening of Thursday 30th May, when Minouk Lim in collaboration with Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson presented the performance FireCliff 3 in the Walker’s Burnet gallery, it is rather difficult to recall the intricacies of the piece. This is made ever more complex by the fact that I was privy to its development from concept to realization, so my thoughts are inevitably filled with successive impressions of it. For me, the performance exists as series of fragments of half finished and half completed movements, recollections of late night rehearsals and early morning Skype conversations, continuous reviews of scripted elements and sounds samples, all conflated with countless musings on the pragmatics of lighting, sound and crowd control. I suspect this is also how Lim and Johnson experienced that evening; as they stood at the crest of a figurative firecliff in the darkened gallery, ready to deliver for the first time to an expecting audience.

Despite my fuzzy memory, on the night, the work presented itself anew, and as I watched it unfold, certain elements that repeatedly came to the fore during the project’s gestation resonated once more. As such, in place of providing a play-by-play review of the performance, which will do it a great disservice, I offer a reading of it through the singularity of the word Monster. Yes, Monster. This particular noun came into Lim and Johnson’s joint vocabulary during the very early stages of their conversations, which were conducted via emails and Skype sessions given their relative distance from each other – being in Seoul and Minneapolis respectively. In an early correspondence Johnson writes about her explorations of “the ongoing creation of Monster” in a new choreography she was developing at the time.  Speaking about the menace of this at once real and imagined fiend, she conjured images of terror, fear, evil and destruction in relation to the natural world, socio-cultural relations and oneself.

Instinctively for some, Monster takes them back to childhood – to the creature under the bed (or in the wardrobe) that is a signifier of childhood fears and uncertainties about the world beyond the safe space of the bedroom. For others, Monster is the mythical being that populates old wives tales and urban legends. Ostensibly fictive, it often exists as a constructive coping mechanism in places that have faced real moments of trauma. Being from across the proverbial pond, the Monster to the north in Loch Ness is an international calling card for tourism to the region as well as a representation of belonging and shared belief (or skepticism) across the communities of those great isles. Even more menacing for some, in the complex realm of geopolitics, Monster poses a very real danger to real lives in the form of military action, seemingly dormant terrorist threats or even multilateral sanctions that purport to serve a greater good. For no matter what side of the geographical or ideological border you are on, the specter of war and conflict signal a very monstrous end.

Photo: Jenna Klein

All these strands converged poignantly in FireCliff 3, as Johnson’s scripted monologue and choreography returned the audience to the place of childhood memories and family interactions. In the haphazard yet formal gestures and poses of the five dancers, we witnessed the “feasting and dancing, talking and making things” of days gone by. Propelled into a space that narrated the ritualized effacement and remembering of the past, of time hurtling forward and receding back into personal consciousness, benign movements took on ominous tones. Surely we were not to trust the saccharine and homely landscapes Johnson’s choreographed bodies created, because beneath all this there lay palpable moments of loss, death and anxiety – Monster was indeed very present.

Photo: Jenna Klein

Likewise, as the narrative transitioned to Lim’s inner voice, we were brought within reach of the mental state of individuals and communities who live in the shadow of potentially monstrous neighbors. For the artist, this is most evident in the threat to the north of South Korea’s territorial boundaries. By extension, Lim’s script also articulated the dangers of seeking protection or release from the grip of Monster – and the ‘by any means necessary’ dictum that usually guides such desires. In this case, the rampant militarization of borders that has gripped her country in the name of maintaining the political impasse and the contingent relationship with western powers, particularly America, have in themselves become stifling facets of daily life. Lim summed this up beautifully when she uttered:

“I want to be part of you
I want to be chosen by you
I want to praise you and commit myself to you
I willingly show you the back of my neck”

On a broader level, Lim’s metaphor of vampirism and self sacrifice also extends to the quest for modernization and the compulsion to partake in capitalism’s global project that has gripped emerging economies in the late 20th century. This is has proven itself to be an ideal that consumes hearts, bodies and minds indiscriminately – a fact that Lim experiences firsthand living through rapid social and spatial change in contemporary Seoul. In touching on this very salient point, FireCliff 3 ultimately asks: ‘where do we to turn, when in an attempt for self preservation and progress, we succumb to Monster and end up replicating its features?’ This question lingered heavily in the air as the audience stared at their reflections and that of the infrared feed of the performance through the mirrored screen ahead of them. Thus begging the question, might we be able to turn to each other for emancipation?

Photo: Jenna Klein

If as the performance proceeded, there appeared to be no resolution to this conundrum, then this was certainly helped by sound director Byungjun Kwons’s fascinatingly anarchic soundtrack, which mixed sound samples from Korean Pop culture, Top 40 hits and traditional Korean instrumentals with aplomb. Under the weight of this aural onslaught, the performers oscillated between desperation and exhaustion. Similarly the assembled audience was caught in the belly of the beast unable to escape its raging tumult.

Nevertheless, amongst the darkness and melancholy, there was much light in the performance, both symbolically and literally. For essentially, both Lim and Johnson infer that when there is no one else to turn to, then courage must come from within. The kernel of this idea can be traced to earlier exchange between the collaborators, where Lim writes of conceiving “Monster as courage…who is not afraid of dying and darkness…” Sharing this sentiment, Johnson adds “Monster as flame of light, as courage to be reborn.”

Photo: Jenna Klein

At this point, it is important to mention the use of Lim’s wearable sculptures and Portable Keepers throughout the performance as it points to the possibility of countering the destructive forces of Monster. Constructed from scavenged industrial materials that are piled and pasted together, these objects at first sight appear to be of little use or import. But as the dancers go about carrying, holding, hugging and raising them aloft, contorting their bodies to the uneven forms, they take on a peculiar functionality.

At various junctions in the performance, the wearable sculptures become shields or appendages to the human frame, at other moments they are mere adornments –for a short while transforming into impromptu headdresses or jewelry. These vignettes gesture towards the overturning of fear and sorrow into direct action and resilience that often follows cataclysmic events of social change, political upheaval or natural disasters. Whether we consider the use of raw material as emergency shelters, or the shifting of social oppression into a revolutionary spirit or even the translation of acts of terror into an ethos of tolerance, Lim’s tactile sculptures embody the overwhelming ability of the human spirit to push through all costs. In the end, it is clear that Lim and Johnson encourage their protagonists and the audience alike to be consumed by the mess and mayhem of Monster – to emerge from within its bowels. Monster thus transposes into medium for constructive reawakening and rebirth.

Photo: Jenna Klein

Fittingly, the performance ends with Lim starkly describing the death of an unidentified lover, juxtaposed with a projection of her 2009 moving image work Portable Keeper. As the figure in the video carries a totem pole fashioned by Lim through the busy streets and construction sites of Seoul, the performers unravel and raise aloft a limp fishing net weighed down by latex. In this closing sketch, Lim and Johnson allude to the reclaiming of forgotten lives, memories, most importantly, a foreseeable future, that can be brought about after succumbing to and surviving the presence of Monster.

 

 

Artists in Conversation

Holy Bible: New Testament

In every work of art, there is a hidden set of influences that the audience may never see: conversations the artist had with peers, exhibitions he or she saw while creating the work, expectations for the medium that were established by predecessors. Throughout The Living Years: Art After 1989, you can see the different ways artists bring other artists, both contemporary and historical, into their work. The dialog between artists is made explicit – the influences no longer need to be guessed at because, for example, the work might be a blatant recreation of an iconic sculpture or it might state flat-out who was involved. In doing so, the artists explore the types of exchanges that occur in the art community and how these define artistic identity.

Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Fresh Acconci (1995) is fresh in that it is new, with the pair remaking seminal 1970s video pieces by Vito Acconci. But it is also fresh in the way we might refer to a back-talking child. Kelley and McCarthy restage these once intimate videos, placing them in the context of Hollywood and the porn industry. While Acconci’s videos are sparingly staged and naturally lit, this updated version features naked models in a sun-streaked Hollywood hills mansion. The original stand-alone pieces, now sandwiched together into one cyclical 45-minute video work, become a nightmarish playhouse that the performers cannot escape. In choosing to cast glamorous models to play the actors (unlike previous collaborations between the pair where they themselves performed), Kelley and McCarthy are commenting on their own feelings of entrapment by Acconci’s legacy. Yet at the same time, the artists are making an Oedipal attempt to break free of it. In an earlier collaboration, Family Tyranny (1987), recently shown at This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s, the two artists explore the relationship between an abusive father and his son (performed by McCarthy and Kelley, respectively). That video begins with the text, “The father begat the son. The son begat the father.” With Fresh Acconci exploring and criticizing the idea of artistic patrilineage, it could have opened with the very same lines.

Anonymous II

Kris Martin. Anonymous II (2009). buried human skeleton, certificate accompanying burial. overall 16 x 16 inches. Image: Walker Art Center

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“The Quiet Revolutionary”: Honoring Librarian Rosemary Furtak

A beloved member of the Walker family and the book arts community, Rosemary Furtak, the Walker’s librarian for 29 years, passed away Sunday, July 8, 2012, at age 69.

Rosemary Furtak, 1986

A beloved member of the Walker family and the book arts community, Rosemary Furtak passed away Sunday, July 8, 2012, at age 69. She was a great colleague and friend, and one who will be sorely missed.

Last week we celebrated a beloved colleague, Rosemary Furtak, who retired recently after a 29-year career at the Walker. Countless curators, scholars, writers, artists, designers, and others—both inside and outside the art center—have a special fondness for the Walker Library, which houses more than 35,000 publications in a wonderfully hushed, secluded underground space. This is thanks largely to Rosemary and the infectious enthusiasm she brought to her profession as a librarian–and, more to the point, to her role in establishing and building the library’s collection of some 1,600 artist’s books.

It was for her work in both of those capacities that she received a Distinguished Service Award from the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS) at its 2012 conference, held last March in Toronto. “In the early 1980s, Rosemary was among the few art museum librarians who recognized a fundamental difference between artists’ books and others, and who segregated them into special collections areas that would eventually become known as ‘Artists’ Book Collections’,” noted Janice Lea Lurie, head librarian at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in presenting the award. “The idea that artists’ books are different, or as Rosemary stated, they are ‘books that refuse to behave like other books’, was a visionary step, as no well-defined precedents in the early 1980s existed for establishing artists’ book collections. Consequently, Rosemary was a pioneer in this area, which later became part of the “collection development” mainstream of the late 1980s and early ’90s.”

In their nomination letter, Lurie and a host of other ARLIS colleagues wrote of the ongoing impact of Rosemary’s “early and visionary leadership” not just in art museum librarianship, but also in the books arts community and “the strongly rooted ‘book-scene’ culture of the Twin Cities.” They cited her as both a “well-known local personality in the art, library, and book arts circles” and “a highly respected and beloved figure internationally”; and, finally, noting her “very quiet way” and “great modesty”—something that endeared her to so many—they proposed for her the title of “The Quiet Revolutionary.” More than 30 of Furtak’s fellow art librarians and other colleagues in book arts and museums supported the nomination.

Many of us at the Walker already miss Rosemary’s sharp insights and vast knowledge, not to mention her connoisseurship of chocolate and her sartorial flair (on any given day she could easily take the award for best-dressed Walker staffer). We will also sorely miss her miniature exhibitions of artists’ books, an ongoing series presented in a specially built display case right outside the library. Fortunately, all of these exhibitions dating back to 2005 have been documented in photos–click here to see the full collection on Flickr.

For more on Rosemary and the artists’ book collection – including 13 great examples of works—see this interview from 2008, conducted as she was co-curating the exhibition Text/Messages with Walker curator Siri Engberg; and her article, “Adventures in Collecting, originally published in Walker magazine.

Recent artist's book display, organized by Rosemary Furtak

 

 

 

 

From the Archives: Jud Nelson’s Hefty 2-Ply

On view through May 27 as a part of Lifelike, the 1,500-pound Hefty 2-Ply made quite a splash when it first landed at the Walker in 1981.  The Walker commissioned Jud Nelson in 1979 to make a piece for its permanent collection; it took nearly two years to carve it from marble. Known for his depictions of everyday […]

On view through May 27 as a part of Lifelike, the 1,500-pound Hefty 2-Ply made quite a splash when it first landed at the Walker in 1981. 

"Hefty 2-Ply" on view as part of "Lifelike" (with Rudolph Stingel’s oil painting "Untitled (after Sam)," from 2006.

The Walker commissioned Jud Nelson in 1979 to make a piece for its permanent collection; it took nearly two years to carve it from marble. Known for his depictions of everyday items — Shirts IV: Van Heusen and Chair are also part of the Walker collection – the artist opted to make a garbage bag bursting with familiar throwaways from the latter half of the 20th century.

Nelson at work on "Hefty 2-ply" in his New York Studio, 1980.

He started by roughing out its form from Italian Carrera marble, using a hammer and chisel, then refined the piece with rotary grinders and finished the details with dental drills fitted with diamond bits. Several items, including products from Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Kitty Klean, date the sculpture to a distinct period and are all identifiable — by the artist, at least — within its bulges and wrinkles.

The artist installing his work in July, 1981.

Nelson, an alumnus of Bethel College and the University of Minnesota, was on hand to install Hefty 2-Ply in Gallery 7 (now the Medtronic Gallery), and the sculpture was unveiled in a special ceremony as part of the Walker’s 10th  anniversary celebration of its Barnes building on July 12, 1981.

Cartoon from the "Minneapolis Star," July 16, 1981

More than 12,000 people showed up for the festivities — some 8,000 more than were anticipated – and Hefty 2-Ply‘s debut stirred up further press and interest, such as this cartoon from the Minneapolis Star.

At the Walker's 10th anniversary celebration

As with so many of the painstaking replicas in Lifelike, the realism of Hefty 2-Ply has a special kind of allure. And while it’s tempting to touch – alas, the the usual museum rules apply to this favorite Walker artwork. 

 

 

From the Archives: 1971 and “everything that is farthest out on the current art scene”

In contemporary art, it’s not hard to summon nostalgia for the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when so much of what artists were producing seemed authentically new and authentically cool (at least given today’s perceptions about “authentic,” “new,” or “cool”). The art world was smaller and more manageable in many ways, not least […]

In 1971, Dan Flavin’s tunnel filled with multicolored lights, "Untitled (To Elizabeht and Richard Koshalek)," bisected a new Walker gallery designed to accommodate such works.

In contemporary art, it’s not hard to summon nostalgia for the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when so much of what artists were producing seemed authentically new and authentically cool (at least given today’s perceptions about “authentic,” “new,” or “cool”). The art world was smaller and more manageable in many ways, not least because the practice of discovering “alternative modernisms” had yet to be discovered. In New York, which was still regarded as its capital, artists were still colonizing the neglected downtown Manhattan lofts that would later become coveted real estate; more to the point, they were making art in these spaces that had no place in typical white-cube galleries and museums.

That’s what made the 1971 exhibition Works for New Spaces such a critical moment in the Walker’s history and, arguably, in the broader art world. Curated by then-director Martin Friedman, the show inaugurated the Walker’s new building designed by Edward Larabee Barnes, whose seven white-cube galleries were, in fact, designed specifically with these new kinds of artworks in mind. As the title indicates, 21 of its 22 works were special commissions, with artists making the work partly or wholly on site. That practice is commonplace now, but this was the first time it had been done, at least on such a wide scale.

By 1971, Friedman had been leading the Walker for a decade, establishing his reputation as “a vigorous champion of everything that is farthest out on the current art scene,” as Hilton Kramer noted in the New York Times, reviewing both Works for New Spaces and the new Barnes building. But the commissioning of new art, which has become integral to the Walker’s mission, didn’t really get underway until the late 60s, while the Barnes building was under construction.

As Friedman recalled in the Walker’s Bits & Pieces collections catalogue, those commissions included Red Grooms’ The Discount Store, installed in the State Theatre building a few blocks away on Hennepin Avenue; and outdoor works around the city by William Wegman, Richard Treiber, Barry LeVa and others for 9 Artists/9 Spaces. Regarding that show, Friedman said that “practically everything was destroyed in one way or another by the public” during what he called “tense anarchic days, with protests, riots, and bombings all over the country. … We certainly never thought of what we were doing as confrontational, but those were difficult times.” (More on 9 Artists/9 Spaces here and here.)

The art in Works for New Spaces, however, was presented in and around a new, pretty much universally lauded building (the one exception being a strobe-light piece by the artist group Pulsa in Loring Park), so the Walker director could be as far-out as he wished without worrying about people attacking the art. As he put it, “the artists we invited could hardly wait to attack the building, and they did, in the most amazing ways.”

Looking back 40 years from another era of “difficult times,” Friedman’s references to artists and the public on the attack, not to mention the destruction of artworks, are notable. Even if riots and bombings are still mostly taking place outside the U.S., there’s no question about the domestic factor in Time’s naming “the protester” as its “Person of the Year” with a cover story penned by Kurt Andersen.

It’s also easier to see how 1971 and Works for New Spaces were not so much the advent of the ’70s but rather a culmination of the ’60s—a decade “of relentless and discombobulating avant-gardism, when everything looked and sounded perpetually new new new,” as Andersen observes in another piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. Incidentally, his characterization of the ’60s in that article is part of a broader and fascinating complaint about how current culture seems stuck rewinding the past 20 years. Perhaps that phenomenon explains a craving for new-new-new alternatives to the same-old same-old—or maybe just a fondness for old art that was once bracingly new.

Above, Minneapolis Tribune coverage of the opening festivities for the new building and the show, which “has completely dominated the local art scene lately and continues to be a source of discussion and debate,” wrote critic Mike Steele in a later piece.

 

The forms in Lynda Benglis’ Adhesive Products “assume the character of spectral, primordial creatures.” One of the “products” was remounted for the 2010 Walker exhibition Abstract Resistance; and in 2009, Friedman wrote a comprehensive story about the Benglis commission in Art in America. (This quote and those following are from the exhibition catalog.)

In Siah Armajani’s Fifth Element, “a folded gold plane floats in space with no visible means of support and rotates mysteriously on its vertical axis. The supporting device, an electromagnet developed by University of Minnesota physicists, is concealed within the white ceiling box. Armajani’s use of sophisticated technology is that of a mystic.”

 

Created with “gauze-like fabric tautly stretched across a space,” Robert Irwin’s No Title was remounted in 2009, appropriately enough, in the Walker’s Friedman Gallery, part of the 2005 expansion to Barnes’ 1971 building. A blog post about the reinstallation shows some great archival images of Irwin and an assistant at work

Sam Gilliam, “once associated with the Washington School of Color-field painting,” had by 1971 “abaondoned the use of the stretched canvas” to make works like Carousel Merge, above. Gilliam intended the canvas to be “hung in a variety of configurations in any given space.”

Larry Bell used “a huge vacuum chamber to adhere vaporous layers of a silver alloy on glass plates, which then assume an elusive reflectivity” in Garst’s Mind No. 2.

 

In James Seawright’s Network III, a “suspended light grid receives its impulses from a programmed computer,” but the viewer is also “a participant whose movements direct the patterned activity overhead.”

 

 

The Lament of Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) 2011

“Our emotional environment is poor and dangerous. Artistic work can’t change it, but it can transcribe it. It can also give an opinion, which we are never asked for.”           –From Claire Fontaine’s Requiem for Jean Charles de Menezes, a work in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial After my recent visit to the 12th installment of […]

Kris Martin, Obussen II (2010)

“Our emotional environment is poor and dangerous. Artistic work can’t change it, but it can transcribe it. It can also give an opinion, which we are never asked for.”

          –From Claire Fontaine’s Requiem for Jean Charles de Menezes, a work in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial

After my recent visit to the 12th installment of the Istanbul Biennial, which closes November 13, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of nostalgia and lament that pervades this major survey of international contemporary art. Curated by Jens Hoffmann, a U.S.-based curator from Latin America, and Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, the exhibition takes on the age-old debate between form and content — an art world polemic that predictably resurfaces in urgent times when formal and aesthetic concerns seem less relevant in the face of economic and sociopolitical turmoil.

Taking inspiration from the influential work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996), the curators pay homage to the late American artist of Cuban descent, whose sculptures and installations of the 1990s provide an ideal lexicon of artistic practice to address the current moment. Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres was an artist whom Hoffmann and Pedrosa contend “successfully negotiated the personal and the political while maintaining an extremely sophisticated formal vocabulary, utilizing an aesthetic language drawn in part from post-Minimalism, Conceptualism and in part simply from everyday life.”

Organized into five sub-exhibitions, the biennial took as its point of departure five iconic works by Gonzalez-Torres, among them a history dateline piece, a candy pile totaling the ideal weight of his deceased lover Ross, a minimal grid from the “bloodwork” series (in which the artist charted the declining T-cells of his HIV-ridden immune system), and several paper stacks — one comprised of images of the sky printed in the form of passports and the other of posters memorializing the number of deaths in the U.S. by gunfire during a violent  week in 1989. These works provided the organizing principle for the biennial around the potent themes of Gonzalez-Torres’ art: abstraction, history, identity, violence, and loss. To further reinforce this artistic tribute, the curators titled the biennial Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), appropriating Gonzalez-Torres’ own titling convention in which he would leave his works untitled (save for a short subtitle) to privilege both his subjectivity and that of his audience.

Ryue Nishizawa's architecture for the biennial

Although no original works by Gonzalez-Torres were included in the exhibition, they were repeatedly evoked throughout the installation, which filled two former naval hangars adjacent to the Istanbul Modern Museum, which is situated along the Bosphorus River. The curators’ desire to organize and thematize viewer experience through the show was complemented by the architecture of Ryue Nishizawa, who was commissioned to design a wall system to house the exhibition. Ryue created a metaphorical village that evoked the notion of parallel neighborhoods.

The exhibition included works by well-known and unfamiliar artists from around the world with notable emphases on artists from Latin America and the Middle East. Among my favorite works in the biennial were Kris Martin’s installation Obussen II (2010), a glistening pile of more than 700 polished Howitzer shells from World War I that evoked the human casualties of war; Simryn Gill’s haunting photographs of abandoned houses outside Kuala Lumpur; William E. Jones’ film archiving hundreds of “killed” negatives from the U.S. Farm Security Administration (shown in the Walker exhibition The Spectacular of Vernacular; Milena Bonilla’s Stone Deaf (2009), a film that records all variety of insects crawling along the crack across Karl Marx’s grave; and Alessandro Balteo Yazbek & Media Farzin’s wry “Cultural Diplomacy” project, which finds curious and striking parallels between the development of modern art and global politics. These were among the few works in the exhibition that captured the spirit of Gonzalez-Torres and his approach to balancing the “personal” with the “political.”

Installation view of biennial sub-exhibition Untitled (Passport), with Rivane Neuenschwander's At A Certain Distance (Public Barriers) (2010)

The rest of the exhibition unfortunately suffered from an explicit and often far too literal illustration of central themes, specific content, and the formal and conceptual qualities of Gonzalez-Torres’ art. Nicolás Bacal’s appropriation of Gonzalez-Torres’ pivotal work featuring two wall clocks, Perfect Lovers (1991), went too far for my taste. By far, the strict avoidance of color in the palette of the art works chosen was at times unrelenting.  Frustrated visitors during my visit described the exhibition as “cold,” “clinical,” and unnecessarily “oppressive.”

As I journeyed through the show, I could not help but at times feel as if I had been transported back to 1996, the year that Felix Gonzalez-Torres died, when Dave Hickey was still completing his infamous essays on beauty and the debates about form and content were raging in the contemporary art world. It was a time when global consciousness was an imperative in the mainstream art world and many of the artists of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East — like Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum, Lygia Clark, Leonilson and others presented here — were just starting to be championed in an array of international venues, including the Istanbul Biennial. All this was happening just as geo-political borders around the world were dramatically shifting and the internet was about to explode.

We now find ourselves in a vastly different place and time, one inexorably wrought by the advances, ideals, obsessions, and failures of the prior two decades. Yet, rather than mine this fertile territory of the recent past to understand the exigencies of artists in the present, the curators of this year’s Istanbul Biennial seemed weighted down by their overwhelming nostalgia for the past and their lament for an impotent present.

This lament of the present was also visible in the 2011 installment of the Venice Biennale, which I wrote about in June. Yet, what registered for me in Istanbul was a lament of a different order. This lament was one specifically focused on art produced outside the mainstreams of contemporary art, and in particular on art made in Latin America and the Middle East. The lament I heard was twofold — that the contemporary arena has sadly only marginally advanced since Gonzalez-Torres first emerged on the global stage and that most of these artists, as well as a host of others we don’t know, still need to be given significant voice and championed.

While I undoubtedly share in this lament, what I still find lacking in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial is acknowledgement anywhere in the exhibition (save for in the uncontainable canvases of Mark Bradford) of the qualities that even the most politically engaged and challenging works of Gonzalez-Torres still possess — an indefatigable spirit of generosity and faith in the potential of art to not only transcribe the exigencies of the present moment but transcend them too.

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