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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.

Congratulations, Mr. Vo

It was great to see that Danh Vo was named the winner of the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize 2012 on November 1. The short list included some very strong artists, including the wonderful Trisha Donnelly, who was an important part of our 2009 exhibition The Quick and the Dead and whose work is in the Walker’s permanent collection. Having said that, […]

It was great to see that Danh Vo was named the winner of the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize 2012 on November 1. The short list included some very strong artists, including the wonderful Trisha Donnelly, who was an important part of our 2009 exhibition The Quick and the Dead and whose work is in the Walker’s permanent collection. Having said that, I’m a bit biased on this one as I’m working with Danh on 9 Artists, a group show that opens here in the fall of 2013. His work is also one of the most recent additions to the Walker collection: Last summer his Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010) was installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where it remains on view today. It’s a beautiful and complex work that we will likely be talking about more during next summer’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden 25th Anniversary celebrations.

For more on Vo, watch my conversation with him or read an article on his ambitious project We the People–a life-size cast of the Statue of Liberty, presented in unassembled fragments–currently on display at The Art Institute of Chicago and University of Chicago.

Remembering Rosemary Furtak, Champion of Artists’ Books

On July 8, we lost a dear friend when Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak passed away. Dedicating 29 years to the Walker Art Center, Rosemary was a leader in her field, building our library into one of the primary repositories for contemporary art research in the country. She knew that as an institution powered by the […]

Rosemary Furtak in the Walker Library, 2006. Photo: Gene Pittman

On July 8, we lost a dear friend when Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak passed away. Dedicating 29 years to the Walker Art Center, Rosemary was a leader in her field, building our library into one of the primary repositories for contemporary art research in the country. She knew that as an institution powered by the work of living artists, the library too must be a living, breathing organism, one that deepened not only our understanding of the artists in the Walker’s collection, but also in the world at large. Under her care, the library demonstrated that contemporary art was fast-paced and exciting. She made sure the right exhibition catalogues, periodicals, and offbeat ephemera were brought in to provide crucial context to the work of the many artists, performers, and filmmakers shown here. Her view was that a library of this nature must be both a repository and a space for active exploration.

Rosemary had many passions: edgy fashion, the Minnesota Twins, the hills of northern Italy, and concerts at Orchestra Hall, where she was an usher for years. But her greatest love was the field of artists’ books—volumes conceived as original works of art rather than reproductions or mass-produced publications. The art form took hold in the mid-1960s as many artists began to embrace the book as a uniquely democratic vehicle for presenting visual information, and has today grown into a vibrant area of artistic production. When it came to artists’ books, Rosemary was omnivorous, whether she was seeking out key historical examples, befriending rare book dealers here and abroad, or acquiring publications by talented young artists from the Twin Cities. In this arena Rosemary was a trailblazer, a distinction she wore with pride on her well-tailored sleeve.

Rosemary Furtak, 1986 Photo: Glenn Halvorson

Rosemary began her tenure at the Walker as librarian in 1983. Upon her arrival, the library owned 20,000 volumes, and only a handful of books made by artists, many of which had been inadvertently rubber-stamped and stored with exhibition catalogues and artist monographs. Seeing its potential value to the Walker’s collection, Rosemary proceeded to “rescue” this material and devote a special section to it. Her efforts were recognized by artist Sol LeWitt, who, while here installing his wall drawing Four Geometric Figures in a Room (1984; currently on view on the Walker’s 8th floor), paid a visit to the library and perused its holdings. He proceeded to hand Rosemary a check for $500, instructing her to officially launch a collection of books by artists. At the time, the sum went a long way and gave root to this now significant trove: today, the Walker’s library and permanent collections have grown to include more than 2,000 examples. All told, the library’s holdings doubled under her watch.

A selection of books made by artists from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

Rosemary created a unique community. Those who worked with her throughout the years came to know her as a friend, indispensable colleague, and mentor. The many artists, students, and book enthusiasts who visited her domain encountered a person whose passion for her work was contagious, and whose capacity for sharing her enthusiasms seemingly boundless. Though the Walker’s library occupies a quiet corner of the building, she made it a nerve center, often buzzing with curators, researchers, and tour guides. Always accommodating, Rosemary delighted in assisting visitors with their research, more often than not pointing them toward resources only available at the Walker, including her meticulously assembled artist files filled with clippings, uncatalogued ephemera, and sometimes unclassifiable oddities.

Books by Lawrence Weiner from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Each year, alongside her general acquisitions to the library, Rosemary earmarked funds to be used on artists’ books, making an effort to have representation of all artists in the Walker’s collection who had made books as part of their practice. In this way, important volumes were acquired in depth by LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle, Dieter Roth, Lawrence Weiner, and others for whom books were a central activity beginning in the 1960s. She also began to collect publications by local and regional artists, emerging artists expanding notions of the book’s aesthetic possibilities, and to fill in historical gaps in the collection by Surrealists, Futurists, and others, such as Marcel Duchamp, essential to the development of contemporary art.

Beyond her acquisitive zeal, however, it was Rosemary’s desire for sharing the collection that was the most inspiring aspect of a visit to Walker’s library. Rosemary was always at the ready to provide the essential piece of information you never knew you needed. She was more than happy to pull out her most recent treasures, sometimes unsolicited. From innocuous storage boxes on the shelves came books lavishly illustrated with original etchings and lithographs, shaped books, books without words, books that pop up to become sculpture, books that unfold or unfurl to astounding lengths, and books made from unconventional and often seductive materials. We curators were instructed to never throw mail away, but to send it to the library, in case something merited safekeeping. Rosemary collected important ephemera, correspondence from artists and galleries, rare exhibition catalogues, and multiples. Occasionally, one might open a storage box and find in it not only an artist’s book, but also its sales prospectus, a clipping of a review, or a letter from the artist.

Books by Richard Tuttle from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

The Walker’s curators have frequently drawn upon the library’s collection for works to include in exhibitions, such as Duchamp’s Leg (1997), which examined the ripple effect of Duchamp and his legacy throughout contemporary art, or Edward Ruscha: Editions (1999), a show that took the library’s complete collection of the artists’ books as a point of departure for a full retrospective and catalogue raisonné of this material. In 2007, I had the pleasure of working with Rosemary as a co-curator on Text/Messages: Books by Artists, which marked the first time that the material had been featured as such in an exhibition. The show was as much a celebration of Rosemary and her work as it was of the extraordinary collection she assembled.

In her field, Rosemary was a quiet but formidable force. Her advocacy made her a model for other art librarians grappling with ever-shifting definitions of what a book can be. She was a strong proponent for intermuseum exchange programs, whereby institutions with increasingly limited resources can continue to grow their libraries through the trading of catalogues and other publications. She was involved with the book arts community locally, lecturing about artists who make books and teaching classes to students who visited the Walker’s library. During the period when the Walker was closed for expansion, Rosemary curated an engaging satellite exhibition of artist’s books at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which featured highlights from the Walker’s holdings.

On the occasion of her retirement earlier this year, and as a tribute to her enduring contributions here, the Walker named her hidden cache the Rosemary Furtak Collection. This institution and the community at large owe much to Rosemary’s keen and adventurous eye, generous spirit, and scholarly care. She will be greatly missed as her legacy continues to inspire those who seek to open a book’s cover, encounter the truly unexpected, and realize they have found art.

Books by Dieter Roth from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

Sit-Specific Art: Darsie Alexander on Franz West’s Sittable Sculptures

Franz West, The Ego and the Id, 2008 “The failings of the body were never lost on Franz,” Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander wrote in late July in remembrance of Vienna-based artist Franz West, who passed away July 25. “He devoted much of his career to thinking about the oddities and wonder of the physical […]


Franz West, The Ego and the Id, 2008

“The failings of the body were never lost on Franz,” Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander wrote in late July in remembrance of Vienna-based artist Franz West, who passed away July 25. “He devoted much of his career to thinking about the oddities and wonder of the physical realm. How people walk, interact, make love, snore in public, and do other intimately human and occasionally embarrassing things was a theme in much of his art.”

How we use our bodies — particularly how and where we sit — was a key interest for West, and one of the motivating ideas behind Sitzwuste, the Walker’s trio of metal sculptural benches, which Alexander has called West’s “ode to the human ass.” Alexander, who curated a 2008 West retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, discussed West’s life and art with Modern Art Notes‘ Tyler Green on this week’s MAN Podcast. (more…)

“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

 

 

 

 

The Complex of National Identity at the 54th Biennale di Venezia

Of the Venice Biennale exhibitions I have attended throughout my years as a museum professional, the most recent installment fell especially flat. This was true of the main exhibition ILLUMInazioni, organized by veteran Swiss curator Bice Curiger, and the myriad national pavilions curated independently by participating countries and located in the Giardini and many off-site […]

Of the Venice Biennale exhibitions I have attended throughout my years as a museum professional, the most recent installment fell especially flat. This was true of the main exhibition ILLUMInazioni, organized by veteran Swiss curator Bice Curiger, and the myriad national pavilions curated independently by participating countries and located in the Giardini and many off-site venues throughout Venice.

Philippe Parreno’s slight and almost pathetic marquee of lights over the entrance to ILLUMInazioni seems to announce it all: a Biennale in malaise, full of deflated artistic gestures and impotency. The sense of “artistic stultification” — to appropriate language used in the Biennale’s exhibition guide to describe Maurizio Cattelan’s hundreds of taxidermy pigeons that line the ceiling and rafters of the Arsenale — was pervasive.

That said, Cattelan’s installation is one of the few highlights, along with other familiar works by many established artists, including Urs Fischer, Sigmar Polke, Rosemarie Trockel, Monica Bonvincini, and Christian Marclay. Marclay presented The Clock, the 24-hour epic film work that follows the appearance of time in thousands of sampled films, each clip corresponding to the real time of the audience viewing it. The work recently commanded lines around the block when it was exhibited in New York and London. In Venice, a visitor can sit comfortably on couches and be lost for hours uninterrupted in the orchestrated cacophony of Marclay’s edit. I was especially fortunate to arrive at precisely high noon.

Installation view of Maurizio Cattelan's "The Others"

On the journey home, I found myself continuing to contemplate the 2011 Biennale with curiosity and intrigue. Was my overall impression a generational one? Did my memory of past biennales that had more impact reflect a sense of nostalgia not relevant to the current moment? Still,what stood out for me were not those few signature works in the main exhibition but rather the general impression derived from my tour of the national pavilions, especially those situated in the Giardini. There I found successive examples of artists who reflected in their entries a decided ambivalence—even dismay—about what it means to represent one’s country in such a highly visible international arena.

This ambivalence displayed itself in a variety of ways, including anger, frustration, and an abiding sense of powerlessness, as well as marked restraint. In the Romanian Pavilion, a collective of intergenerational artists spray-painted statements of protest along the interior walls of the pavilion, and on the exterior scrawled lists of reasons for or against participating in the biennale, ranging from the grandiosely political (“Venice Biennale Is A Choking-On-Money Mercantilist Fossil”) to the banal and personal (“We Have Nothing to Wear To The Opening”). The Egyptian Pavilion commemorates the new media artist Ahmed Basiouny, considered a martyr of the revolution in Egypt as he was killed while demonstrating against the Mubarak  regime on January 28. The pavilion shows documentation of Basiouny’s 30 Days of Running in the Place, which the artist made in 2010, before anyone could have anticipated the revolution. He measured the sweat he produced while running on the spot and transformed that information into code visually represented on large screens — a kind of a metaphor for the power of motion and digital forces to activate movement and change. This footage is combined with video the artist himself shot of the early days of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The national pavilions that I saw which best present artists who successfully navigated the complex terrain of the representation of nationhood are the U.S. and Poland. Both countries include new works by artists familiar to Walker audiences, including Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who represent the U.S. with a series of performative installations titled Gloria, and Yael Bartana, an Israeli/Dutch artist who represents Poland with a trilogy of films made between 2007 and 2011 titled …and Europe will be Stunned. At the Walker, Allora’s and Calzadilla’s was a part of the 2003 exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (curated by Philippe Vergne with Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi), and the following year they undertook a micro-broadcasting project, Radio Revolt: One Person, One Watt; Yael Bartana was one of 16 artists included in 2007’s Brave New Worlds (another global survey curated by Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond).

The 60-ton overturned military tank of Allora and Calzadilla’s Track and Field is positioned dramaticallyin front of of the U.S. pavilion building. The sculpture is outfitted with a functional treadmill that a U.S. athlete periodically runs on, activating the tank’s treads and resulting in a clanging and screeching that dominates – superpower like — the Giardini. The strategy of ironic juxtaposition—between military prowess, money, and athleticism—carries through other works in Gloria. Among the most poignant is Half Mast/Full Mast, a video installation which captures well the Biennale’s mood of quiet disdain and resounding ambivalence about the political realities and policies impacting our world.

The boldest entry by far is Yael Bartana’s three-screen film installation. Her controversial entry marks the first time a non-Polish national has represented the country. Tackling the complex subject of Jewish identity in the post-World War II Europe and Poland, Bartana (of Polish descent and the grandchild of Holocaust victims) creates a disturbing filmic narrative that traces the rise and fall of the fictitious leader of the Jewish Resistance Movement in Poland, a political group that calls for the return of 3.3 million Jews to the land of its forefathers. Appropriating the symbols and rhetoric of different forms of national and political extremism, Bartana draws parallels between aspects of Zionist and Third Reich propaganda  and alludes to current tensions in the West Bank and throughout the Middle East.

These entries bring the complex structure of national representation at the Venice Biennale squarely into question. While the declaration of nationhood may have made sense at the inception of the Biennale di Venezia over 100 years ago, are such distinctions necessary, productive, or even relevant to artists now? Bice Curiger’s impulse to create “Para-Pavilions” — that is, temporary pavilions throughout the main exhibition, which were designed by artists to host the works of other artists of varying national origins and practice — provides an intriguing alternative to the tradition of national pavilions. It is my hope that in the future a new model such as this will be further developed to keep this massive international survey relevant as a barometer of the complex times in which we live, and artists’ responses to an aggressively dynamic world.

On the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Co. collection

Last week the Walker announced its acquisition of a comprehensive collection of some 150 works from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: set pieces, costumes, painted drops, and props, created over several decades by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime partner. As director Olga Viso notes, “The […]

Robert Rauschenberg created the "parachute" costumes and other set pieces for "Antic Meet," 1958 Cunningham work.

Last week the Walker announced its acquisition of a comprehensive collection of some 150 works from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: set pieces, costumes, painted drops, and props, created over several decades by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime partner.

As director Olga Viso notes, “The acquisition of these works is groundbreaking for the Walker and for the museum field at large, affirming our longstanding commitment to bringing together diverse artistic practices to form a cross-disciplinary blend of programs. We enjoyed a lasting relationship with Cunningham beginning in the early 1960s and look forward to inspiring future generations with programs, exhibitions, and new scholarship devoted to his legacy of innovation and collaboration.”

Read all the details about the acquisition in our press room — as well as the excellent coverage at the New York Times, the Star Tribune, at Minnesota Public Radio, and elsewhere.

The Art of the Getaway: Winter trips featuring work by Walker artists

In the spirit of the season, when various media outlets take to recommending more or less extravagant “winter getaways,” we suggest basing a trip on some favorite recent additions to the Walker collections. If you enjoyed swaying in the hammocks that were part of the Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress, on view […]

In the spirit of the season, when various media outlets take to recommending more or less extravagant “winter getaways,” we suggest basing a trip on some favorite recent additions to the Walker collections.

If you enjoyed swaying in the hammocks that were part of the Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress, on view at the Walker last summer … 

… then book a flight Los Angeles, where you can plunge into the artists’ psychedelic swimming pool: 

 162548.CA.1202.swimm#731A98

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)  has just opened Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space, described as “the first museum exhibition to situate pioneering Latin American artists among the international canon of those working with light and space.” Its highlight is Cosmococa-Programa in Progress, CC4 Nocagions (above), which, according to the LA Times’ Culture Monster blog, was never realized during Oiticica’s lifetime. But at MOCA, this 90-centimeter-deep pool even comes with a lifeguard and a changing room. Bring your own suit, or buy a disposable one on site. (On view through February 27, 2011.)

It’s hard to see in the image above, but the pool in Cosmococa-Programa in Progress, CC4 Nocagions is surrounded by projections of images from a book by John Cage; that composer’s work is also featured in a stunning installation by Tacita Dean that just opened at the Walker December 16: Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films):

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Fans of this work may wish to jet off to Glasgow for an experience quite the opposite of an L.A. swimming pool. Do as Guardian UK arts blogger Charlotte Higgins did: Trudge through a picturesque snowy park to a “small and exquisite exhibition” of Dean’s work at a gallery intriguingly named The Common Guild, whose attentive staff may even welcome you with a cup of hot tea. It includes the work below, part of the series ‘Painted Kotzsch Trees’ I- VI (Through February 5)

http://www.thecommonguild.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/TD_KotzschI_low-res-359x428.jpg

 

For something rather more monumental from the British artist, wait until October and go to London. That’s when the Tate Modern will unveil Dean’s installation in the cathedral-esque Turbine Hall, which follows Ai Wei-Wei’s current installation of 100 million hand-made porcelain sunflower seeds.

 

 
 

The Stories of Strangers: Alec Soth’s “From Here to There” Flickr Project: Assignment 2

With two weeks down, participants in Alec Soth’s Flickr project have been asked to be brave, curious souls and venture out into the world to tell a short story through pictures. As a way of generating the story, Soth asked participants to first find and photograph a stranger, then “Ask the stranger to show you […]

With two weeks down, participants in Alec Soth’s Flickr project have been asked to be brave, curious souls and venture out into the world to tell a short story through pictures. As a way of generating the story, Soth asked participants to first find and photograph a stranger, then “Ask the stranger to show you something (their house, their car, their cat, their body, etc).”

From there … well, things could go in any number of directions, as evidenced by this early entry from Benjamin Borley (bart1eby) , whose story presented here eventually explored his views on graffiti.

“I was wondering whether I was going to be brave enough for this one when chance threw an opportunity my way.”

Benjamin Borley, "I"

“On the way into town I was stopped by a woman with beautiful blue eyes.”

Benjamin Borley, "II"

“I’m a spastic,” she said, “I’m allowed to call myself that.”

Benjamin Borley, "III"

“She asked me to read the graffiti for her because her eyes weren’t too good.”

Benjamin Borley, "IV"

“I’m not sure,” I said.”

Benjamin Borley, "V"

 “But I think the middle word is love.”

Benjamin Borley, "VI"

 “She didn’t like that and told us about a graffiti wall that the council had set up.”

Benjamin Borley, "VII"

 She much preferred the graffiti there.

Benjamin Borley, "VIII"

 “For the rest of the day I was more aware of the graffiti.”

Benjamin Borley, "IX"

“I wondered whether it was art.”

Benjamin Borley, "X"

“or vandalism.”

Benjamin Borley, "XI"

 “and whether I preferred it on the walls of the city.”

Benjamin Borley, "XII"

“or on the walls of shops.”

Benjamin Borley, XIII

 “and on greeting cards…”

See how other photographers’ stories are coming along here — or join in the project yourself.

Alec Soth’s “From Here to There” Flickr project: Assignment 2

After commenting on images and selecting a winning photographer for Assignment 1 – The Treasure Hunt,  Alec Soth has announced his next assignment, open to all at Flickr.com: “In the 1st Flickr assignment, I often found myself responding to the story behind the picture. I was particularly taken with Hannah’s (gofeego) stories of her travels. […]

After commenting on images and selecting a winning photographer for Assignment 1 – The Treasure Hunt,  Alec Soth has announced his next assignment, open to all at Flickr.com:

“In the 1st Flickr assignment, I often found myself responding to the story behind the picture. I was particularly taken with Hannah’s (gofeego) stories of her travels. And the winner of the 1st assignment, Etienne Courtois, provided wonderfully cryptic back stories for his images.

So for assignment #2, I want participants to tell a short story. But to get the story going, I’ve added the following steps:

1) Find and photograph a stranger
2) Ask the stranger to show you something (their house, their car, their cat, their body, etc).
3) Based on what they show you, make another picture, or series of pictures.

For example, photograph a man you meet you meet on the side of the road. Ask the man if he has any hobbies. If he tells you he builds model airplanes, go to his house and photograph his airplanes. Then go to a model airplane club.

The only rule is that all images should be new. The deadline for posting is October 25th. Post all of your images together in a set marked ‘From Here To There: Assignment #2.’  Add text captions to the images when necessary. Winners will be chosen by November 1st.”

To join in, go to the “From Here to There” Flickr page.

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