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Realism, and a Local/Global Internationalism


Experiencing Art in the Digital Age

by Ellen S. Wilson

The shock of the new has been part of every Carnegie International. New technologies have always overwhelmed, at first. Today, our increasingly digitized lives, the dichotomy of the computer screen and the physical world, the ease of travel and worldwide communication, all lead us to question such fundamentals as the conditions in which we live, the relevance of where we live, even the importance of physical presence. These were not issues one hundred years ago, or even fifty. This generation of artists and museum visitors is the first to struggle with the implications of the digital age. And so when Madeleine Grynsztejn set out to assemble the 1999 Carnegie International, she found artists who are questioning their, and our, relation to reality.

Madeleine Grynsztejn

Grynsztejn told Michael Brenson in Artforum magazine that, to her, "the most significant and compelling work being made today centers on a conceptually oriented realism, on the active engagement of the viewer, and on a slippage between reality and fiction that is deliberately fostered in artworks." This latest installation of the International series focuses on three different approaches to "the real" in art – a sensual or phenomenological approach that can depend on interaction with the viewer; a labor-intensive approach that emphasizes craft and material; and work that places itself at the intersection of reality and fiction. These categories overlap, and few pieces fit completely and neatly into just one. Nor do they connect the viewer to some absolute definition of what constitutes reality. On the contrary, Grynsztejn explains in a discussion of the exhibition’s themes. "These works present reality in all its impurity, multiplicity, and intense presentness."

The Phenomenological Approach, or Dancing with Horses

Some art in the exhibition asks the viewer to do more than merely see it. Such works can generate heat or cold, emit smells or sounds, or invite the viewer to participate. Video artist Diana Thater, one of 41 artists featured in the exhibition, has created one such installation for Botany Hall in Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and another work in the Carnegie café. Thater’s work often encourages the viewer to move between physical and digital realms. "When you cross a video beam and cast shadows, you affect the work and in effect become part of it. Diana welcomes your participation," Grynsztejn says. Thater’s work was featured in the museum last summer, when her video piece the best space is the deep space was installed in the Forum Gallery. (My two small children approached this work phenomenologically, making their own shadows dance with the horse when it appeared on the various screens. "A wonderful reaction," Grynsztejn says.)

Alex Katz,  Woman in the Woods III, 1998

Another sense-involving approach to the real can be found in the work of Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto. Neto’s structure of translucent stretchy fabric is as much about what happens to the viewer who enters it as it is about the piece in a traditional, static sense. When you walk into the piece, the fabric gives under your feet. When you press against the walls of it, it changes shape. Anyone watching this interaction from the outside has a different experience of it than the person on the inside. And, like Thater’s work, you are welcomed in – literally. This art does not keep a visitor at arm’s length. Unlike Thater’s work, however, there is nothing digital here. Neto’s piece is so wholly physical as to be a possible reaction against the "virtual" real.

A Painstaking, Slow-Motion Environment

The work of artists who invest enormous labor and intensity of focus in creating installations and multi-media works constitute a second approach to the real. Gregor Schneider has lived in the same house outside of Cologne, Germany, since 1985, when he was 16. His home appears to be ordinary enough on the outside, but once inside, you see that he has built layers of rooms within the original rooms, creating a Russian doll of a house. Each time, the interiors become smaller. "When he opens a door, you can see the elements of construction, you become viscerally aware of how much effort has gone into creating what looks like a normal environment," Grynsztejn says. 

Gregor Schneider, Haus ur, 1995 (detail)

"When you visit Gregor, he sits you down in his coffee room, and when you get up about an hour later, you realize something is awry – that the door you entered by, which had been behind you, is now to your side. It turns out he has put the floor on a slow turntable, so slow that you don’t notice it. You never would have known if the door had not "moved."

"Gregor has dedicated himself to reconstructing his own environment as a way to affirm its physical presence in the world," Grynsztejn says, and, like Neto, he is responding to an interrogation of reality. Schneider is carving out and shipping five rooms of his home to Pittsburgh for the International. When you visit the museum, you will be visiting his living space. 

The work of South African artist William Kentridge likewise exhibits sheer effort and intensity of production that has the effect of slowing you down, too. Kentridge’s animated films, seen in the Forum Gallery in 1998, are painstakingly made from charcoal drawings that he alters from frame to frame. The additions and erasures between shots reveal the movements of Kentridge’s hand. At the end of the process, the artist has created a strip of film but, unlike typical animation, produced only a few drawings.

At the Crossroads of the Real and the Unreal

There is a slippage between the real and the fictive in the third investigation of reality. Thomas Demand, whose work was shown in Forum Gallery two years ago, culls photographs from the media and builds life-sized models of the scene represented out of paper and cardboard. He then photographs the model. While the original photograph was of a real location, the final product – Demand’s photograph – is three times removed from reality. The large photograph resembles, at first glance, an actual site, but closer inspection reveals its own artifice.

"This area of examination," Grynsztejn explains, "has an important recent history, postmodernism, which began in the 1970s and was at its height in the mid-1980s. Postmodernism made us very aware of the potential pitfalls of being immersed in the media, and questioned the effect of mass culture on our perception of reality."

Janet Cardiff’s soundscapes are experienced by putting on a Walkman and taking an "audio walk" through the main branch of the Carnegie Library. Cardiff directs the itinerary, but of course each specific walk is influenced by the real time and space that you inhabit. You may be alone in the stacks, for example, where Cardiff has sent you, but on the tape you may hear someone breathing just behind your left shoulder. Actual incidents, the real visitors who may bump into you as you walk, become as much a part of your experience of the artwork as the "tour" Cardiff is directing you through.

Gabriel Orozco’s Ping Pond Table (1998) similarly shifts reality. Orozco has doubled the traditional ping-pong table and installed a lily pond in the middle, "like a small Monet water garden," Grynsztejn says. Paddles and balls are available, and you are welcome to play. "This stays close to our perception of the world," Grynsztejn says, "but it is something we’ve never seen before. It changes the world for us." 

Multinationalism and the Influence of Home

There is more to understand at the Carnegie International besides these approaches to reality. "All the works in the show reflect a multinationalism," Grynsztejn says, "which used to connote a crossing of boundaries with no local references. Artwork today acknowledges the presence of the local in the global, as many artists locate themselves at the intersection of those two influences." William Kentridge’s films cannot be divorced from the racial oppression that dominates South Africa’s history. Grynsztejn also cites the work of video artist Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born artist now living in New York whose work meditates on what it means to move between East and West. Her video installations to date place the viewer in a physical and conceptual interspace between two images that stand for the past and the present, original and adopted home. 

Paintings by British artist Chris Ofili incorporate elephant dung, which is used ceremonially in his parents’ homeland of Nigeria. Ofili, however, draws more on London’s urban hip-hop culture for inspiration, and gets his elephant dung from the London zoo, toying with viewers’ assumptions about his cultural background and directing attention both toward and away from his origins. 

The 53rd Carnegie International, like those before it, reflects on our culture at this moment. It acts like a mirror, and like any in-depth examination of one’s own reflection, will probably feel both shocking and familiar. What is important is that we as viewers are welcome, into Schneider’s house, into Neto’s stretchy fabric structure, into the disquieting spaces created by video projections.

And will it all be terribly cerebral? 

"Oh, I hope not," says Grynsztejn. "I hope all these works, at an emotional, intellectual, if not physical, level, open in the viewer a moment of play." 

Open, however, is the key word. Openness, and a pair of comfortable shoes, will not only help you enjoy this Carnegie International, but will doubtless be essential in the century that lies ahead.

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