Above, a detail of an installation view of Korean artist Haegue Yang’s Sadong 30 (2006), an example of “the poetic nature of everyday life,” says Douglas Fogle, curator of the 2008 Carnegie International.
Photo: Douglas Fogle
“ The art world itself is Mars—the best contemporary art asks you more questions than you sometimes have answers for.”
- Douglas Fogle, Curator, Life On Mars, the 55th Carnegie International
THE ART OF BEING HUMAN
Even on the fast train from Seoul, it took over an hour to get to Incheon. The two cities are close enough to be considered part of the same South Korean megalopolis, their combined populations approaching 13 million people. That’s the kind of figure that makes even New Yorkers nervous, yet the industrial zone of Sa-dong in Incheon, to which Douglas Fogle traveled last fall, was empty enough to seem “the middle of nowhere,” in his mind.
Once in Sa-dong, Fogle, Carnegie Museum of Art’s curator of the 2008 Carnegie International, sought out the abandoned house he’d been directed to. “It was a little house in a back alley that was falling apart, decrepit,” says Fogle. But inside was something remarkable. Colorful paper, hand-folded into iconic origami—stars, anemones, geodesic shapes—was illuminated by low-hanging naked bulbs and strung lights. Piles of detritus were lighted with similar affection, as were the house’s ramshackle fittings and peeling wallpaper. This was Sadong 30, an installation piece by Korean artist Haegue Yang, made in—and, indeed, from—a house once belonging to her grandmother.
“It was so poetic, so incredible,” says Fogle. “The trip on the train was part of it, meeting and talking with her was part of it; she’s very philosophical, very poetic in the way she talks about things. It was very comparable to the kinds of ideas I was thinking about for the International, this idea of intimacy, and the poetic nature of everyday life. It was a very formative moment for me in this exhibition.”
Those ideas eventually solidified into Life On Mars, the 55th Carnegie International, a show that stems directly from Fogle’s ‘boots on the ground’ curatorial approach. Over a heavy, two-year travel schedule, where he racked up some 200,000 miles by air, Fogle viewed the work of artists from Mexico City to Singapore, São Paolo to Berlin, the back alleys of Incheon City to a Hollywood cutting room. In doing so, he’s assembled a show that is truly international, but without succumbing to the now-hackneyed themes of “the global.” A show that hopes to speak equally to the most well-versed of art critics and to contemporary art’s first-time visitors.
“I guess ‘human’ is the word,” says Fogle. “These are very sophisticated artists, working in metropolitan centers, huge cities, yet there’s something incredibly human about their work.”
In other words, while creating a show about life on Mars, Carnegie Museum of Art will tell a story about what it’s like to live right now, right here on Earth.
Learning a New Language
The Carnegie International was born at the end of the 19th century at the behest of Andrew Carnegie and as part of his vision of a museum explicitly of modern art.
The show, now held every four years, began as the Annual Exhibition, with a mission to show the finest in contemporary art from around the world—even if, at that time, “around the world” meant, essentially, Paris and London—and to purchase new work for the Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Carnegie’s now-famous directive to his curators to find “the old masters of tomorrow” proved fruitful, and over its 112 years, the International has helped the museum acquire works by everyone from Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer to Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.
Sharon Lockhart, American, b. 1964; Pine Flat Portrait Studio: Sierra, 2005, framed chromogenic print; Carnegie Museum of Art, The Henry Hillman Fund.
“I look at it as R&D [research and development] for the culture industry,” says Fogle. “Even since the 1890s, this show has been about the new, and for me, this show is the past 20 years of art all mixed together. There's a balance, from the art professional’s point of view, between names they know and some that they don't know. There's a balance between the 29-year-old artist in their first major exhibition and a 90-year-old artist who’s painting every day, and whose work feels like a young artist.”
Life On Mars will certainly appeal to arts professionals. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a show capable of drawing in the contemporary art newcomer, too. To some extent, that’s a product of Fogle’s personal background. Rather than an art-history-educated insider, Fogle came to curating as simply an art lover, beginning his curatorial career at Minneapolis’ lauded Walker Art Center in the early 1990s. Since arriving at Carnegie Museum of Art, his Forum shows have pointed in the general direction of Life on Mars, showing work by exciting, young, international, multi-disciplinary artists such as Britain’s Phil Collins—whose video art the world won’t listen has gone on to become one of the more talked-about pieces of contemporary art in current layperson’s pop culture.
With a background and education from outside of the art world, having studied political philosophy and international relations, Fogle has an understanding of the difference between the language of art and the language of the general culture.
“We grow up watching movies from the time we're three years old—there’s a grammar to film narrative that we all feel comfortable with, without even thinking about it,” says Fogle. “We don’t grow up knowing the language of contemporary art, and that's something that intimidates people, and it shouldn’t. But I understand that, because I had to learn that language, too.”
The very title, Life On Mars, is a part of bridging that divide—not only is this the first International to bear a title, it’s one that poses many rhetorical questions that we grapple with today. What constitutes “home,” “family,” even “humanness” in this globalized, digital age?
“I think it's really important to have a title for an exhibition, which makes it seem more approachable—one that asks a question, that makes people interested,” says Fogle. “What is the title about? What does it make you think of? Some people get the David Bowie reference to his 1971 song, ‘Life On Mars?;’ some people think of space exploration. The way I like to talk about it is it’s a poetic way of asking, ‘are we living on a strange world?’ The art world itself is Mars—the best contemporary art asks you more questions than you sometimes have answers for.”
Back to the Grit
To approach the themes of Life On Mars—of “what it means to be human” in today’s world—Fogle has chosen artists whose work shares a manual energy, whose media feels hand-hewn and bears the mark of skin and bone.
Like Sharon Lockhart, whose film Pine Flat inspired the show’s themes with its almost palpable portraits of children in a mountain town outside of Los Angeles. (Fogle has purchased Pine Flat for the museum’s permanent collection.) Or Richard Wright, a British artist whose paintings will be made directly on the museum’s walls and, eventually, painted over, making their ephemeral nature central to their humanity and power. Or Daniel Guzmán, whose work draws equally upon the 20th-century mural painters of his native Mexico City and from contemporary graphic novels and rock-album cover artwork.
Daniel Guzmán, Mexican, b. 1964; Decapitado, from the series La basqueda del ombligo (2005-2007), 2006, ink on paper on wood panel; courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City.
Haegue Yang understands Life On Mars to pose a question not just about where we live, but how we live.
“Mars doesn’t sound so unfamiliar to me,” says Yang, in an interview filmed for the International’s web site, set to go live in March. “Not that I have any knowledge or understanding of Mars as a place to live in, but [in the way that] any place that sounds unfamiliar seems to me very familiar. I’m concerned with this constant question of how to live, and where to live.”
Conspicuous in its absence from the 55th Carnegie International is the technological stamp of “new media” art born by computers or on the Internet. Rather than an end unto itself, the computer has returned in Life On Mars to its origins as a tool. Because while the show itself may concentrate on the grittier side of cosmopolitan artwork, the Carnegie International has taken its mission and its marketing digital—and global—in a way it never has before.
Making A Mark
Will Real doesn’t downplay the role of technology in a 21st-century museum exhibition. After all, as director of technology initiatives for Carnegie Museum of Art, it’s part of his job to initiate and implement new ideas for using the technology to advance the museum’s missions. But he’s no tech fundamentalist—Real is the first to point out that the Web has inherent limitations in the display of contemporary artwork, and for that reason, perhaps, he’s the perfect person to put Life On Mars online.
“Any art is challenging to represent on the Web,” notes Real. “You can make a nice image of a painting, but it’s still a far cry from seeing the painting itself. But things like installations, which there are a lot of in the International, are really hard to communicate over the Web, with images or video. Our challenge is to excite people enough with what we can give them over the Web to get them to venture into the museum.”
Barry McGee, b. 1966; Advanced Mature Work, (installation view, detail) 2007; courtesy REDCAT, Los Angeles and Deitch Projects, New York.
Where Carnegie Museum of Art sees new possibilities for technology and the International is not in its artwork or its display of work, but in the way the museum communicates with and involves its audience. To that end, for the first time, the International web site will include numerous opportunities for visitors to participate, by blogging, commenting, bookmarking, sending content to friends, and tagging. In this way it will have much in common with popular social-networking tools such as Myspace and Facebook, and interactive media outlets such as YouTube and Flickr, which will allow users to comment on videos and images related to the exhibition. The museum will encourage users of these other sites to post links to their content on the International web site, and will establish a Web presence beyond its own site by contributing its own media content for viewing and commenting by the wider world of Web users. “The idea that the museum is the only valid voice to be heard on the content of the International is one we’re trying to get away from,” says Real. “We want to provide a vehicle for people to express their own views, on the theme and on the artwork.”
Made possible by a $150,000 grant from The Fine Foundation, the International will not only have an interactive presence on-line, but visitors will have an opportunity to access and contribute to those resources onsite, before, during, or after their visit to the show. It’s a concept that goes hand-in-hand with the show’s themes, notes Jordan Crosby, school and teacher programs specialist for the museum. Individuals submitting their voices to the vastness of the Internet is a lot like an artist trying to make a tiny mark on his or her vast, global culture.
“The whole idea of people blogging, representing themselves in the ‘blogo-sphere,’ parallels nicely with this generation of artists working humbly and with these mean materials,”
Whether it’s an internationally known artist creating an installation for the International or teenaged visitors sitting down to tap out their thoughts about it on a computer keyboard, Life On Mars comes back to that mark on the cave wall—the mark that makes us human.
“The basic elements of art-making are actually what make us human,” says Douglas Fogle. “Our ability to make a mark, whether it's a cave painting or a mark in the sand. Putting the pencil to paper, that connection between the graphite and the paper, this gesture of making a mark that has some intelligibility—in some ways, that is what it means to be human.”
Speaking Their Language
The last Carnegie International was a mere four years ago, but talk to Jordan Crosby about the potential for using technology to engage young visitors to the exhibition and you could be forgiven for thinking it was 14 years ago—or 40.
“In a short period of time, the modes and methodology available to museums in engaging audiences has exploded,” says Crosby, Carnegie Museum of Art’s school and teacher programs specialist. “We’ve gone from the Web as, essentially, brochure, to a cultural shift—in the ways our audiences can respond, and in the way museums think about their approach to those audiences.”
That shift has sparked museums to make their online presence less about advertising and more of another form of cultural discussion. Visitors now see the Web as a place not just to mine information but a place to participate in those discussions.
In order to help facilitate the museum’s presence in the inevitable online discussions regarding Life on Mars, the 55th Carnegie International set to open May 3—and as an experiment of the museum’s permanent online presence—The Fine Foundation, which earlier this year committed $5 million to its endowment, the largest gift ever in support of the Carnegie International, awarded $150,000 in grant support to the museum’s education department for a new “Young Audiences Engagement Program.”
Through this initiative, the museum is already establishing a “teen team”—a group of teenagers who will learn about the International from museum staff and participating artists, help establish online content directed towards teenage visitors, and help staff first-ever in-house visitor engagement lounges known as “education pods” located in the front lobby, Scaife lounge, and near the Grand Staircase where visitors will be able to respond immediately to the work they’ve just seen onsite. The “teen teams” will be among the first to add their thoughts to the litany of online networking options.
It’s a new kind of internship for the International, and the museum itself, with the participants not only learning about the exhibition but then helping to transmit that knowledge to their peers—online, and through a series of events that the teen teams help to plan. It’s part of the museum’s mission, says Crosby, as well as that of The Fine Foundation.
“This is going to be a really stellar internship for young people with interests in the arts and museums,” she says. “These teens are a bridge,” says Crosby, “between traditional audiences and new, younger audiences. We want to speak their language.”