Review /

Emily Wardill Bergen Kunsthall

Throughout Bergen Kunsthall, sounds provide a sensory glossary to Emily Wardill’s “Matt Black and Rat,” her first exhibition in a public Norwegian institution. The show travels to Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in June, which is also the setting for the film work I gave my love a cherry that had no stone (2016).

Projected aslant and viewable from both sides, the audio that emerges from the walls seems to interrupt this film of a male dancer in a deserted building. Surreal and futuristic surroundings, temporally ambiguous, parody his gestures. Several works are inspired by Dorothea Tanning’s 1952 painting Some Roses and their Phantoms, which depicts a tablecloth and roses that resemble crumpled origami. The Palace (2014) comprises a voice-over on monochromacy — a condition whereby individuals see the world entirely in black, white and gray — as the camera oscillates over facades-cum-grainy reliefs. White, cast-resin button-down shirts yearn to escape the wall, seeking depth.

In their midst, the film No Trace of An Accelerator (2017) booms from a standing speaker: a trail of sonic bread crumbs that lead to the screen next door. Wardill’s ongoing research on fire, in which she algorithmically models its behavior, led her to a series of infamous, unexplained fires that took place in Moirans-en-Montagne during the mid-1990s. Shot on carefully constructed sets, the plot — developed through improvisation with the actors — involves an aunt trapped in a flame-filled room, her nephew and, played by the same actor, the disturbed arsonist and the fireman who dies trying to save her. The fire-starter pleads of his disposable medical gloves: “Please, please take them off, they’re not kind … too wet.” A fly crawls over a dimly lit nude woman who lies face down on a table. This moment incites the pyromaniac’s impulsiveness and ecstasy for smoke.

With room to wander freely through the show, Wardill nonetheless tacitly moves us where she wants. Words glide around the space, leaving impressions like circles after staring at the sun.

by Maia Nichols

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Cauleen Smith University Art Galleries / Irvine

Once ushered into the dark chamber there is a flush of sound. For self-defense, “The Warplands” is an exhibition pared of all administration. And short: the films extend to less than twenty minutes.

First comes an iPhone bibliography, the Human 3.0 Reading List (2015-16). A hand silently flips through books drawn on delicate graph paper crumpled by graphite and acrylic. Here, poverty of form and means are markers of humility that lend transparency to what she transmits. Cauleen Smith is learning to draw, producing works of both naivety and precision.

Farther along the wall, Lessons in Semaphore (2016) flows from a young man to an elder. We see the dancer taisha paggett dipping herself into a vibrant green pond of tall grasses that is an abandoned lot in urban Chicago. With two red and blue flags she signals the plenitude of her breathing life to a young boy, who mimes for her in semaphore.

The silent flickering of their 16-mm exchange is drowned out by a recording of Alice Coltrane’s One for the Father, pulling one toward its sound past a wall of banners from Smith’s 2015 Black Love Procession in Chicago. The words of Gwendolyn Brooks, “Conduct your blooming in the noise and the whip of the whirlwind,” shimmer in the light of their fabric. Now you sit before the film Pilgrim (2017).

You could watch it endlessly, this iteration of a longer project to be shown at the ICA Philadelphia in 2018. Coltrane’s voice announces once again the title of the song dedicated to her husband. Images follow of the California ashram to which she moved with their four children after his death, all calm readiness: the organ under its Plexiglas case, the reposing orange kirtan cushions, the temple in a valley below a mountain peak. Then come images of a tree in molecular fusion, and the blooming of daisies in an ecstatic shaker dance. It’s a happy thing watching how Cauleen Smith so accurately and soulfully bows to transmission.

by Noura Wedell

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Whitney Biennial 2017 / New York

Hanging from the high ceiling of the Whitney’s glassy ground-floor lobby are the embroidered textiles of filmmaker and artist Cauleen Smith. Installed near to the museum’s entrance, they’re among the first works that viewers of this year’s Whitney Biennial are likely to encounter; more are installed in one of the exhibition’s central spaces on the fifth floor.

One side of each of Smith’s brightly colored textiles bears text in a looping cursive script, decadently rendered in velvet, satin, sequins and beads. “Rage blooms within me,” reads one work. “I cannot be fixed,” reads another. On each opposing side are graphic figures and heraldic designs composed of a private iconography of eyeballs, eight balls, hearts, diamonds, teardrops and drops of blood.

Collectively named In the Wake (2017), the textiles share a title with a book published last year by feminist scholar and historian Christina Sharpe, subtitled On Blackness and Being. The book’s central image — that of the wake trailing behind a ship — lends itself to the long contemporary afterlives of transatlantic slavery, equally invoking the wake as a mourning ritual and a coming to consciousness.

The Biennial’s wall text describes Smith’s pieces as “banners to be used in a procession,” an offering informed by “the artist’s sense of disgust and fatigue when confronted with video after video offering evidence of police violence against Black people.” Last September, Smith organized one such “Black Love Procession” in protest of an exhibition at Chicago’s Gallery Guichard, where Ti-Rock Moore, a white New Orleans artist, staged the scene of Michael Brown’s death as an art installation. Photos of this work are especially grotesque, and include a figure in the shape of a man lying prone on the gallery floor.

Smith’s procession gathered a twenty-odd group of people to march on the gallery in the spirit of honoring and caring for black communities. “We just wanted to tell our folk that we loved them,” Smith said in a Hyperallergic article. In a review of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, artist and writer Hannah Black writes that “mourning can be and has been a politics, but it must avoid becoming only a litany of horrors. Refusing melancholy in favor of care, In the Wake understands mourning as a practice embedded in living, and vice versa.” In the wake of a white artist trafficking in black suffering, Smith’s banners seek redress. One reads, “We were never meant to survive,” while another, chillingly, says, “My pathology is your profit.”

That the exhibition foregrounds a black artist’s lyrical and explicit criticism of the way that images of brutal anti-black violence are exploited by white artists and curators will no doubt come across as a tortured irony to those who have been following media coverage of the Biennial from the past few days. Among the works included is Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), based on the brutal 1955 photograph of the corpse of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in his coffin. I’m mentioning it here only briefly, as other longer and better analyses of the violence in this gesture already exist. Hannah Black addressed a generous and widely circulated open letter to the Whitney, stating that “those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.” Writer and artist Aria Dean published a long, lucid response on Facebook. Artist Parker Bright, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle” written on the back, staged a protest in front of the painting on the first day the Biennial was open to the public. I want to echo one of the demands of these artists: to the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, this painting should be taken down. This is what a token gesture of accountability might look like.

What does it mean for a curatorial politics to be so baggy and so vague that it accommodates, in one gallery, a challenge to the translation of black death into spectacle, and then goes on, in the next gallery, to restage that same spectacle? The curators’ didactic texts make reference to “a turbulent world” and a “time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities, and polarizing politics,” but their disingenuousness shows.

In light of this, a question I keep returning to is that of the frameworks by which the art world and its actors can be held accountable. Does the art industry even have models for accountability that move beyond the discursive and into the actionable?

Two artworks in the exhibition foreground the material infrastructures of the Whitney that make the fact of the museum possible; both of these offer ways of thinking about institutional accountability. Both formally understated works, they risk being overshadowed by louder activity in the gallery space. This is especially the case in Cameron Rowland’s Public Money (2017), which consists of a simple grid of wall-mounted, framed, Xeroxed legal documents, accompanied by an essay written by the artist. The artwork’s listed materials, however, are “institutional investment in Social Impact Bond,” where a Social Impact Bond (SIB) is a contract between the state and private investors that financializes social services.

SIBs are very new, as a financial tool, so little evidence of their effectiveness in public life exists. They are created when a private investor puts money toward a quantifiable “social” objective, such as, for example, recidivism in Ventura County, California, prisons, which is the purported purview of an SIB in which Rowland has had the Whitney invest $25,000. If the investment achieves its stated goals — here, a reduction of the number of inmates who return to prison within a certain time frame after their release — the county government pays back the investors, with interest. If the investment is unsuccessful, the investors assume the losses.

Operating a recidivism project with private funds takes away whatever slim measure of transparency a state organization would normally be required to provide to its publics. Information about how exactly people will be kept out of prison, how the effectiveness of the program is measured, etc., is available only to investors. The Ventura County SIB focuses on providing individuals with a privately trademarked form of cognitive behavioral therapy, emphasizing, as Rowland explains in his contextual essay, “the personal responsibility of prisoners for their arrests, rather than changing policy to reduce arrests, convictions, or sentences.” Rowland’s investment in the SIB gains him access to details about how the process is managed; after the five-year term of his nondisclosure agreement expires, he will make this information public.

Adjacent to the Cauleen Smith banners in the museum’s lobby is Park McArthur’s Another word for memory is life (2017), composed of two aluminum panels painted an officious shit-brown. (Also like Smith’s works, more of McArthur’s panels recur in the museum’s upper galleries.) Their design is familiar: following the standards described in the Manual of United Traffic Control Devices for road signs indicating cultural sites, the panels are constructed from one-eighth-inch-thick aluminum with rounded radius edges and are painted Pantone 469. The space of the sign is blank. Installed directly above the museum’s ticket desk, their lack of information reads like an intentional measure of opacity, something meant to be signaled but ultimately withheld. Rather, the style protocols that divide official culture — such as the Whitney — from unofficial culture are themselves on display. McArthur’s works stress that cultural events like the Whitney Biennial can, like roadside style protocols, intentionally misrepresent the ideological (whose culture?) as the politically neutral. Such groundwork is necessary before discussions about institutional accountability are even possible.

by Tess Edmonson

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Jean Pigozzi Galerie Gmurzynska / St. Moritz

Johnny Pigozzi’s photographs have always had a specific allure – allowing access to pool parties with Bianca Jagger in the 80s or New York clubs with David Geffen a decade on. If it weren’t for the changing fashions and increasing visibility of mobile phones, Pigozzi’s pictures would seem ageless; their medium format and characteristic black and white rendering them permanent snapshots.

In “Pool Party in the Snow”, the title of the show at Gmurzynska Gallery, Pigozzi captures moments around the “blue pool”, of people we have somehow always been curious about, including Geffen, Calvin Klein, and Mick Jagger.

The show features over thirty black and white photographs that offer a rare glimpse into a world that, over the course of the 1980s and 90s, would converge on the Ettore Sottsass-designed pool in Antibes; a world that included Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Douglas, Naomi Campbell, Kristen McMenamy and Helmut Newton, among numerous others. In one interview, Pigozzi states: “I’m obsessed by the future. That’s why editing my photographs is painful. Even if the picture was taken three days ago it’s already the past and I’m not interested anymore”.

He got his first camera at the age of ten, a Leica that had belonged to his father. It’s a brand he still uses today for its convenience. For Pigozzi, photography is a way of maintaining a journal, yet one he doesn’t necessarily go back to; a way of freezing a memory before it’s gone.

Reading his words: “When you’re an obsessive collector, you collect friends, companies, and art” – while examining his pool inflatables – you want to cry out like Charles Baudelaire: “Hypocrite collecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère”.

by Victor Lucas

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Do Ho Suh Victoria Miro / London

Do Ho Suh’s first solo exhibition at Victoria Miro coincides with his recent decision to relocate to London. Entitled “Passage/s,” the show reflects on the notion of home as a physical structure and platform for the exploration of issues relating to identity and our relationship to our chosen locations.

The centerpiece of the show is a sculpture made up of nine modules that Suh refers to as “Hubs” (2015–16), each of which isolates architectural elements from far-flung buildings that the artist has inhabited during his lifetime. Composed of polyester fabric sewn with gelatin tissue and discreetly supported by stainless-steel pipes, the “Hubs” in question all join to form a corridor through which visitors may traverse places in London, Seoul, Rhode Island and Berlin, all in the space of a few meters. Although extraordinarily detailed, with sockets and door handles meticulously replicated, Suh’s reconstructions are nonetheless abstract enough to maintain their spatial anonymity. Each identified by a different color, the hubs successfully conjure up metaphorical journeys to match the artist’s vision of life “as a passageway with no fixed beginnings or destinations.”

If “Hub” doesn’t come across entirely as a surprise to those familiar with Suh’s work, the series of thread drawings exhibited on the gallery’s ground floor are a genuine novelty. Based on a process the artist developed during his residency at Creative Workshop & Gallery in Singapore, the drawings compress Suh’s architectures into two-dimensional form. After immersion in water, the polyester is pressed onto paper to produce almost skeletal compositions; the overlaps caused by folds in the material create the only color change in otherwise monochrome images. In contrast to “Hub,” the entrances to these thread drawings are walled off, converting the sculptures’ initial fragility into strong, cohesive forms, and subverting the premise of a “passage.” They reaffirm architecture as a temporal yet incisive presence in the path of life.

by Michele Robecchi

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Alex Baczynski-Jenkins Chisenhale Gallery / London

In Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’s newly choreographed work The tremble, the symptom, the swell and the hole together (2017), eight performers circulate the gallery space. The set up is minimal, its focal point an octagonal four-tiered stage whose platforms are reconfigured over the course of the exhibition.

Red electric heaters punctuate the walls, while folded blankets act as both props and seating. Stark artificial lighting and an intense soundtrack of looping rhythmic samples and continuous low drones charges the atmosphere with palpable tension.

Time is crucial to the work’s exhibition format, articulated according to a rigorous structure of four self-contained fortnightly “episodes.” Longer “fugues” take place on weekends, at which three performers at a time incorporate elements from the previous episode in an adapted and extended sequence. Designed to evolve over time, one only ever garners a partial perspective.

Framing itself within the legacy of postmodern dance and queer performance, Baczynski-Jenkins’s choreography is one of intimate, habitual gestures — fingers delicately stroking a face or absentmindedly tapping a surface — which break from moments of personal withdrawal into an internalized dance of rave intensity. Spoken word recurs in the form of poems and short exchanges, the repetition of lines and gestures building a sense of continual rehearsal of interconnected subjectivities.

The body becomes at once a material measure of its surroundings and of wider social parameters. As they move on and off the stage, the performers determine how viewers negotiate the gallery space. Moments of direct address ensue when performers balance at the perimeter or hold the viewer’s gaze in tacit exchange. Using basic theatrical devices, Baczynski-Jenkins creates a social choreography in which an experience of estrangement materializes through mechanisms of self-reflexivity and non-normative modes of subjectivity as owned and developed in common with others.

by Silvia Sgualdini

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