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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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Review /

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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Geometry of Now GES-2 / Moscow

The widely discussed transformation of the former power station GES-2 into a new museum complex for the V-A-C Foundation was suspended for the short but ambitious exhibition-cum-music festival “Geometry of Now.”

Curator Mark Fell invited seventeen local and international artists to baptize the space and give communion to its potential visitors. For one week, industrial rooms, chambers and mazy corridors were reanimated with singing voices, hissing noises and spectral images. One of the biggest halls was populated with Jana Winderen’s amplified recordings of snapping shrimps and echo-locating whales. In the smallest space, Philipp Ilinskiy organized a claustrophobic and disorientating dark labyrinth where one could navigate by aural means only. In this compellingly interactive work, sound art’s lack of spectacle art turned out to be spectacular in itself.

Attentive viewers may have noticed Edmund Husserl’s book Origin of Geometry in the show’s reading room, thus revealing the exhibition’s hidden intellectual overtones. Indeed, the very idea of phenomenological presence was especially key to an evening concert program that bound the public to strict rules of behavior. An almost inaudible composition by Éliane Radigue; Terre Thaemlitz’s heavy video essay on transgender and emigrants rights; and Luke Fowler’s celluloid film shot at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture: all required intense concentration and self-reflexive awareness.

An evening “rave” program radicalized the experience by rendering it visceral and carnal, testifying to Fell’s own interest in neurological theories of music. Accompanied by cries of “give us techno,” the lineup gradually progressed from aggressive performances, like Hannah Sawtell’s militant strobe lights or Russell Haswell’s lasers, to locomotive music with a familiar 4/4 beat. Attendees with the most enduring organs of perception were gratified by late-night sets by Mumdance, Anthony Shakir and DJ Sprinkles. Thus, through the process of natural selection, “Geometry of Now” winnowed its audience down to an “elite within the elite” who prefers music, deconstructing club culture itself.

by Andrey Shental

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Exercise of Freedom documenta14 / Athens

­­Several months before the official opening of documenta14, which has chosen Athens as a forum alongside Kassel in Germany, last September saw its inauguration with “The Parliament of Bodies” in Athens’s Parko Eleftherias (translated as Freedom Park).

Drawing from the name of the location designated as the first of the exhibition’s spaces by the municipal authority, the building, which previously housed the headquarters of the military police during the junta (1967–74) and is adjacent to a former detention and torture facility from that period, hosted thirty-four “exercises of freedom.” These varied from speeches and actions to workshops and musical performances. All dealt with the diverse notions of “freedom.”

Within the structure, sixty-eight movable faux-concrete blocks, designed by artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis, serve as soft ruins on which to perch, and locate ancient Greek democracy within a modernist frame. This juxtaposition of the assumed formality of antiquity and a contemporary Western architecture serves as an apt analogy for the exhibition itself, sensitively yet openly referring to the tensions experienced when hosting such a large-scale exhibition and public program dealing with provocative issues in a city grappling with many issues of its own. Adam Szymczyk, the artistic director of this fourteenth edition of the exhibition, has been quite clear from the outset that the exhibition “can only visit Athens as a guest, with all the limitations and possibilities such status implies.”

The dearth of official announcements regarding the exhibition itself has been mitigated by a rich public program of discussions and workshops since September, directed by Paul B. Preciado, the festival’s most visible face in Athens up to now. Covering a broad range of topics including identity politics, gender, sexuality, deinstitutionalization, migration, yoga, necropolitics and cooperativism, the continuing public program has seen appearances from individuals as diverse as Terre Thaemlitz and Antonio Negri, and has inspired a flurry of discourse, perhaps most evident in the independent “Learning from documenta” anthropological discussion group, who have also invited a large number of international speakers to critically observe the exhibition’s presence in the city, including by investigating the semantics of the exhibition’s working title, “Learning from Athens.”

Announcements that have reached beyond the artistic community in Athens include that of Keimena, the weekly broadcast of experimental documentary and narrative films on Greece’s state TV network, Every Time a Ear di Soun, a 24-hour radio programme that will broadcast internationally for 3 weeks during the exhibition, and that of a parade of twelve horses that will circumnavigate the Acropolis along the area’s pedestrianized walkways during the opening event of the exhibition, with the troupe depicting scenes from the Parthenon frieze. The horses and riders will continue on a hundred-day journey to Kassel, riding through the Balkans. With Athens experiencing an unprecedented proliferation of peripheral artistic happenings, excitement for the eventual opening of the exhibition continues to brim.

by Andrew Spyrou

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