by Nathaniel Smith
The Walker Art Center’s newest exhibition “9 Artists” presents an attitude which can’t be bothered to take a singular position, give definitive answers, or even accurately report the number of artists involved. In spite of (and certainly because of) this, it happens to be one of the institution’s conceptually strongest shows in years.
The Walker Art Center’s recently opened 9 Artists collects eight internationally-based artists of varying ages, practices and concerns. By deliberately evading specificity, the 40or so works present a compelling exploration of numerous interconnected topics, spanning identity, ideology, sexuality, global politics, nationalism and how these artists navigate them. By offering curation closer to neutrality than goal-orientation, the viewer is given the responsibility in conceptually orienting the work’s collected intention. This “hands-off” style of curation is used both subtly and skillfully, avoiding the ever present danger that this approach can easily appear lazy or insular. 9 Artists as an exhibition seems analogous to a film which is aware of both the audience and the camera, but also the set, the conceit of film history, the projector, and theater itself. By acknowledging this parallel, off-screen world where developments and history exist without the benefit of visual confirmation (crucially paired with an adequate amount of information), the viewer is allowed their own navigation, and connection, to the exhibition’s many associations.
Bartholomew Ryan, an Assist Curator in the Visual Art Department, has seemed very comfortable appearing as both a catalyst/collaborator and director “off-screen” of exhibitions. In previous shows such as Pedro Reyes’ residency exhibition Baby Marx (curated with Camille Washington), a considerable amount of the actual work appeared outside of the galleries – taking form in artist talks, performance and process documentation which served to accompany and at times (in this writer’s opinion) justify the remainders which appeared in the gallery. Painter Painter (which Ryan curated with Eric Crosby) was also burdened by back story, weighed down by its own premise and implied history. A viewer could easily imagine the curatorial effort that went into the exhibition, but no amount of exhibition-prompted research on their part could justify a rather tame supposition to the current state of the painting medium, paired with the presentation expressing it.
Conversely, 9 Artists succeeds because of the acknowledgment of the implied history this (or any) exhibition carries. Rather than attempting to explain everything at once, or naively explaining nothing, Ryan allows the artists to speak to interconnectivity in contemporary society, exemplified by their (and the viewer’s) role within it. Ryan explains, “I feel that at the core of the exhibition is an exploration of what it means to be self-aware, to acknowledge and understand that we are in a world where in order to navigate anything you must negotiate your own complicity and implication in power. We are all compromised, and the more you produce or engage with the world, the more that becomes the case.”
Noting that contemporary artists eschew labels even more than their predecessors, the idea of boxing in eight artists with obscenely expansive practices would have been folly. As such, the quality of the artists chosen to represent this type of broad practice must be commended. Immediately upon entering the gallery, viewers are confronted by works requiring different levels of involvement. Although some (Liam Gillick’s “David, he doesn’t turn to see her,” for example) are more obliquely conceptual, they are balanced by the immediate content of works like Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s “i can’t work like this,” or the bombasity of Bjarne Melgaard’s Pink Panther drawings. Engagement with the institution (or the Museum’s collection), a trend which can often feel tacked on, is performed with gentle poetry in Danh Vo’s exchange with the Walker for his (living) father’s grave marker, “Tombstone for Phùng Vo” (2010).
Another relationship with The Institution (with a capital “I”) is presented by Renzo Martens’ “Institute for Human Activities,” where the belief that “…art can take a critical position only if it embraces the terms and conditions of its own existence” directly calls out art-related profiteering by contemporary artists, cities, biennales and institutions. It eloquently represents a repeating theme of 9 Artists, as this self-awareness, even through critique and examination, means Martens must also implicate himself and the Walker Art Center for making it possible.
Berlin-based Hito Steyerl offers both historical objectivity and hilarious perspective in her video piece “How not to be seen. A fucking didactic educational.MOV file’ (2013). Beginning with the postulation that “Resolution determines visibility,” there is an insinuation that low-resolution or no-resolution equates with various levels of non-existence. Continuing past it’s initial presentation as an educational or didactic video, the film adroitly blends threads and story-lines investigating the several different definitions, homonyms and connected ideas to visibility, disappearing, the digital age, and ultimately, digitally-blended existence. The fact that it handles these themes with dark, biting and tongue-in-cheek visual and written humor is proof positive the Steyerl is at the height of her artistic powers.Considering the importance of the exhibition’s off-screen implications, it is not surprising that video-work is prevalent. The inclusion of Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s “present but not yet active” (2002) could be Ryan’s curatorial masterstroke, as the video concisely represents several of the intersections available in 9 Artists. Named for Zoologist Bernhard Grzimeck (whose belief that visibility increased conservation, eventually innovating new strategies for exhibiting and displaying animals in zoo settings), Haghighian’s video focuses on a tiger’s cage, while a second camera records the first camera, and a third records images of the second. This footage was collected for Haghighian’s inclusion in the 1999 Manifesta European Biennial, thought it was never shown. It was only given to curators (and not to audiences) after the fact. Referring to the piece, Sadr Haghighian says, “Its place within reality, its state of being becomes completely dependent on the evaluation and further observation by the system…It begins with pointing a spotlight at the object, which becomes brighter than its surroundings, more detailed, easier to observe.” The video carries enhanced context for curators and art enthusiasts, who must now consider which cage they are viewing (what) from.
The Exhibition’s catalog operates in a similar mode, collecting various interviews, conversations and perspectives into an extension of the exhibition, eventually avalanching into a masterfully-designed rolling ball of questions. 9 Artists poignantly demonstrates the vast difference between a show which confuses (by sending conflicting or unclear messages) and one which is confusing (answers not immediately made present). The ultimate and lasting validation is the incomplete circle drawn for the viewer, which fits perfectly with Ryan’s preferred working method “…which is to keep things as open ended as possible for as long as possible to in a sense build trust, but also allow a lot of the real decisions to come quite late.”
Edited by Bartholomew Ryan
Published by Walker Art Center
The Wretched of the Screen
“9 Artists” at the Walker Art Center features work by Yael Bartana, Liam Gillick, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Renzo Martens, Bjarne Melgaard, Nástio Mosquito, Hito Steyerl and Danh Vo. The exhibition extends through February 16, 2014, and is open during normal museum hours.