For the 2013 Carnegie International — curated by Dan Byers, Tina Kukielski and Daniel Baumann — Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky emphasized the importance of place. For most of us, a firm sense of place is at the root of our identity. Whether it's where we grew up or where we live, the particulars and history inspire pride and nostalgia.
In his series "What Makes Me Understand What I Know?," He An uses large neon characters pilfered from the signage ubiquitous in Chinese boomtowns. The characters spell out two names: his father's and that of a Japanese adult-video actress. Globalization tends to homogenize and transform a place until it is unrecognizable. The series explores intimacy familial and virtual to meditate on the alienation caused by rapid development.
Particularly poignant in the halls of the museum built by industrial titan Andrew Carnegie, He An's series is echoed in Zoe Strauss' Homestead Project photographs, which chronicle a community transformed by boom and bust.
Amar Kanwar's films similarly record the transformation by industry and urban growth of landscape in India. But where Strauss portrays specific Homestead residents, Kanwar, like He An, prefers a mood of disconnection and isolation.
Industry is also captured in the work of Yael Bartana, but instead of faceless globalization, she focuses on workers building by hand. However, far from sanguine, her two films explore the failures of Zionism. In an edited version of 1935's propagandistic "Awodah," smiling pioneers conquer the desert. In "Summer Camp," Bartana documents efforts by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition to rebuild a Palestinian home destroyed by Israeli authorities. Like Bartana, photographer Joel Sternfeld captures the failures and triumphs of revolutionary ideas. His series "Sweet Earth" documents American experimental utopias.
Evoking a similar mixture of melancholy and optimism are the photographic portraits of Zanele Muholi. These images, declarative like Strauss', show people from South Africa living with adversity (in this case, confronting homophobia). In company with Strauss and Muholi are Henry Taylor's portrait paintings, which capture the milieu surrounding his Los Angeles studio. Taylor portrays people from the neighborhood as well as iconic figures like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton.
By focusing on place as both a global and local concept, the International underscores the importance of locale and community in a rapidly changing landscape.