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Alien Notions

The Carnegie International looks at life on a lonely planet

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You first see Paul Thek's "Earth Drawing I" from several galleries away, framed by a series of doorways. This work -- which has become the emblem for the 55th Carnegie International -- is at first discernable as nothing more than a hazy orb on a yellowed background. But as you approach it, passing through the Carnegie Museum of Art's Scaife galleries, the orb resolves itself into our very own Earth, floating on a canvas of yellowing newspaper.

You approach Thek's Earth, in other words, as if you were coming from outer space -- a natural analogy, given the International's title, Life on Mars. But it's really our planet that is the focus of this show, even if we gallery visitors draw upon Thek's rendering of it as if we were waging our own war of the worlds. (Actually, the journey is an H.G. Wells twofer: Because the galleries behind feature art of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, they're a kind of time machine, the subject of another Wells book.) But as you stand before the work, you realize that Earth has already declared war on itself: The newspaper that serves as Thek's canvas features an early-1970s advertisement boasting "Ashland Oil repeats record fiscal year profits."

Work on Barry McGee's Installation - HEATHER MULL

Thek's work is "a collective self-portrait of humanity colliding with the quotidian grind of daily existence," curator Douglas Fogle, who comes to Pittsburgh by way of the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, writes in his catalogue essay. The image of Earth as seen from space, he adds, reminds us that "we are profoundly alone but paradoxically together."

It's heady stuff, as are the questions Fogle says the exhibit poses: "Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?"

Fogle will be giving us an answer, sort of, in just a few days.

 

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The Carnegie International opens May 3 and runs through Jan. 11, 2009. But it's already generated some buzz, in part because of Fogle's unprecedented move to give the show a name: Life on Mars. As with the exhibit itself, there is something both bold and self-effacing about Fogle's decision to stamp his own brand on it.

"Untitled (Living Sculpture)" by Marisa Merz, viewed from below - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • "Untitled (Living Sculpture)" by Marisa Merz, viewed from below

For 112 years, the Carnegie International has been Pittsburgh's pre-eminent contribution to the art world -- and the art world's outreach to Pittsburgh. The exhibit is the planet's second-oldest exhibit of contemporary art, and in all that time, no one has seen fit to dub it with a theme.

Yet by giving the show a more idiosyncratic title, Fogle says, he was merely acknowledging the challenges such an exhibit presents. Exhibits that "attempt to be surveys," he says, "have one work from column A, one from column B. But when you can only have 40 artists out of the thousands you could choose, it made more sense to give the exhibit a sort of narrative thread."

The curator's stamp is present everywhere anyway, reflected in the artists chosen and those left behind. This year's International is taking special steps to make Fogle's exhibit more accessible. The exhibit has already been operating its own Web site, blog.cmoa.org/CI08, complete with blog posts reflecting on the show. ("While many of the artists express feelings of alienation in this modernizing world, the show has come to be a study on the human condition today," one docent-in-training observes.) Fogle plans to make his own blog posts and participate in online Q&As, in addition to his regular outreach. The exhibit, he says "should be a forum; it should be a discussion."

Detail of Rivane Neuenschwander's "I Wish Your Wish" - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Detail of Rivane Neuenschwander's "I Wish Your Wish"

And Fogle's wry touch was evident even before the exhibit was entirely installed. Take the video work by Chinese artist Cao Fei, who uses imagery from the online virtual world Second Life to comment upon the rise of modern China. Fogle is projecting the work onto a screen at the foot of the Carnegie's Grand Staircase, the space which houses a multi-floor mural celebrating our own industrial past.

Siting Cao's work here, of course, suggests that the mantle of industrial leadership has passed to Asia. But Cao also slyly critiques the triumphant claims often made by economic powers -- whether they are the 19th-century capitalists of Pittsburgh's industrial heyday, or the Chinese leaders of the 21st century. (In Cao's virtual reality, for example, Tiananmen Square has been flooded and renamed the "People's Water Park.")

The Hall of Sculpture's second-floor balcony, meanwhile, is lined with reproductions of classical statuary, and it's become an International tradition to find artists who can carry on a dialogue with these figures. Fogle continues the tradition with a series of large black-and-white photograms created by Bruce Conner in the 1970s. Conner created the works, titled ANGELS, by posing in front of light-sensitive paper. The resulting images are ghostly, with only the artist's hands -- often spread in a gesture of supplication or warning -- sharply defined. Spiritually charged, the images recall the Shroud of Turin, and like the statues on the balcony, they capture the human form in a stark visual language.

But if the exhibit shows some of Fogle's strengths, it has blind spots, too. The 40 artists were born as long ago as 1919 and as recently as 1978. (Some, including Thek, have passed away.) They hail from 17 countries, but there are no voices from the Middle East, Africa or Australia. Those locales are ground zero for some of the most pressing issues facing humanity today: religious factionalism, resource depletion, climate change. But they may as well be on Mars, as far as this exhibit is concerned.

"I ran out of time," says Fogle, who'd planned to visit Beirut until yet another outbreak of violence forced him to scuttle the trip. "I would never claim that this show represents the entire world."

An "ANGEL" by Bruce Conner, beside the statuary of The Hall of Sculpture - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • An "ANGEL" by Bruce Conner, beside the statuary of The Hall of Sculpture

It does, however, sometimes reflect a sense of global unease.

The show's title itself comes from a 1971 David Bowie song, which Fogle describes as "almost a utopian longing for another place amidst a world going out of control." ("It's the freakiest show," runs part of the song's chorus. "Take a look at the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy / Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know / He's in the best-selling show / Is there life on Mars?") And current events are much like those that greeted Bowie's recording. As in the 1970s, our government is run by incompetents or worse, environmental catastrophe seems a real possibility, and the economy is slipping into malaise.

Fogle's catalogue essay flits from the dark imaginings of Francisco Goya, the Spanish artist who depicted the horrors of war and the sleep of reason, to the zombie films of George Romero. It likens the 1816 wreck of the Medusa -- whose victims, abandoned by their own navy, were immortalized by painter Théodore Géricault -- to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans' distress, in fact, will be commemorated with a rooftop installation by Mark Bradford. "HELP US" the message will read. But it will be visible only from above -- to those using Google Maps, or from Air Force One during a disaster-scene flyover. Who knows? Perhaps they'll even be able to see it from Mars.

 

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Maybe it was Fogle's talk of a world spinning out of control, or the fact that when I walked through the exhibit late last week, much of it was still in boxes. ("Thank God it's a leap year; we got an extra day to install," Fogle told me. I think he was only half-joking.) But as I toured the galleries, I couldn't escape a sense of impending disaster.

I mean that in a good way. I'm not saying the show will be unsuccessful, but that the art often seems to echo with modern anxiety. Or at least that viewers may bring some anxiety to the work of, say, Richard Hughes.

Sculpture by Matthew Monahan - HEATHER MULL

One of Hughes' contributions involves creating the illusion that the gallery walls are peeling away, as if the museum were a badly decayed ruin. It's an oddly festive decay, since Hughes has rendered these layers in the colors of the rainbow. But post-Katrina, it's easy to read one of the walls as the Doppler image of an approaching hurricane. As the exhibit's catalogue puts it, a sense of failure "permeates [Hughes'] work like a bad smell." One of his sculptures appears to be a soiled mattress with a tiny forest of lifelike mushrooms sprouting from its seams. The mushrooms, of course, suggest both decay and hallucinogenic self-delusion ... and in fact the mattress is no mattress at all, but a convincing counterfeit sculpted in resin.

It may seem perverse to try to capture rot and decay so precisely. But there's an archeological feeling to much of the exhibit -- as if we were excavating our culture from its own ruins. Matthew Monahan's sculptures, for example, half resemble trolls, or the unearthed caryatids from some ancient civilization. But they are carved from foam, and bound with canvas straps. These are broken idols, survivors not of the Stone or Bronze Age, but of an Age of Plastic.

The most obvious, and perhaps most powerful, example of the trend is Thomas Hirschhorn's mammoth installation, "Cavemanman." Inside its fluorescent-lit cardboard caverns, Hirschhorn has fashioned a "family" of figures wrapped in aluminum foil, surrounded by graffiti ("1 Man = 1 Man") and pages torn from philosophical texts. But this is less Plato's Cave than his bunker, a refuge constructed from the detritus of modern living. The dwelling's walls have been reinforced (and seemingly booby-trapped, given the sticks of dynamite lying about) with lofty words, but there is a pathos in the refuge's ramshackle construction.

Much of the effect results from Fogle's interest in Arte Povera -- a 1960s and '70s Italian movement whose artists worked with humble, everyday materials -- and two of the movement's pioneering spirits, Marisa and Mario Merz.

Arte Povera ("poor art") arose from its own set of concerns: It emerged as Italy's postwar economic expansion turned sour, and as artists tired of the art world's grandiose Modernism. Too, Mario Merz was fascinated with the seemingly mystic powers of the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical pattern in which each number is the sum of the two before. (Life on Mars illustrates the concept with a series of Merz's photos: In the first two pictures, we see a person dining alone in a restaurant. In the next, we see a couple seated together. Later photos show us three diners, then five, then eight, and so on.) But viewed in 2008, the materials seem elegiac, a reminder of T.S. Eliot's sardonic epitaph for modern civilization: "Here were a decent, godless people, / Their only monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golf balls."

In any case, though these works are made from humble materials, there's nothing modest about their ambitions. Consider Marisa Merz's stunning sculpture in the ground-floor Forum Gallery. A tangle of sheet metal hangs from the ceiling, draped and folded like some strange postindustrial mollusk, or a flight of angels rendered in ductwork.

While Fogle acknowledges, "It's a tough world that we're living in," he adds that none of the exhibit "is political art with a capital P. I'm not interested in haranguing the viewer." The bulletin board in his office, after all, features a photo of the late comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman -- the exhibit's "patron saint," Fogle says.

Hirschhorn's cave may be as close to political commentary as the show gets, Fogle surmises, "or maybe this new film by Phil Collins, which I haven't seen yet." (The film -- which was shot in the former Yugoslavia -- is one of a half-dozen works commissioned specially for the show.)

But "[y]ou don't have to be doing so-called political art to be engaged," Fogle says. Life on Mars is about "a kind of poetic engagement with the world."

 

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Life on Mars contributing artist Barry McGee works in an often-overlooked hallway that leads to the Museum of Art's administrative offices, just around the corner from one of the security desks. His work itself is a dizzying array of brilliantly colored Op Art panels, cut to various sizes. In places, the wall itself bulges, projecting into the hallway. The effect is almost dizzying, an optical illusion that really is pushing beyond the flat surface.

Sculpture by Katja Strunz - HEATHER MULL

It might seem unlikely that McGee, who began his career as a graffiti artist, is working in such proximity to a guard post. If you ask what he wants the public to take away from his art, McGee smiles: "Maybe a painting or a couple drawings, pulled off the wall."

He's kidding, though one of his works was recently stolen from a transit station in his native San Francisco. And like a lot of artists with roots in graffiti, McGee notes that his disruptions of the visual environment are nothing compared to what corporations accomplish. "You see these buses here with ads wrapped around them. It's weird: People can be upset about a tag on the wall, but they don't mind their whole transit system wrapped in ads."

But doesn't his own work, a dizzying expanse that projects itself into the viewer's space, risk being equally intrusive?

An untitled message from David Shringley - HEATHER MULL

"Yeah, I realized that last night," McGee says. "Maybe I'm just being competitive."

Perhaps. But one thing graffiti does -- some aggrieved neighbors would say all it does -- is leave a trace of the artist's presence. Graffiti records a humanity that might otherwise be hard to find in a concrete landscape. No wonder that among McGee's own favorite artists at the International is Scottish artist Richard Wright, who is doing a site-specific drawing directly on the gallery's walls. "I like the idea that the artist was there, doing something specific to the place," McGee says.

So, apparently, does Fogle. While the International includes some video work, there's little in the way of computer art. Fogle speaks repeatedly of the "presence of the hand," the physical traces an artist leaves behind, and the way some artists incorporate their physical surroundings into their work.

Mark Bradford, for example, uses the omnipresent advertising of small businesses in his native Los Angeles, or the wheatpasted flyers affixed to construction-site fences. These posters are often pasted on top of each other, creating a series of layered messages which Bradford literally excavates, sanding away upper layers to reveal the colors and texts beneath. And while the works are abstract, they look like topographic maps of some sprawling city -- which, metaphorically, they are.

Works by Richard Hughes - HEATHER MULL

And for Fogle, the International is a site-specific work in its own right, an exhibit whose location in Pittsburgh helps govern the reception of the art. Such a connection is unusual: The curators of the two previous Internationals, Laura Hoptman and Madeline Grynsztejn, left Pittsburgh soon after. "That is the legacy of this thing," acknowledges Fogle, who says Pittsburgh reminds him of his native Chicago. "One gets phone calls, but I live here, and I like the city a lot. I'm not leaving the day after the show."

He has, in fact, sought out artists who seem to belong here as well.

International contributor Susan Philipsz, Fogle says, incorporates a strong sense of place, although it takes up no space of its own. Philipsz will be contributing a "sound sculpture": a recording of her voice singing the murder ballad "On the Banks of the Ohio," not far from the river's headwaters, in the Carnegie's outdoor Sculpture Garden.

 

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"I love this part," Sharon Lockhart says as her film Pine Flat unspools on the screen. Mikey, who has been playing a made-up harmonica tune for the past few minutes alongside a mountain stream, stops. There's the sound of an airplane overhead; Mikey tracks it with his eyes. Soon enough, he's playing again.

Lockhart spent three years filming the children of Pine Flat, a small town near the Sierra Nevada mountains. The movie consists of twelve 10-minute reels, during which kids appear alone or in groups, sometimes arguing, other times simply reading.

The camera itself never moves, and at two hours in length, Pine Flat isn't for everyone. One Internet critic on the movie Web site imdb.com, for example, found it "excruciating" just "[t]o sit through even the first 10 minutes."

Of course, the kids in Lockhart's film had no problem sitting still for that long. And that's part of the point: A child's experience of time is totally different from an adult's, and the things we take for granted -- a passage of sunlight or birdsong -- are for a child a source of wonder.

After watching the film, Lockhart says, "I hope you move a little differently for a few minutes. Or you think a little differently."

Fogle says that Lockhart's film was a touchstone, the moment where many of his thoughts about the show began to take form. It's a conceptual work, but while "conceptual art" is often a synonym for "dull," Life on Mars tries to infuse sometimes-arid art-world ideas with human intimacy.

Take Vija Celmins' "Night Sky" paintings, a series of starscapes delicately executed on a black background. Like a lot of abstract art, the works may prompt an "I could do that" response, but Fogle waxes poetic about their astral significance: "You have the expansiveness of the universe in this tiny package. Each painting is like a window on another galaxy."

Rika Noguchi undertakes a similar task, turning a beginner's mistake in photography -- shooting into the sun -- into a kind of ritual. In Rika's photos, the sun flares, suffusing the landscape with light. Photographed with the most primitive technology, a pinhole camera, the photos recall the same awe that compelled druids to construct Stonehenge.

Nor far from these celestial phenomena, the Indian artist Ranjani Shettar has created a galaxy of her own: a delicate latticework of hand-rolled beeswax orbs, suspended in mid-air by fibrous webs. You can see the work as metaphor for the global economy (in which India has become an important node). But there is something intricately ritualistic in these undulating skeins, as delicate as whispered prayers.

But perhaps the most explicitly humanitarian gesture is Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander's "I Wish Your Wish," in which ribbons hang from holes perforating a gallery wall. Each ribbon bears a wish, ranging from the prosaic to the poetic: "I hope to get a good job," says one; "I wish never to be without wishes," says another, in German; "I wish democracy was real," says a third.

Visitors will be invited to take a ribbon in exchange for leaving a wish of their own. And some of those wishes will be incorporated into future showings of the work. "I Wish Your Wish" is an organic, growing thing, expressing human longings in various languages, speaking with voices both unique and universal.

Sculpture by Rangani Shettar - HEATHER MULL

The work is located in the museum's busiest thoroughfare -- another deft move by Fogle -- and requires no art training to decipher. (Fogle's own favorite ribbon reads "I wish I was in my favorite bar in Mexico City, having a margarita.") With its multicolored ribbons, the work is a flag of all nations and of none. In its own way, "I Wish Your Wish" is a portrait of the world as much as Paul Thek's newspaper painting.

Neuenschwander's work is "something people can participate in and take away with them," Fogle says "You talk about human connection -- that piece has everything this show is about."

 

Life on Mars: the 2008 Carnegie International opens May 3 and runs through Jan. 11, 2009. Museum admission is free for members; admission is $15 for adults, $11 for students/children, free for kids under age 3.

Curator Douglas Fogle gives a free lecture about the exhibit on Thu., May 22, at 6:30 p.m. in the Carnegie Lecture Hall. A series of lectures, workshops and other events will take place throughout the exhibit. Check www.cmoa.org for a complete schedule.

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