Riding Out the Storm

John Haber
in New York City

Maya Lin and Climate Change

Tom Burckhardt and Anicka Yi

Maya Lin may seem less an architect than a conservator. Is it any wonder, then, that she is tracking the ebb and flow of the planet in her art?

Memory is always about conserving the past even while dwelling on its loss, and few dedicate themselves to memory as much as Lin. It appears in her Vietnam Memorial or in museum architecture that preserves a building's neglected infrastructure (and a longer separate review does more justice to her career). It should make her a natural for art about climate change, when every storm surge or forest fire makes loss more evident and conservation more of a necessity. Her art on the subject is curiously elegant after her vulnerable earth and brickwork, and Tom Burckhardt, too, may make global warming go down easy. He makes it a matter of studio space turned upside-down. They do, though, map the details plainly enough, while riding out the storm. Maya Lin's Three Ways of Looking at the Earth (Pace, 2009)

Anicka Yi creates her own ecosystems, with equal emphases on their origins, their transience, and their presence in a museum. Yi has been tracking down remote climates and life forms, on the way to the Guggenheim, with a long stop in Chinatown. With bacteria, ants, used circuitry, a veneer of science, and a good deal of hype, she asks to take art into the cross-cultural realm of the senses. She also gives space not just to art and science, but also to art and women. Try not to mind if the creatures look creepy or the subtext sounds undernourished. After all, the planet is at stake.

Go with the flow

Water and weather were on everyone's mind at Lin's opening in Chelsea, for a show in fact called "Ebb and Flow." It fell between two devastating tropical storms, with first record rain and then devastating winds. It coincided with an installation by Burckhardt that recalls Tropical Storm Sandy on the Lower East Side. The onset of fall in the galleries that night was only figuratively torrential. Lin is also at work on what she has declared her final memorial at age fifty-seven, to be called What Is Missing? She intends it to raise awareness of habitat loss and loss of biodiversity.

Yet she alludes to climate only circumspectly. Her new work maps the course of rivers, but it leaves unstated how their course has changed and what that change will mean. Titles identify the sites as the Arctic and Antarctic, where the borders are shifting fast, but also the Nile and Victoria Falls. They show no obvious evidence of drought or melting ice. They seem more like an abundance.

Maya Lin has always made an art of gratitude as well as loss, part of what makes it effective. When her Vietnam War Memorial opened in 1982, critics underestimated the combination's power. They wanted a testimony to heroism and not also to loss, just as conservatives deny global warming today. The combination also makes her a conservator as an architect. SculptureCenter retains its crumbling basement as an effective site for objects and installations. The combination also makes sense for the Museum of Chinese in America, where history is not always pretty.

If anything, she is conserving more and imposing less than ever. Lin was a student at Yale when she designed the memorial in Washington, and she is returning to its roots in Minimalism and earthworks. Now, though, she is no longer moving earth but rather mapping it. A show in 2009 (reproduced here) stuck to topography as well, but at least waist high, and one's perspective shifted as one walked through it. Here the rivers form narrow streams along the walls and floor. The tallest runs in a circle at the level of one's ankles, like a wading pool that has lost its water.

They can still make a big impression. A single work includes more streams than any one river could reasonably hold, and they cascade across walls and up to the ceiling. They also make use of marble, marbles, pins, and no longer molten silver. The materials have had their own ebb and flow. Her idea of earthworks has less in common with Walter de Maria and his dirty masses than with plantings for Agnes Denes or "maintenance art" for Mierle Laderman Ukeles. It exploits the tension between things as they are and the cutting edge.

That tension can work against her quiet artistry. One may not know that she, like Renzo Piano, can take credit for more than one New York museum—in his case, the Morgan, the Whitney, and Columbia University's Wallach Gallery. She said little when SculptureCenter later moved its entrance, added a stairwell, and cut into its pebbled garden while hardly adding exhibition space. This time, too, circumspection comes at the expense of glory, wonder, sorrow, or anger, and the materials can look a little too pretty. For the designer of a war memorial and a Women's Table at Yale, Lin seems almost reluctant to speak out. Maybe she is daring the planet's survivors to go with the flow.

Shifting Sandy

Art is a tough business, but some artists can still get lucky. They might, say, get hit by a hurricane. At least Tom Burckhardt counts that as luck. He invites one into his flooded studio transplanted to the Lower East Side. What it lacks in sensitivity it makes up in its recreation of an artist's working space. As it turns out, the most precarious space of all lies not in a house of cardboard, but in painting.

Studio Flood looks precarious enough before one enters. Nothing disguises its coarse honeycombed edges, and nothing covers its tan face beyond black paint. One may not need to take off one's shoes or to duck much to enter, but it presents a healthy reminder that artists take to whatever space they can. It may even determine the scale of their work, much as the gallery determines the scale of the installation. It may also be disorienting, even before one realizes that something has turned it upside-down—and that something extends beyond the weather. Posters, their text inverted, put in a word for both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, in an election year that still feels like a natural disaster.

Burckhardt knows the feeling, for he sees a hurricane as a reminder that few artists are ever in control of their fate. That lesson hits home inside, where one cannot always tell the back of canvases from their black or blank surfaces, like Allan McCollum without the cynicism. It hits home again when one emerges on the far side, in the gallery's back room. There he displays more cardboard substitutes for paintings, along with framed views of many more lined up against a wall. Who knows what was lost to the storm and what the artist never managed to begin? Maybe he is the master of his fate after all, and maybe that hits him as the harshest lesson of all.

Then again, maybe not. The sheer number of blank canvases attests to a control freak with a well-stocked studio, and so do the carefully organized brushes, paints, and tools. Katharina Grosse's Rockaway! (photo by John Haber, MoMA PS1, 2016)After Jasper Johns, it makes perfect sense that some brushes rest in a Savarin can. Even the puddles outside the studio, sketched overhead, look more like creative roofing. In a fall opening show, from the gallery that once inaugurated an art scene in Williamsburg, whose crisis is this anyway? Indeed, which hurricane?

Burckhardt began with thoughts of Tropical Storm Sandy, although the campaign posters made news more recently. Back in 2012 the shuttered storefronts had lessons of their own about the precarious state of the midlevel galleries that contribute so much. The costs linger at that, including repairs to the Canarsie subway tunnel starting in 2019—a shutdown sure to place Brooklyn art at risk. So far, though, galleries have recovered just fine from the weather. With spray paint on a house in Far Rockaway, by Katharina Grosse last summer, Sandy may even have offered an opportunity. One may have to remind oneself that the abandoned house was slated for demolition, and so is Burckhardt's cardboard studio.

Artists do get lucky, but climate change is frightening and real. The show may seem to have impressive timing, coming the week between Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida—with Jose on its way. Any one of these would have passed for a "once in five hundred years" event not so long ago. Does the timing also trivialize the damage, including lost homes and lost lives, as if all that matters is painting? No doubt, but credit Burckhardt with a bittersweet sense of humor and a broader sense of loss. For art, the greater threats have come from pricy real estate, crowded art fairs, unscrupulous art advisers, competitive markets, and less than compelling art.

Bacteria, ants, and women

What do Asian American women have in common with carpenter ants? They both figure in the art of Anicka Yi—and they both smell. If one may trust the artist, in fact, they do not smell half bad. They do not, at any rate, preclude entering Life Is Cheap, although they do present a bit of an obstacle. They are not the first. One enters a Guggenheim Museum tower gallery past a warning about aromas and through two steel gates, to reach a "holding pen," where three canisters emit a scent taken, she swears, from women and ants.

Yi claims to draw on a whole team of "molecular biologists and forensic scientists" to study how "gender, race, and class shape physical perception." And she has a history of dubious appeals to the senses. She appeared in "A Disagreeable Object" at SculptureCenter and in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she interviewed a "flavor chemist" along the Amazon. Here, too, she boasts of a "biopolitics of the senses," and here, too, it comes across as sentimental and pretentious. She has this year's Hugo Boss Prize, like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tacita Dean, and Emily Jacir before her, and it has not always gone well. As the song goes, "Life is short, and talk is cheap. Don't be making promises that you can't keep."

She is not, fortunately, all talk, and her installation does not end with a cloying smell. She calls that first part Immigrant Caucus, which sounds like Donald J. Trump's worst nightmare in the Senate. Yet it has a visual component as well, in the bareness of the holding pen. The canisters lie in a corner by a third gate, as if left there by mistake. At first I thought she meant that Asian women and ants smell the same—which could explain why Asian cuisine involves neither one as ingredients. I came to appreciate instead the visual threats.

Past the gates, a museum's white cube stands empty, making all the more dramatic the busy displays on facing walls. Ant life and the immigrant experience branch off behind glass, as Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars. In one, the ants make their way through white tunnels in the shape of a giant circuit diagram. Mirrors above and below multiply its depths to infinity. The tunnels have a further reflection in a construction like coral at the window's center, broken by a white pole topped by, I am guessing, a hat. In the other, New York's Chinatown and Koreatown appear only as bacteria sampled from genuine urban cultures.

Yi sets them, though, on something more directly allusive. The bacteria grow on agar, as in a lab, spread on off-white tiles that ascend as steps in front of similarly tiled walls. They could belong to a public atrium or an Asian temple. They are also the setting for more fabric, Ethernet cables, and digital clocks ticking off the invisible motion of biological and electronic networks. Beside the shared dimensions, both sides of the room riff on colonies, circuits, and cultures. They are visually alluring but slightly disgusting.

Yi pulls off a display for the senses, while keeping the insects and bacteria (I hope) behind glass. Born in South Korea, she also aligns herself with the politics of globalization, global feminism, and Asian American art, with an appearance in "Art and China After 1989" at the Guggenheim coming up as well. Does she have enough to say about any of them? Not really, unless you believe that ants, bacteria, and microchips are fitting metaphors for oppressed cultures and the lifestyle wars. If anything, language seems to have broken down entirely, even in the supposed service of political and critical theory. One can, though, admire the breakdown while exiting the last steel gate.

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Maya Lin ran at Pace through October 7, 2017, Tom Burckhardt at Pierogi through October 8, and Anicka Yi at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through July 5. Related reviews looks in more depth at Maya Lin, natural histories, and art and climate change.


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