Refugees

John Haber
in New York City

Senso Unico, Flow, and Julio Bittencourt

Art is always in a condition of exile. An artist works in a particular time and place, but then the work goes forth into the world. Its fate is uncertain, its meanings multiply, and before you know it, you need art critics.

Since at least modernity, too, artists occupy a time and place with strangers. Modernism tracked the crowded landscape of cities and the displacement of suburban sprawl. It has its roots in Impressionism's middle-class weekend getaways, in a rapidly growing nowhere between city and country. It ended in an age of globalization. Modern artists became displaced persons as well, from the Parisian night life of the 1890s to twenty-first century day jobs and studio-driven gentrification. Julio Bittencourt's In a Window of Prestes Maia 911 (Point of View, 2008)

With all that, should artists have a natural sympathy for refugees? Maybe not, not when the money comes more from tourists. At least a few shows in 2008, however, make it seem only natural to describe Postmodernism in political terms, as a time of violent displacement and forced exile. Each has its setting in a different continent, with a different displaced population. Starting in a birthplace of Western art, Italy, "Senso Unico" finds no going back. More effectively, "Flow" at the Studio Museum moves from post-black to post-African identity, and Julio Bittencourt catches South Americans between dispossessed and homeless—reasonably enough, on the edge of a city.

Neo-neorealism

When I think, as so often, of visiting Italy, I think of the art I first loved. I think of it coming not just off the page, but into a physical engagement with history—in Renaissance church interiors, hillside towns, and polluted cities. Yet when I think of contemporary Italian art, I think of a space almost entirely without memory. I think of stylish portraiture from Francesco Clemente or the casually anonymous gestures of Alighiero Boetti and Arte Povera. It seems to begin as if from scratch with Neorealism, high fashion, art fairs, and wistful images of America.

The eight artists in "Senso Unico" at P.S. 1 have much the same ambivalence about memory. One might consider Adrian Paci's Home to Go as a tribute to both sculptural tradition and contemporary urban poverty. His marble nude bends under a thatched rooftop, as if bearing his home and the world on his back. Then again, the roofing has no contents, and the white figure looks as slick as a Salon exercise or a store mannequin. Paolo Canevari's drawing of the Colosseum on fire provides the lone other allusion to the deep past, but as an emblem of the end of history in spectacle. If the show's title echoes a one-way street sign, it could well insist on time's arrow.

The artists all mean that arrow to have a critical point: there is no going back. Paci's nude stands for artists and other refugees, what a show at MoMA calls "Insecurities," just as his video in a downtown gallery strands a solemn assembly on the runway steps without an airplane in sight. However, they seem way too concerned for high style to drive the point home. The exhibition title at P.S. 1 could refer literally to an artist's unique touch with sensation or a nation's special character. Neither, however, is so easy to assert without wallowing and evasion. Sometimes, that makes the work itself as transient as this year's fashion, and anyway there is nothing new and unique under the sun, right?

Pietro Roccasalva's "magic rooms" have a debt to Italian Modernism, but they amount to pastels surrounding a stuffed parrot. Angelo Filomeno's embroidered black silk alludes to the pomp of popes and the helmets of ancient Rome, but it too comes off as glitter for glitter's sake. Meanwhile Paola Pivi's life-size standing bear in yellow feathers looks anything but grizzly. Paci's own blurry portraits after Pier Paolo Pasolini strip the politics out of both Gerhard Richter and the Italian director, leaving faces more suited to a classy black-and-white photo shoot. Even when Vanessa Beecroft insists on the human costs of art and style, the two halves of her message seem worlds apart. Elegant creatures can-can past bodies painted black and left for dead, while the artist herself drips over the corpses in a gesture between blood letting and Abstract Expressionism.

For Rä di Martino and Francesco Vezzoli, the fashion statement comes with a statement about gender. The first has a man in a gray wig and drag, in yet another can-can dance. The second at least has a sense a humor, although the joke starts to wear thin. His longer and louder video, in the museum's downstairs tunnel, describes his own life as A True Hollywood Story! He has the spinning images from Extra! down pat, and who am I to question the saga of his rise and file in art or the Milan fashion circuit? Still, he, too, cannot so easily go from self-parody to the real world.

One joke did stick with me, because it takes more than a second to get. It also does touch seriously on global politics and past Italian art. Five tires represent Canevari's Continents, like a schematic world map by Alighiero Boetti—with an anxious rabbit for Australia and a tirelessly barking dog for the Americas. Not only will the United States not stop calling attention to itself, but it cannot even admit to sharing the continent with others. Which will rise first to question it, a sleeping pig for Africa or a rat for Asia? Presumably not the comfy cat from Europe.

A post from Africa

Art in Harlem may yet live happily ever after, but with the accent on the after. With "Freestyle" and "Frequency," the Studio Museum put forth the idea of a post-black identity, while supporting emerging black artists. In contrast to "Global Feminisms," shows like these or do not so much eradicate, decry, or celebrate the burden of the past, but rather deal with it as best they may—its stereotypes neither dead nor intact. After post-black, Postmodernism, post-structuralism, and postfeminism, could there be a post-African art as well? In "Flow," the museum now brings artists from Africa to Harlem, only to find that they have already left the continent behind.

Or have they? The art is post-African in at least two ways, starting with its refusal to hector. Political and cultural nightmares have not gone anywhere, but they hover quietly off-stage. Troken Nagbe paints a neighborhood in Liberia after a bombing run, but its palm trees, telegraph poles, and low-lying houses could belong almost anywhere. Joël Andrianomearisoa, Elias Sime, and Nicholas Hlobo treat canvas as a textile or tapestry, supplemented by clay monkeys or seemingly in flames, but the colors of the African National Coalition that David Hammons used for an American flag never once appear. Second, the artists are quite literally post-African, for nearly all live in Europe or America, and one after another tackles the conditions of exile.

As "Flow" implies, art and lives are in transit, much as for many in the Caribbean diaspora, and the flow goes largely in one direction. It does not go easily either. Adel Abdessemed's scale model of the Queen Mary in rusted tins lies stranded on the floor. Moshekwa Langa's collage incorporates abstract painting, silhouettes, wide eyes, and charts, as if uncertainly mapping the way. Mounir Fatmi loops coaxial cables into an abstraction, as if communication channels had closed for good. Visitors must also circumnavigate her actual obstacle course, from the materials of a steeplechase.

Exile appears as a place as well as a journey—and an inhospitable one. Ananias Léki Dago photographs a working-class Parisian suburbs, where immigrants had rioted, as weighted down in mist. With his signpost in an icy field, Dawit L. Petros photographs remoteness itself, echoed in his blue rectangle on the museum walls. Latifa Echakhch's Moroccan tea set has fallen into the glass fragments of Errata on its way to Paris, while Otobong Nkanga buries his naked young man waist deep in high rises and waste. Michèle Magema interviews the survivors in French, but with their heads cut off and the sound all but inaudible.

Exile here also means marginalization. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye calls her unsmiling portraits Invented Marginals, perhaps to ask just who has invented their condition. Mustafa Maluka's sad stare bears the title I'm not going anywhere this is home, but the very need to assert that undermines its claim to truth. Political or cultural marginalization extends as well to Grace Ndiritu's shrouded woman writhing to African pop music, Thierry Fontaine's face obscured by comically large lips made of sea shells, Modou Dieng's formal assemblage of CDs and a necktie, and Thando Mama's man crouching in front of a blank TV screen. Even when Lolo Veleko celebrates street fashion, it owes as much to trashy Western sexuality and American used cars as to Johannesburg. Thanks to a makeshift piano roll that Tim Hawkinson might have admired, Echakhch can listen to the Marseillaise, but as played through a portable paper shredder.

If post-African identity sounds bleaker than Africa and the West put together, "Flow" itself is not. All that reliance on indirection shows that people have a few ruses left. By sticking to just twenty artists, all under forty, the museum allows them space, too, including room for ambiguity. Olalekan Jeyifous's wood and aluminum constructions outline still more unstable modernist housing, but they share materials with model airplanes in flight. Does the colorful wreckage of Fatmi's steeplechase mean that the obstacles are breaking down or that the runners have stumbled? Is Nkanga's man erecting a new city or burying himself in its detritus? When Petros's black hand holds out a snowball, it could stand as a gift—or another way to go with the flow.

Window dressing

Julio Bittencourt photographs people at their window. Or rather, he photographs simply windows, all from a single building in Brazil. Their frame gives an image its frame, and their horizontal orientation supplies a consistent format. People themselves may not always appear. Yet their strivings, their individuality, and their uncertain future give the series its real subject.

Some appear alone, like a boy looking off to one side or a painfully thin older man, his chest bare, leaning upward. Others appear in pairs, like a woman with her child or a man embracing a pregnant woman's belly. Still others appear only indirectly, through a clothesline, for example—literally as window dressing. In different ways all are marking time, and in different ways all are clinging to the necessities of life. The lack of crowding brings out their isolation or even desperation, while the series as a whole implicates them in a community. In a room to the side, Bittencourt assembles smaller versions of them all into a tight grid, the building itself stripped of its skin.

The metaphor of a work of art as window onto the world has a long history, and Postmodernism has been dismantling it for some time now. Writing about Rear Window, Laura Mulvey identified the subject with the artist, and she marked them both as the ever-intrusive male gaze. With the spread of surveillance cameras, the onlooker has still nastier political overtones. Bittencourt certainly acts like an ingenious spy, proceeding methodically through windows of the facing building. This way, each person can behave without regard to the viewer, and each rectangle can appear head on without distortion. The patient reconstruction of a site—floor by floor and window by window—makes the photographer a kind of architect, even as the subject matter crumbles before his eyes.

However, In a Window of Prestes Maia 911 Building does everything possible to resist condescension or confrontation. Subjects do not stare back, unlike that archetypical modernist encounter ever since Edouard Manet's Olympia. The photographer cannot penetrate the windows either. All are at least partly boarded up, with tattered plywood that further insists on the picture frame. The people might be looking out not from the curtain of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon but from a Joseph Cornell box. The photographer has desaturated the images digitally, bringing skin tones closer to Cornell's dolls.

The slight desaturation also heightens a subject's dignity, effectively but at the risk of special pleading. Like the frame, earth tones align the photographs with Old Master painting, and they have associations with gritty realism. The palette and weathered faces remind me a bit of late Caravaggio. Come to think of it, the bare-chested man has a lot in common with a Saint Jerome by Caravaggio. Before one puts down Modernism as male condescension anyhow, it helps to remember Walker Evans in the subway, his camera hidden under his coat. A documentary cares enough about the subject to pay attention.

One could understand all this without a clue to the real story. The boarded-up building lies outside São Paulo, in what Georges Seurat in his Circus Sideshow experienced on the outskirts of Paris as "the Zone," and is slated for demolition. The subjects are squatters, still with electricity and running water. Like many a documentary or the videos of abandoned factories in Asia by Chen Chieh-Jen, the exhibition serves as a protest, although unable to do much more than record the loss. No doubt the facing building is on its way out as well. That fact no doubt adds to the bond between photographer and subject, even if their eyes never meet.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Senso Unico" ran at P.S. 1 through January 7, 2008, "Flow" at The Studio Museum in Harlem through June 29, and Julio Bittencourt ran at Point of View through June 15. Adrian Paci also appeared at Smith-Stewart through December 22, 2007. Related reviews looked at the Studio Museum's other surveys of emerging art—"Freestyle," "Frequency," and "Fore."

 

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