I recently visited The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Their permanent collection is well worth the visit, but I was lucky enough to see a pair of exhibitions: Man Ray — Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models.
The centerpieces of Human Equations, Ray’s series of paintings Shakespearean Equations, are simple compositions, but they resist attempts to enter them. The paintings’ titles push back, resurrecting Shakespeare’s ghost in the titles of his plays without grounding us in the plays. They toy with the question of the authorship of the plays, linking to Modernist tomes that slowly reveal layered meanings in the lengthy end notes, but the doors they seem to reveal remain locked. This feeling is compounded by the incomprehensibility of the objects depicted in the paintings — undulating, vaguely organic — a referentless surrealism. These veils over the paintings fall away, however, in the context of the objects and photographs throughout the exhibition.
The mysterious objects in the paintings are three-dimensional renderings of mathematical equations – Real Part of the Function w=e ; Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass Elliptic Function; Algebraic Surface of Degree 4.The objects were first photographed by Ray at the Institut Henri Poincaré years before he made the paintings. The objects and photographs of those objects bring the exhibition to life. I could not take my eyes from the vitrines filled with the models, absorbed in the physicality and human touch of these immaterial mathematical concepts made tangible. The models demonstrate that the paintings are the culmination of a long process of many individuals engaging with these mathematical concepts over years, places, and materials. The transformation from concept to object to photograph to painting exemplifies a deep engagement with the many manifestations of mathematics — the idea, the manifestation, the lived experience. The multiple individuals considering, crafting, photographing, and painting these objects layer a human experience onto these distant, complex concepts. Ray’s paintings are one iteration, one exploration of what it means to live with these ideas.
Sugimoto’s spare exhibition is stunning in its starkness and simple beauty. He presents photographs of models similar to those in Ray’s paintings and machined aluminum sculptures of computer-modeled mathematical concepts. His prints magnify the human touch and imperfections of the handmade models. The sculptures are perfect beyond human observation. If Ray’s paintings exemplify a layering of meaning iteratively accrued over time, Sugimoto’s sculptures embrace a further step beyond the human into a technological age in which humans can produce objects that surpass our understandings of perfection. However alien they may seem, Ray’s paintings are decidedly human; they attempt to make sense of the worlds we cannot see. Sugimoto simultaneously memorializes the human and enshrines an ideal which we will never be able to perceive.
In contrast to the cerebral, contemplative temporary exhibitions, Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room: Wohin bist Du gegangen – wohin gehst Du? (Where have you gone — where are you going?), permanently installed in The Phillips Collection, surrounds and envelopes you. The small room is enclosed by walls and ceiling completely covered in beeswax, illuminated by a single bare bulb. The scent is overpowering, as you approach and enter the small room. It saturates your nose, immediately reminding you how little your nose is purposefully stimulated in this context.
The smell says that we enter the realm of bees, but we have again entered the realm of humans. The visual texture of the walls does not resemble bee hives or at least what we think of as the perfection of bees’ work — stacked hexagons and danced communications. The room does not evoke the ideals of community and industry of Langstroth hives that dot the sides of farm roads or the skeps on Utah’s highway signs. The mottled, fleshy walls are imperfect, fragile, human. The clinging weight and scent of the walls is palpable, grounding us in the human experience of flightlessness, as it reminds us of the manifold power of its winged pollinator originators. We do not enter the world of bees, as we enter Wax Room. It does not help us understand them and everything they do for us. It lays bare the folly and destruction of mankind as we continue to believe we can control and manage the abilities of billions of lives without consequence.
Laib reminds me that it is hot and humid in our world; he grounds me in the messy, complicated days I wake up to and fall asleep in. My lived reality cannot exist solely within the frigid, perfect world of mathematics and its representations. I need tools and experience and compassion that can move beyond perfection to encompass my human failings. I leave those rarefied worlds behind, but they pollinate my mind. I await its fruit.
I am sitting outside on a porch. Although, I know there is much more to come, it already feels like the height of summer – hot, humid, rumbles of distant thunder, tomatoes and cucumbers ready to be harvested. I have a lot to learn about my new home. If I had moved here 250 years ago, it would have taken weeks to hear about the Stamp Act, and it would have been even longer before I learned about the opening of the Uffizi. We are fortunate to live in a time when it is easy to connect with people and activities around the world. We virtually see exhibitions across the country; we draw connections between seemingly isolated acts of police violence; we link weather extremes, changing temperatures, and global water crises into a new epoch; I follow art sales and art fairs in New York and London and Shanghai.
I have been tantalized, enthralled, and engaged by the seemingly endless streams of photos from NADA, Frieze, and other fairs – the paintings that are not paintings, the snack-cum-knapsack, the crowds and crowds rubbing shoulders, drinking, filling the fairs with that mutable substance that enlivens them long after the lights are off and booths packed. We remember the laughter, handshakes, the attempts to meet and be met long after the objects on the walls have transformed into new objects. That conversation about the relevancy of painting will return next year with new paintings; that objet du jour will be replaced with something else of the moment, but the people and the relationships built and maintained are what last, build, and enliven these events. This moving, living, breathing series of moments is not and cannot be transmitted in tweets, favorited photos, or lenghty write-ups. I keep up with the news, but I miss the substance. I see what has happened, but I cannot experience it happening. For all of the speed with which I receive the information, I am not present.
To reconnect with that presence, with the lived experience of making and co-living, I recently went to the Chattanooga Zine Fest. I met vendors and zine makers from across the country. I touched and read the painstakingly written, photographed, photocopied, printed, folded books, pamphlets, zines, and stickers. Each object held a story in its creases and staples, in its hand drawn cover and intimate looks into experiences of depression, motherhood, anarchism, or robots. These connections, conversations, and shared experiences enliven the objects in my hands. They unfold the complexity, longevity, and deeper understanding that I cannot experience online. They magnify those digital experiences, transforming words and images into the artists, gallerists, collectors, reporters, revelers, and visitors I know live behind them.
I am more connected to the global contemporary art world than ever. I have the luxury and privilege to have that multitude of information at my fingertips. I can be in multiple places around the world in seconds, yet I wake up in one bed among the mountains. I live in a world where someone can easily buy a painting for more money than I know how to imagine, yet I see the daily lives of people trying to move from one to the next. I see highlights of art fairs, exhibitions, and performances from across the country, yet I live with creators, makers, and doers who intellectually, creatively, and financially sustain themselves here. Holding those contradictions while moving through, with, and beyond them towards the future that is continually made real by us is the great challenge before us. The mosquitoes are biting, leaving red welts along my mistakenly bare ankles. The condensation from my glass is dripping onto the ground that has been continuously inhabited by humans for 12,000 years. I have a lot to learn about my still new home; I have a lot to learn about this life we all lead.
Ingrid Burrington recently spoke at the 4th Floor, “a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts” at the Chattanooga Public Library. She talked in detail about her research into the physical internet and the ways in which we can interact with that physical presence, including Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide. My infrastructure seeking eyes that follow power lines and stormwater overflow and ears that stop at buzzing transformers and traffic signal cabinets have been renewed by Burrington’s investigations and provocations.
Chattanooga has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. That internet is advertised widely and its impacts on development and gentrification within the city are readily apparent. The infrastructure of that internet is, however, still hidden in plain sight. Burrington reminds us that the powerful forces that mold our lives and are felt in the lived experience of the city are rooted in physical places and pipes and wires. Vast hidden networks, systems, and bodies power and maintain our daily lives. We can begin to see the full richness of the world and understand how to change it by questioning and attempting to see through the built world, by noticing the infrastructure under our feet, over our head, within our walls.
Similarly, we can begin to see the full richness of artworks by questioning and attempting to understand the context of the gallery and the museum that hold them. It is no surprise the wall color, the lights, the temperature, the presence of other bodies affects our experience of artworks. The context of the museum exists in plain sight, if we know how to look for it and if we are vigilant in investigating the traces that cannot be erased.
Gajin Fujita’s solo exhibition opened this month at the Hunter Museum of American Art. It is centered around four large, vibrant paintings that dominate the gallery. His paintings are bright and action-packed, and they reveal increasingly complex layers as they are unwrapped. They blend the figures, faces, themes, and composition of Japanese woodblock prints, contemporary pop cultural references, and graffiti culture. They mirror the digital world of anonymity and multiplicity. Beneath the flat, richly patterned, and layered surface, they reveal serious questions about the boundaries of appropriation and collaboration, formal cultural institutions and street art, traditional craft and the porousness of digital life.
A quote from Fujita on the wall above his painting K2S Crew reads, “Collaboration plays a role in my larger works…I invite friends from my crews to come in and tag the backgrounds. I started doing this because I wanted to mimic how we work on the street …the yard walls became heavily layered with graffiti, and I wanted to recreate a small piece of that within my paintings; the layer over layer over layer look.”
The paintings visually reflect that process, but the paintings themselves are far removed from the context of street art. The white walls of the gallery are sparsely hung; the paintings have labels explaining historic and contemporary references. Visitors are reminded that the gallery contains mature content. The “friends” and “crews” remain as anonymous as they would if they tagged buildings, yet Fujita is the only named and celebrated artist within the exhibition. The context of the Hunter is inextricable from the experience of Fujita’s work there, but I have questions about the work that can only flourish outside of the museum. I want to know more about Fujita’s process, the lived experience of co-creation, and the ways in which the infrastructure and people of LA intertwine with his work beyond the surface.
Fujita’s work, and all art, must live in multiple locations, within white cubes and out among the blooming trees, the pipes that carry sewage under our feet, and the electromagnetic waves that fuel our daily lives as they pass through us. We have hidden the world from ourselves, and we hide artworks within museums and galleries. It is the physical form of the internet that facilitates our simultaneous experience of locations around the world. How will museums and galleries help us experience the artwork they contain with similar simultaneity?
If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?
Moving to a new town is disorienting. The streets do not yet make sense. The grocery store has strange foods. The restaurant chains arrange themselves differently. The art world shifts and morphs, revealing new opportunities, expansive possibilities, and gaps to be filled.
I recently moved from Minneapolis-Saint Paul to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am adjusting to the differences in climate and landscape. I am discovering the differences in the art scenes between the two cities, reframing my understanding of what the art world is in Chattanooga and its relation to other cities I know. Every city has its advantages – an established collector base, commercial and independent art spaces, funding for the arts and artists, less commuting time, cheaper rent, lower cost of living, nicer weather. No city has everything. The established notions we have about the art world and its centers of power seem unshakeable. New York City exerts a magnetic pull on artists, collectors, arts appreciators, and people looking for the newest trends; Los Angeles has a different yet very present attraction.
Artists are more mobile now than ever, moving between cities, traveling to make and show work. The boundaries between cities and regions of the country are fluid. This mobility reveals the privilege of the people who can move within it, and it opens opportunities for reexamining the hierarchies we have created and reinforce. What happens when a small town in Arkansas opens a lavish museum? Do the art fairs in Miami attract artists to live there year round? Is Austin a major contemporary art center because of the other cultural activity that happens there? Will artists seek out Asheville when they no longer remember Black Mountain?
Andy Sturdevant’s interactive performance seminar, U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings, investigates the notion that the art world is static and unchanging and questions what we value in contemporary art and how we prioritize it. Andy visited Chattanooga in January to ask students, artists, and community members to rank the top 125 metropolitan statistical areas into five tiers – Major and Secondary National Contemporary Art Centers, Major and Secondary Regional Art Centers, and Important Local Contemporary Art Centers. The exercise of making these rankings explicit and public revealed much about how we form opinions and how Chattanooga fits into conversations within the regional and national art world.
Before cities can be ranked, the conversation begins by establishing the criteria for an attractive contemporary art city. The criteria for the crowd in Chattanooga was similar to other city’s criteria and included: a significant number of artists, art schools, economic opportunities for artists, arts infrastructure, and press coverage of the arts.
Starting in the middle of the list, we worked down, debating which cities fit on each tier. The definitions of what constitutes the tiers developed slowly, as the lower tiers accrued meaning and complexity with each new town. Individual voices prevailed. Participants shared their experiences at Virginia Beach or Eugene, and their recounting of great galleries or vibrant artist run spaces easily swayed the votes.
Working up from the middle, placing the cities became increasingly complex. The looming specter of the top cities by population (New York and Los Angeles) weighed over discussions as the second and third tiers filled with Minneapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore. The debate grew increasingly heated as Detroit and Miami were both placed in the second tier before we ended with LA and New York and the final list. I did not agree with all of the decisions – the heartbreak of democracy. I wanted a deeper discussion of potential top sub tiers (1A, 1B…), but that conversation and others about the relative locations of other cities will continue to happen here. The power of Andy’s performance seminar lies in the conversations it generates, in the room and long after. The iterative nature of the list making keeps the debate alive, allowing differences to develop and for the list to shift over time.
Chattanooga was Andy’s seventh and smallest city to create its own Rankings. As he says, “The discussions of the city’s place in relation to neighboring cities of equivalent size were very interesting, and quite unlike discussions in, say, New York or Chicago. It felt very much like the sorts of casual, bar-based conversations people have about their various towns and scenes outside the large art centers. Which is how the project began in the first place.”
We live in a rapidly changing world. The internet and easy travel have dismantled the hierarchies we thought we knew. We do not expect all flowers to grow in the same soil. We need sun and shade, the right balance of moisture, and careful pruning to cultivate many blossoms. The art world needs and already has that diversity; we must look in and beyond the assumed centers to find it. We should not mistake the most visible or assumed conditions for a thriving contemporary art center for the ideal conditions for every location.
Moving to a new place is not a final judgment about access to and participation in the global art world. The perceptions and assumptions about those places are malleable. U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings has transformed the way I think about the art world, my place within it, my new home, and how mutable that list truly is. We are all agents of transformation, and our towns move up and down the formal and mental lists of contemporary art centers based on our actions, our words, our ability to demonstrate that art and artists thrive in different circumstances and different conditions. Chattanooga’s conversation will continue in bars, at openings, in the streets, as we make the art center we envision, as we prepare the soil, sun, and water we need to thrive.