As I walk through exhibitions, I find myself staring around the works on display, straining to see how paintings are hung from the walls, how sculptures rise from the floor. I look for projectors and speakers. I stare at the benches and chairs, the corners of walls, electrical outlets and lights. I am not avoiding the artwork. I am searching for the whole picture, yearning for everything the works contain. I want the story of the work, a record of its history, not simply the final object.
I was absorbed by Mitchell Syrop’s steel wall pieces in Hidden at Midway Contemporary Art, intrigued by their static flow, the impermanence of their solidity. As others visitors were absorbed in reading the text of his massive, nine panel Hidden, I stared at the nails holding up Family of Secrets, wondering about the hands and machines that had pulled them from the earth, shaped, packaged, shipped, sold, and hammered them. What narrative unites these steel objects on and in the wall? What happens to the nails when Family of Secrets is removed? Will they be united again?
I visited the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, and I fell in love with the artworks installed in a particular corner. I marveled at their seamless pairing with an incredible, ambient sound piece, until I remembered that the sound comes from the heating and cooling system. I could see the works without the rasping rumble from the depths of the building. Of course, the context of any artwork influences our experience of it. The temperature of the room affects the book we read. The argument we hear in the alley outside affects our experience in the gallery. The lighting, hardware, and soundscape of artworks shape our viewing. I am looking for those other aspects of the objects because I want to know the narrative held within them, the time they embody even if we do not know how to see it.
I was thrilled to see a Roman Opalka ‘detail’ in the Walker Art Center’s Art Expanded, 1958-1978. The rows and rows of numbers embody time, daily practice, a life of dedication, but that time is lost among the other “expanded” practices. I strained to read the numbers, searching for the hours of its creation, wanting to hear Opalka’s recordings and see his self portraits to begin to fill out the narrative of this singular painting.
I have been visiting artists’ studios and installing work, slowly seeing objects unfold and absorb layers of meaning. I have seen ideas and conversations transform through unknowing, testing, exploration into artworks that hold each incarnation, each thought within them. I have watched white walls fill with works that travelled across the country, bringing with them the time and miles they travelled, their stamps and handlers, the nails and screws upon which they balance.
When I see artworks in galleries and museums, I know I am witnessing only one small portion of their narrative, and I want more. I search for the out of sight parts of these artworks to begin to enrich their stories, to attempt to understand their lived experience as changing, mutable objects who contain our time with them as they move into their future.
There is a chill in the night air. Fall is here, carrying the weight of the year behind it, breathing changes into the trees and gardens that begin to show the passage of time, the slow revolution of the seasons. I return to Opalka. He writes, “Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance.” Let us look to the objects we create to see our progressive disappearance. They reveal the briefest moments of that disappearance when we see them displayed, but they will hold the passage and passing of our lives long after we have disappeared.
I cannot read the news at night any more. I lay awake in the fading heat filled with outrage, sadness, my heart breaking with lives destroyed, communities torn apart, people disempowered and displaced. I have been dreaming of death, loved ones suddenly gone as I sit next to their hospital bed, the charred remains of buses and cars. As summer roars into its last gasp, I need relief, escape from heat, humidity, simmering tensions. Instead, I read the news in the morning, a bitter taste lingering, a veil on my daily activities that hazes my coffee, blurs my to do list, turns food into ashes.
I am privileged. I am privileged to be aware of and called to action by the multitude of crises happening in my neighborhood and around the world. I am removed enough and have enough leisure and access to knowledge of events that surround me and that take place across the globe to choose what I consume and how I act. I am privileged to sit and write these words.
Invoking Adorno again, we must ask what is possible in the face of daily crises? What is tenable when confronting the contemporary world? How can we continue to create when the world seems to crumble around us?
There is a reason we need art. We do not need art because it expresses the experiences of people in terrifying situations or because it brings escape or comfort, although we must remember its ability to do so. We need art because we are told there is a solution to the problems we face by people who have power, who want to maintain and restore a sense that they are in control in an increasingly uncertain world, who fear their power crumbling away from them. There is not a simple or easy solution. Real change takes longer than we can conceive and cannot happen within the frameworks that surround us. We need art to help us abandon the idea that there is even a solution to be found. We need art to push boundaries, not by imagining or creating alternatives that reinforce or are co-opted by existing conditions, but by shocking us into new ways of envisioning ourselves and our power in this tragic world, by opening doors to us that we did not realize were closed.
It is not enough to read the news and be outraged, although we must be aware. It is not enough to protest, although we must make our voices heard. It is not enough to sit down to dinner with your neighbor, although we must build meaningful connections between us as individuals before we see connections between us as communities. It is not enough to be radically local, although our work here ripples beyond our sight.
Contemporary art must be that which is inextricable from the hour it was made, the neighborhood where it was conceived, the global panorama from which it arises. With the exponential expansion of information, evidence, visual records, we must be aware of what we make, what we put out into the world, the context it enters. We must pay close attention to who we are, where we come from, the privilege we embody, the impact our actions have, and we must continue to create.
Read the news. Be outraged. Protest. Eat dinner with your neighbor. Be radically local. And continue making work that pushes the boundaries of what we know to be desirable. Art and artists are not a way to fix the broken systems that surround us, but they may be one way to begin a future we cannot foresee.
I am for an art that admits and proudly wears its context. I am for an art that is inextricable from the world which shaped it.
I awake from my dreams. I push aside the veil of of despair and apathy. I rise to meet the challenges of the day. They do not decrease.
Christian Marclay’s The Clock debuted in London nearly four years ago. I voraciously read about the monumental work at the time, marveling at the dedication needed to edit together the thousands of clips of clocks and watches, and I longed to see it for its overwhelming and endless minutiae. It is everything I could want in a film, impossibly long, impossibly conceptual. At long last, it is at the Walker Art Center, and, having watched it at different times of the day and night (although never 24 hours straight), I find it difficult to discuss The Clock without resorting to hyperbole. It is bigger and longer than I know how to handle comfortably. It resists us as humans, existing on its own schedule, inside its own logic that does not need us. It is simultaneously truly watchable, enjoyable, entertaining. Marclay knows why we watch movies, and he masterfully blends that suspense, humor, boredom, drama, anxiety.
The Clock is, of course, a movie about time, but the more time I spend with it, the more I know it as a movie about the present, a monument to the ever-passing present that eludes our fingers the very moment we think we can grasp it. As viewers, we recognize that time is passing, that minutes are added to the clock one by one. We are, however, constantly aware that we are within that passing moment, that we are in an endless succession of moments.
It is, of course, also about death. Death looms large in the film, appearing directly and indirectly throughout the day. Death also whispers by with each instance of a clock, each glance at a watch, each emphasis on the now.
The Clock promises uncompromising fidelity, an endless repetition of its day, every day, for all time. Inspector Clouseau will struggle to synchronize his watch every evening; the Titanic will sink every night, and Cher will make Nicolas Cage a steak every afternoon. The abstract idea of time that exists in each of its thousands of clips is actualized in its synchronization. They are ripped from filmic time into the time we know and cannot escape. The synchronized time of The Clock, of our watches and cellphones, may be a human construct, but time passes inexorably.
The Clock tantalizes us with the illusion that time can be ours, that time will stand still, can be revisited day after day. That cyclical time breaks the “harsh” reality of The Clock and of time itself. As I sit in the dark, experiencing time pass with everyone in the gallery, I am comforted by the slow realization unfolding minute by minute that time does not wait for us; it existed before us and will continue without us in endless loops. The pressure we feel from time is the weight of our fear of death, but time is weightless.
Marclay has gifted us with an artwork that fully embraces and exists within time. He invites us to live with our deaths, the temporality of our dusty bones as we pass through every minute of his day, and, thankfully, he reassures us that time will not notice when we have fallen behind.
It is summer already, and I am on early vacation, driving through the West, living some version of the American dream involving fast cars, tops down, endless sunsets, and the long slow rise of mountains from the two-dimensionality of plains.
I map my understanding of city landscapes through walking. I slowly gather the layers of lived urban experience as I travel through neighborhoods – the clanking of dishes being washed through open windows, the constellation of droning lawnmowers growing and shrinking, the blue flicker of late night televisions. My map of the urban landscape, however, is limited by my physical access. The boundaries between public and private realms are complex, but they correspond to the physical limits of my body as it encounters walls, fences, and manhole covers. My mind is only as free as my body as I move through urban space.
I have spent more time in a car in the past week than I have in years, reveling in the freedom of landscapes unfolding over miles and the understandings of skyscapes not possible from tree- and building-confined urbanity. Driving frees my mind to expand outside of the physical container of my body as it rushes along the highways. I imagine climbing the mountains, walking along wooded ridges, foraging with the bison, antelope, and bears whizzing by. Driving long distances is exhausting because your mind roams far and wide among the vast landscapes you survey. Your body is stiff from the disjunction between the exploration the mind has envisioned and the cramped position the body has rested in.
The wilderness I have explored combines the walking of the urban environment and the freeing vision of driving. I have been walking on groomed, maintained trails that wind through pine cathedrals, disclose the beauty of windswept meadows, and open to vistas of glaciated mountains. My mind expands to place me within all of these inaccessible locations. I clamber over rocky cliffs, descend cascading waterfalls, creep along animal paths far above the tree line, but my body is confined to the explicitly manmade paths carved from the landscape to preserve the wilderness. My mind is freed, as my body is confined. My understanding of the world expands as I navigate the limited and controlled space of physical interaction with the wilderness.
These different modes of exploration pull me back to the art landscapes through which I have passed. Summer brings vacations as much as it brings art fairs, open studio tours, and outdoor arts festivals. My mind has been so occupied with landscape, with the sublimity of natural beauty that I cannot bridge the gap between it and the recent open studio tours in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and the multiple arts walks I have happened upon during this vacation. I struggle to know how to site the vast array of work I have seen; the excellent studios I revisited and the galleries and storefronts full of horse paintings struggle to coexist with the moose calves nuzzling against their mother as they stumble along the stream and the mountain peaks breaking through mist to catch the first rays of daylight. By leaving my normal life behind, I am reminded that I need new and different ways of learning, of experiencing the world that expose the mental and physical constraints of my normal life, that replace the known experiences and people that populate my days with the possibilities of the futures I do not know how to envision. I hope we can all get away, rejuvenate our minds and our bodies even if we cannot leave town. Change your world by experiencing something new, something unexpected, something beyond what is in front of our eyes every day. Let’s all leave the art world for a moment; it will look radically different when we return.
On billboards, online ads, the exterior of the building, and the entrance to the gallery, the larger than life title of the ongoing Edward Hopper exhibition at the Walker Art Center, via the Whitney and the Dallas Museum of Art, Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, informs us that we will witness that process through which Hopper progressed as he made his paintings. The opportunity to see an artist’s process is rare. We do not often see the fits and starts behind the works in galleries and museums unless we seek them out in the artist’s studio or, like Hopper, after the artist is long ensconced on postcards and will safely draw a crowd.
The Walker’s galleries are filled with drawings, sketches, studies, correspondence, photographs, and extensive explanatory text. These other materials are intended to bring the paintings to life, to reveal the technical depth, tremendous labor, and detailed forethought behind the surface of the paintings. They are elevated to the level of paintings; framed, carefully displayed in vitrines, they create a false narrative of a relatively linear progression from experience or idea through studies and sketches to the finished painting. Even in the particular pieces that show a direction Hopper did not ultimately pursue, there is no room for multiplicity in the narrative, no space to consider the failure of a particular sketch to capture the desired lighting within the crafted momentum toward the completed painting.
I have desired failure recently, wanted to see the failure of artists and the art world, the works that do not leave the mind to become reality, the realized projects that are never shown, the disastrous performances we do not record, the social engagement with zero participants. We must understand our failures and shortcomings, the false starts, the flops, the imperfections we cannot help but embody. Only then can we begin to understand and learn from the ways in which failure is defined for us.
Saint Paul is one of the few cities to receive significant arts funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As part of a larger investment in the arts this spring, the Knight Foundation announced that Saint Paul would be the fourth city to host a Knight Arts Challenge, with $4.5 million available over the next three years. The rules for submitting a proposal were open and meant to expand foundation funding to ideas from individual artists. The rules for the Knight Arts Challenge are simple:
- The idea is about arts.
- The project takes place in or benefits Saint Paul.
- You find other funding to match the Knight Foundation grant.
The application was brief. They encouraged individual artists, collectives, and businesses to apply, specifically mentioning that the idea was of primary importance, not the future concerns about funding or sustainability. It was an open call to experiment, to bring forward the best and brightest ideas that will shape Saint Paul for years to come.
$9 million, including the matching funds, is a tremendous amount of money, even for the already generous Minnesota arts funding landscape, and it will inevitably shape the future of the arts in Saint Paul and the Twin Cities generally. That money, of course, will not fund the hundreds of proposals that do not meet the Knight Foundation’s criteria for success.
As a community, we must ask ourselves how we can salvage those alternate futures, the failures we may not have the capacity to realize as millions of dollars and thousands of hours support the selected ideas. We need to capture and bring forward all of the ideas submitted to the Knight Arts Challenge and every other arts funding and exhibition opportunity. They will not all be perfect, but they contain the possibilities for reimagining and remaking the future we need. We can be ready to meet the real and pressing challenges of the future – growing inequality, the effects of climate change, lack of substantive communication between people – but to do so we must first learn together from our failures, from our imperfections, from our very human selves.