Conceptions of Plant-Life: An interview with Giovanni Aloi

August 17, 2016 · Print This Article

Giovanni Aloi, The Window. Photo courtesy of artist.

Giovanni Aloi, “Windows,” 2014. Photo courtesy of artist.

In one of my earliest conversations with Giovanni Aloi, he described the problem of being a plant studies person at an animal studies conference: by entertaining the subjectivity of plants, any moral high ground previously associated with vegetarianism/veganism get a little complicated. Undaunted, Aloi explores the mess of that new territory, tracing their appearance in contemporary art and art history. He is the Founding Editor of Antennae, a Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, teaches at The School of the Art Institute, works for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, moonlights as an art expert on the BBC, and is on the verge of finishing two books on taxidermy and art, and plants and art.

Caroline Picard: You work at the intersection of philosophy, art history, and contemporary art. Why is the animal interesting to you within those fields?

Giovanni Aloi: Since I was roughly three years old two things would excite me like no other: nature and art. I drew animals, I looked for animals in paintings, photographs, documentaries, and everywhere else—there was nothing better than finding a grasshopper, a beetle, or a tree frog! Plants caught my attention a little later, but back then, I used to spend most of my evenings drawing animals.

CP: So art and animals were joined at the start in a way…

GA: As I grew up I fostered both interests but struggled to combine them in my work; animals in art were not taken seriously as an academic/artistic subject (and there’s still much to be said about that lack of serious engagement today). In the late 1990s the emergence of animal studies placed that subject on the map. Jonathan Burt and Steve Baker have published important work in relation to animals and representation in art and film. Both, along with other scholars, contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic paradigms and practices challenging anthropocentrism and animal objectification in art.

CP: How would you characterize those early conversations around animals and art?

GA: The first ten years of analysis, which took place roughly between 1995 and 2005, focused largely on the deconstruction of metanarratives, the identification of objectifying tropes, and the representational friction between abstraction and figuration. Both, theory and practice, engaged predominantly in what I have called the “dismantling of the symbolic animal.”

In my 2012 essay, “Deconstructing the animal in search of the real,” I argued that following the dismantling of the “symbolic animal,” a new and productive path of inquiry could involve “tracking animals” through networks of environmental relationships/reciprocal entanglements. Although the non-anthropocentric slant of animal studies was extremely refreshing from a philosophical perspective, I looked at early developments with some suspicion.

CP: Why?

GA: Personally, I believed that animal studies should be very weary of falling into the conceptual fallacy of proposing a zoo-centric system in place of an anthropocentric one. From earlier on, I thought that animal studies inquiries should unfold into rhizomatic networks of interconnectedness in which humans, animals, plants, and environments are equal parts.

CP: Do you feel like the animal studies conversation has shifted?

GA: Today, I am glad to see that contemporary theories and practices involving the non-human are indeed attempting to bypass zoocentrism in favour of a new holistic model. But this is happening outside animal studies. My impression has always been that re-thinking animals entails re-thinking everything. It is a deep ontological undertaking. Connections between the ways in which we treat animals and the ways in which we treat fellow humans have been exemplified by Agamben. But there is much more at stake.

CP: How so?

GA: Karen Barad’s agential realism and Jane Bennett’s vibrant materialism have both, in different ways, reconfigured our gaze to consider the atomic order and the invisible levels of interconnectedness that we are all enmeshed in, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This leaves the discipline of animal studies in an odd position. I am not entirely sure if this new shift could be incorporated by animal studies as a move away from the values of the first revisionist wave of animals in art, or if there will be space for an expanded scope that considers animals on similar ontological levels as plants and bacteria. Would that change optics in a productive ways? And of course, there’s object oriented ontology, Morton’s notions of hyperobjects, broader notions of anthropocene…I am yet to see any animal studies scholar engaging with these philosophical tools. The challenge is to adapt them to fit the task. My forthcoming book on taxidermy in contemporary art attempts to do just that. But in any case, I think that the disruption of anthropocentrism caused by animal studies, posthumanism, and by the new waves of speculative realism is essential to the definitions of new cultural directions. We have clearly messed up—the planet is telling us that very clearly. Global warming and mass extinction are clear symptoms of the urgency with which we need to find new ways to think about our relationship to what we call nature. But changing people’s minds is one of the hardest things to do—especially when utilitarianism is involved.

CP: Do you mean that people have to change their way they think about the environment somehow? In other words, maybe like animals, there is a need to resist making the natural world purely symbolic? Even as I say that, it seems tied up with consumer culture…

GA: Capitalism has alienated us entirely from the plants and animals around us to a degree that, for too many people, looking into their phones or tablets is more interesting than looking at anything to do with the natural world. How can you care to preserve ecosystems when you don’t even care for what’s in your backyard or on your way to school or work? Capitalist normativity has reduced nature to a curiosity in urban reality and to a sublime escape in holiday adventures—this is the root of the problem.

CP: It’s hard to think of ways to shift that paradigmatic approach to nonhuman (or more than human) landscapes. I’m always interested in articulating openings for agency but it’s easy to feel daunted by the scale and conviction of capitalism.

GA: In truth, I believe that our anthropocentric miseducation begins in kindergarten or at primary school. The traditional education system is based on affirmation: children are trained to develop confidence through a “That is/I am” approach that promotes a pre-encoded identity formation necessary to the functioning of society. At this stage, nature is introduced as a series of objects to possess and exploit. Everything is thus reduced to cliché through the pre-coded work of symbolism. Children are taught that lions are brave, bears are ferocious, leopards are fast, butterflies are beautiful, spiders are scary, and snakes are disgusting. Thereafter, as John Berger famously argued in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, we grow up to become constantly disappointed with the lack of the promised sublimity of animals. We expect them to somehow perform for us or engage in emotional exchanges they have no stakes in. Beyond dogs, the animal world is generally understood as dumb or as edible. Thereafter, not being interested in animals becomes a key moment in the rite of passage to adulthood. Adults should be concerned with other matters: work, buying a house, careers, children… animals become the object of hunting or entertainment.

CP: What do we do with that? It seems sort of impossible to work out an alternative approach, especially if you are talking about a problem that starts in kindergarten.

GA: This is where the idea of unlearning comes from in my book Art and Animals (2011): you have to undo that very normative process that you grew up in, shattering certainty and picking up the pieces thereafter to re-configure yourself all over again, allowing for a different conception of non-human/human beings to arise. This conception is one in which representation is at a point of crisis, and to make things more complicated, you cannot rely upon the tropes of anthropocentrism to rebuild what has been dismantled. The process is long and laborious, and it involves the making of new and difficult ethical choices—choices that you might have to define for yourself in relation to your specific geographical situation, cultural make-up, and personal sense of urgency.

CP: Can you describe a bit about your transition from Animal Studies to Plant Studies? What are some interesting comparisons between the fields for you?

GA: I don’t think I have transitioned from animal studies to plant studies. I am very critical of animal studies because I cannot ethically justify its zoo-centric scope anymore. Its reliance on post-structuralism almost 20 years on is becoming embarrassing. Personally, I don’t care anymore about what Heidegger thought of lizards, Agamben of spiders, and Deleuze of wolves, as they all knew very little about these animals. They wrote about them in transcendental terms—in the singular/plural chimeric catch-all form that the word ‘animals’ inscribe. 10 years ago it was interesting to recover these animal-fragments from the thought of continental philosophers, it was necessary to validate the subject of scrutiny for the field, and to lay its foundations—but we should be done with that phase, now! In any case, I’m still in the field, as I understand animal studies to be an important component of posthumanism, but I like to think of myself as a “grumpy dissident” within the system. Some of my colleagues also share my views—I think something interesting might be happening soon. But ultimately, I am not very interested in the discourses of a discipline that places animals first in front of plants and other levels of interconnectedness between human and non-human beings.

CP: Why?

GA: That approach seems extremely out-dated considering the times we live in and the challenges we face. That is also why multispecies ethnography and new materialism are more interesting to younger scholars at present—these philosophical waves are at the cutting edge of contemporary thinking whilst animal studies currently seems to have shaped itself as a questionable ethical-minefield for vegan/animal rights ideologies. Those agendas are also mostly out-dated. Veganism refuses to acknowledge plant-intelligence because it causes the emergence of new and hard to negotiate ethical problems, whilst animal-rights is still bound to obsolete concepts like sentience, consciousness, and agency.

CP: Does plant-studies as run into similar problems as a defined field?

GA: I don’t think a field of plant studies has actually shaped up yet. Michael Marder has done some important work recovering plants from a number of philosophical texts, thus mapping a base for discussion on the subject whilst a number of artists have—for years—engaged with plants, knowing that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. But there’s no unified field yet. Plants still carry a cultural stigma imbedded in a number of popular culture-layers of validating disregard: the association between sociopaths and plants is a recurring cliché. There’s also the gender connotation between plants and women imposed by patriarchal systems of value that still gets in the way. And the recurring notion that caring for plants too much would require an entire revision of ethical values involving animals and humans…the implication that self-aware (or even sentient) beings must act as an exploitable base for us to feel ethically relieved through the acts of basic subsistence. I am sure that things are just about to shape up; hopefully, plant studies will be a freer space in which to seriously consider non-human alterity beyond obvious anthropomorphic strategies and imbedded/obsolete ethical agendas.

CP: What do you mean?

GA: In a sense, animal studies and plant studies have thus far been shaped by the desire to recover specific narratives and reconfigure ontological strata. And that is pretty much what Marder has accomplished with his body of work for the field of plant studies already. Plants are the new animals—they push all the concerns involved with agency and anthropocentrism to a breaking limit: alterity, reciprocity, communication, co-existence, intra-action, and so forth…These are all new paradigms that have been explored in human/animal relations. But simultaneously, thinking about/with plants requires a more ambitious leap of faith. The hope for meaningful plant responses; responses that we can fully comprehend is very slim, much slimmer than in animals, but this should not put us off from being inquisitive and curious and from attempting, for instance, to envision what it might be like to be a plant beyond the tools of mimicry.

CP: I want to go back to the question of education again…like, how would plant-sympathy be taught if not through mimicry?

GA: One of the most glaring contradictions of animal studies is that the discipline, through its marked non-anthropocentric drive has identified science—and Cartesian thinking more specifically—as the humanist tool by which distance and objectification between animals and humans occurs. Yet, animal studies implicitly relies on the scientific definition of “animal” in order to retain topicality. That’s a critical problem of some proportion. If the premise is to re-think animals beyond the scientific realm of inquiry, at what point do we begin to find the strength to tamper with the very last question (which should have perhaps been the first): “What is an animal?” Or is that taking the whole thing too far for the philosophical framework? At what point is an animal plant-like in a way that becomes interesting to us beyond scientific taxonomy? This gray area between zoology and botany contains a number of disregarded beings who rarely, if ever, emerge in scholarly discourses. Animal studies claims to have recovered repressed subjects, but it simultaneously represses those at the fringes of its implicit mammalian-normative approach. I guess that more generally, plant studies polarizes the already charged questions of animal studies through a stronger desire to develop a holistic approach, rather than a phito-centric one.

CP: How have you noticed plants appearing into contemporary art recently? Do you think plant’s contemporary art appearance differs from past examples?

GA: Yes, there has been a substantial shift. One category I am interested in is postmodernist plants, like with Anya Gallaccio and Marc Quinn, whose work, in a sense, laid the foundation for what is being problematized today. Gallaccio was concerned with decay. Dutch still-life paintings, the beautiful vases of flowers that reminded us we would all eventually die, were painted at the height of their beauty and freshness. Postmodernism threw this lovely poetics up in the air by haunting viewers with the raw ugliness of decay in the gallery space or by upstaging the representational notion of the memento mori through the shock of materiality. Marc Quinn’s Garden from 2000 amazed viewers by representationally suspending the lives of a multitude of wild and greenhouse-grown varieties of flowers in a massive tank of frozen silicon. The illusion was mesmerizing—but the shattering of the utopian narrative resounded loud and clear through the darkened gallery space. I feel that most postmodernist work involving plants, and I hate to generalize here, was more concerned with notions of realism expressed through materiality. Because of that, postmodernism laid the foundations for speculative realist tendencies in art.

CP: How?

GA: It is the mistrust for metanarratives and the iconoclastic slant nurtured by postmodernism that paved the way for what is happening today. Yet, Gallaccio’s and Quinn’s works are largely concerned with symbolic registers of representation that, despite the material presence of the plant in the gallery space, end up leaving the living-plant behind, so to speak. The symbolic order in which they operate, as it turns out, was not deployed towards a new conception/understanding of plant-life and its interconnectedness with humans and environments, but it ultimately was transcendental and inherently anthropocentric.

CP: Didn’t you explore this question in the online journal you edit?

GA: In 2015, we dedicated two issues of Antennae to the importance of agential realism in contemporary art. We especially focused on the work of artists interested in reconfiguring the boundaries of nature within networks of inter and intra actions. Artists such as Janet Laurence have produced eco-artworks in which “care and caution” enable the abandonment of a human-centered view for a broader multi-species awareness. Patricia Adams has explored the challenges and productivities involved in transgressing the scientific protocol to tap into the potential to modify the human body through biotechnology. Claire Pentecost has turned her attention to the soil and to how what we take for granted from our anthropocentric conception is perhaps one of the most important sites of interconnectedness that we urgently need to reconsider. One of the most interesting and captivating works I have recently encountered surely is Revolutions by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (2015) exhibited at the last Venice Biennale. The installation enabled three pine-trees to move around and outside the gallery space through a wheeled-base guided by a complex electronic interface, which measured the speed at which their sap flowed. This type of work produces new connections between the old categories of nature and culture, and object and subject, blurring boundaries and posing important questions about agency, perception, ontology, and epistemology. There’s a major difference between the new, speculative interest for plants now and past approaches.

CP: I’m always curious about what these artistic gestures do, somehow? Like, if it’s true that the world is ending, why bother making art at all?

GA: Ultimately, I think that contemporary artists involved in this new register of criticality are mobilizing their efforts on two fronts: the conceptual and the methodological. Conceptually, a substantial urgency to solicit awareness in the viewer has become paramount. Artists seem to think more carefully about their local reality and the connections between their specific situation and ones that are broader and further afield. They aim to push their thinking, and the viewer’s, toward under-scrutinized areas of discourse and practice in order to configure new connections between polarities. Sometimes these configurations reveal the absurdity of naturalized systems of knowledge, discourses, and practices; at other times they propose new alternatives.

Methodologically, artists like Heidi Norton, Jenny Kendler, Alyce Santoro, Suzanne Anker, Pierre Huyghe, and Andrew Yang are committed to rethinking our relationship with the non-human and are not interested in shock tactics or unnecessary theatricalities. Attention to their medium of choice is, in all instances, paramount and solidifies relationships that are developed over time, slowly, and meditatively. Thus the process becomes an intrinsic part of the artwork—sometimes this is visible in the works; at other times, it is embedded in the layers of complexity that characterize them. The general tendency, however, seems to revolve around time and slow consumption and production. This methodological choice implies that the speed at which our lives are consumed nowadays is one of the main factors that has led to the current climatic situation. Contemporary art thus becomes a place to experience a different rhythm in the hope of transposing that model to at least part of our chaotic everyday existence.

CP: You have two books coming out—one on animal taxidermy and one on plants. Since you have been working on them simultaneously, I’m curious about what kinds of connections you are making while working on both, even if those connections might not be apparent to readers?

GA: Yes, I do …and it is not something I would recommend. When I handed in my taxidermy in contemporary art manuscript to my editor she said: “Great! Now you can enjoy your summer!” to which I responded: “Not quite—plants have been haunting me for the past few months and I am not quite done with them yet!” But I think that in a way, one book has been productively informing the other. My book on plants in contemporary art is an odd hybrid between a monograph and an edited collection. I am basically writing a backbone for each chapter and have invited “guest authors” to contribute their own voices/experiences to each section. I wanted the reader’s experience to be as varied and idiosyncratic as possible. I wanted to move away from pretending to own a truth about plants that is universal and singular. I truly believe that if we begin to seriously value personal experience as valid epistemic tools in the reconfiguration of anthropocentrism, we then have to also question the monographic approach to writing. Fragmenting and interspacing one voice with those of others seems essential to me, especially in certain circumstances. But my books also wanted to take animal studies to task and address its approaches to central question “what is an animal?” that it still evades.

CP: How does that tie in to taxidermy?

GA: Thinking about taxidermy, the ultimate “animal-made object” has substantially shaped my ideas on agency and passivity in contemporary art involving the non-human; whilst Jane Bennett’s and Graham Harman’s work have substantially expanded my views on objects and agency. I have also been thinking a lot about surfaces in contemporary art. Taxidermy is all surface—a practical and metaphorical totalization of animality whilst plants are all-surface in a more, “helpless” but nonetheless related way. So far these ideas have filtered in my “plant book” and are being further problematized by the elusive/ambiguous essence of plant-being. Foucauldian biopolitics is also essential to both books—there is something of an ontological parallelism between animals-made-objects and plants that can be explored through the materiality of bodies. Notions of space and epistemology define the encounter between us and plants or taxidermy objects. This approach replaced the more general idea of the “encounter in the gallery space” that characterized my earlier animal studies writing. In both books I am concerned with notions of materiality and resistance as well as power as a productive/shaping agent that actively molds human/non-human bodies, ecologies, and intermingling. Don’t want to say much more yet…But I’m glad they came in that order: taxidermy first and plants after.

 




TOP V. WEEKEND PICKS (6/16-6/22)

June 16, 2016 · Print This Article

1. PDF/Objects

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June 18, 2016, 7-10PM
Work by: Alberto Aguilar, Basma Alsharif, Robert Burnier, Alex Chitty, Katy Cowan, Assaf Evron, Danny Giles, Gordon Hall, Sofia Leiby, Jose Lerma, Shana Lutker, Matt Morris, Gina Osterloh, Claire Pentecost, Tim Portlock, Josh Reames, Amanda Ross-Ho, Sanaz Sohrabi, Stephanie Syjuco, Tony Tasset, and Lori Waxman, among many others.
Mana Contemporary: 2233 S Throop St, Chicago, Illinois 60608

 

2. House Shoes
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June 18, 2016, 7-10PM
Work by: Mariam Ezzat, Viki Hicky, Emily Kostrzewa, and Matthew Luther (Curated by Crystal Palmer)
cornerstore:1903 S Allport #3F, Chicago, IL 60608

 

3. Ever Young

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June 22, 2016, 6-8PM
Work by: James Barnor (Curated by Renée Mussai)
Stony Island Arts Bank: 6760 S Stony Island Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60649

 

4. How Much Land
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June 17, 2016, 5-8PM
Work by: Jessica Caponigro, Diane Christiansen, Deborah Handler, Anna Kunz, Zoe Nelson, Josue Pellot, Josh Reames, Allison Reimus, Ryan Richey, Philip von Zweck, Erin Washington, and Amanda Williams (Curated by Jessica Cochran)
McCormick Gallery: 835 West Washington Blvd, Chicago, IL 60607

 

5. Yollocalli Youth Graffiti Battle

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June 18, 2016, 2-5PM
Yollocalli Arts Reach: Barrett Park 2022 W Cermak Rd, Chicago, IL 60608

 

The Visualist will occasionally feature an additional project that happens to be situated away from Chicago.

 Special Mention: HOMOCCULT 2.0 – S+S PROJECT in MEXICO CITY
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On view through Sunday, June 19th
Work by: Adam Rose + April Lynn, Asher Asher, Gio Black Peter, Erika Bulle, Elijah Burgher, Tania Chavez, Jos Demme Howard, Cristian Diaz, Felix d’Eon, Clothilde Double, Orlando Estrada, Rosé Hernandez, Serena Jara, Vycktorya Letal, Armando Lozano, Meg McCarville, Daniel McKernan, David Nasca, Mipanocha Rurru, Keijaun Thomas, Tsade Trigo, Lechedevirgen Trimegisto, Caleb Yono, and Sara Zalek
@ Los Insurgentes, Fundación del Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo, ArtSpace Mexico, and Museu de la Ciudad




Top 5 Weekend Picks! (1/9-1/11)

January 8, 2015 · Print This Article

1. Outliers at The Mission

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Work by Erica Bohm, Natalia Cacchiarelli, Gustavo Díaz, Susan Giles, Adam Gondek, Larassa Kabel, Jeroen Nelemans, Michelle Prazak, and Missy Weimer.

The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-8pm.

2. Lands End at Logan Center Gallery

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Curated by Zachary Cahill and Katherine Harvath with work by Carris Adams, Raymond Boisjoly, Sarah Burwash, Gillian Dykeman, Theresa Ganz, Hans Haacke, Susan Hiller, Oliver Lutz, Claire Pentecost, Dan Peterman, Carrie Schneider, Andreas Siqueland and Eric Watts.

Logan Center Gallery is located at 915 E. 60th St. Reception Friday, 6-8pm.

3. Modi • Operandi (on recipes, intimacy, trauma & other investigations) at Chicago Artists Coalition

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Work by Delaney DeMott, Hope Esser, Rami George, Dan Paz, Megan Stroech, and Jenyu Wang.

Chicago Artists Coalition os located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

4. A Ride West at Links Hall

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A film be by Valentina Vella.

Links Hall is located at 3111 N. Western Ave. Screening Friday, 7pm.

5. A/B at Julius Caesar

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Work by Naama Arad and Kendall Babl.

Julius Caesar is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.




Top 5 Weekend Picks! (9/12-9/14)

September 11, 2014 · Print This Article

1. Say Everything at Lloyd Dobler Gallery

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Work by Edra Soto.

Lloyd Dobler Gallery is located at 1545 W. Division St. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.

2. Polypersephony at Iceberg Projects

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Work by Nayland Blake and Claire Pentecost.

Iceberg Projects is located at 7714 N. Sheridan Rd. Reception Saturday, 6-8pm.

3. SAFARI at CourtneyBlades

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Work by Michael Madrigali.

CourtneyBlades is located at 1324 W. Grand Ave. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.

4. Movimiento Perpetuo at The Mission

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Work by Marcelo Grosman

The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

5. here and there pink melon joy at the Chicago Cultural Center

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Work by Sabina Ott.

The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington St. Reception Friday, 5:30-7:30pm.




The Rematerialization of the Art Object: Stone, Soil, Words, and Wood; A reflection on Chicago artists participating in documenta13

November 15, 2013 · Print This Article

Instigated in conjunction with “The Locational Turn? Reflections from Chicago on documenta in Kassel, Alexandria, Banff and Kabul” panel discussion held November 13 (2013) at the Block Museum on Northwestern University.

by Daniel Tucker

Anyone who tries to generalize about “the art world” owes you an explanation about which world they are describing. While there is undoubtedly overlap between major institutions, mid-sized institutions, high-end commercial galleries, universities, art schools, community colleges, apprenticeships, auctions, internships, craft galleries, non-profit galleries, informal and community-based cultural centers,  residency programs, private philanthropists, collectors, public grants, magazines, theoretical journals, blogs, public art commissions, street art, artist collectives and individual artists – they can still seem worlds apart.

One world that can seem worlds apart is that of the Documenta exhibition, founded in 1955 by Arnold Bode, to occur every 5 years and reconnect post-war Germany to the contemporary art conversations and practices developing internationally. Produced by the documenta and Fridericianum Museum Event Company which provide the ongoing organizational infrastructure to keep the project going, the exhibition is largely guided by a curator. This position is akin to “being the mayor of a small city,” according to Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago artist exhibiting in this years show (1). In 2008 the search committee arrived on Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the curator, and she began her work on January 1st, 2009 re-inventing what has become over the last 13 incarnations, a crucial node in the intellectual and critical discourse of art around the world – itself producing conversations, catalyzing careers, and generally generating trends that will be talked about in years to come (in Chicago over the last year at the MCA, SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and U of C’s Logan Center Exhibitions there have already been three exhibits of re-worked pieces shown at documenta13). In the summer for 100 days, from June 9th to September 16th of 2012, over 300 artists, writers, and thinkers participated in documenta13 in Kassel, Germany.

In 2012 a remarkable number of Chicago artists were invited as participants. Theaster Gates (with John Preus and Rebuild Foundation), Claire Pentecost, Michael Rakowitz, and Lori Waxman are all exhibiting works. A number of Chicago-based authors produced texts for the 100 Days 100 Books portion of the programs including Brian Holmes, WJT Mitchell, David Nirenberg and Jane Taylor. To have this many participants from one city would be unusual, but for it to be a city so detached from the commercial facets of art selling (gallerists, collectors, auction houses, etc) and so oriented towards political, community, and socially-engaged art is what makes the decision stand out.

Locally there has been a thriving art community in Chicago that is focused on strong social bonds, engagement with concerns and disciplines that exceed the focus of art, and political and ethical commitments around themes ranging from war and labor to housing and food. This has a long history in the city, dating back to the 1960s in terms of direct lineages with existing practices. It has developed in a particular and regionally-specific way, while art since the 1980s more generally in the United States has experienced a gradual engagement with political and social life. All over the country, but particularly on the coasts, there are art schools and universities initiating “Social Practice” focus areas for students interested in art that deals with social forms as a material in place of traditional art materials and mediums that have come to include clay, video, performance, paint, photography, sculpture, murals, and interactive websites, among many others.

Through my study of Chicago, I have observed that this turn towards “the social” is less of a turn, and more of a ever-present fascination. It has also been observed today, as well as in reflections on history that the work in Chicago has always been more serious than elsewhere. In a dialogue held at the South Side Community Arts Center, respected photographer from the Black Arts Movement  Bob Crawford spoke to his experience doing a photo show in New York City, where he observed that “the Chicago photographers’ work was usually more political. And the New York photographers’ work was a little more “art,” narrowly.”(2)

Deeply familiar with the Chicago artists and authors participating in documenta13, I traveled to Kassel last summer to see their work and consider my hometown art scene in relationship to this massive global event. Below are a few scenes from that trip.

 

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Lori Waxman, Photo by Nils Klinger, Courtesy of Documenta (2012).

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Jorg Doerig’s friends and family have joined him to go have his art critiqued. They pack into a small self-contained room, a sleek writers cottage of sorts, where Jorg unpacks his paintings of flowers, and a self portrait, and layes them out on some shelves and leaning against the wall along the floor. It was time for his appointment with the Chicago Tribune art critic and art historian Lori Waxman, who had been taking half-hour appointments with local artists in Kassel three days a week all summer. Over the visit she asks some questions, but mainly gives her attention to interpretation of the art.

“Why Paint?,” she writes in response to Jorg’s work. “For love of certain subjects.” She concludes.

To watch her type (a mirror of her laptop monitor is displayed on a screen facing the artist and a steady-stream of passer-bys) is akin to watching a live poetry reading. Nothing else can compare to the experience of watching someone invest herself in the creative practice of another. While art criticism has become a game so detached from the making and the maker, Waxman reinvests herself in people and their artistic output. And she herself is on display, revealing the writing process, her process.

Most artists Waxman critiques in this project, titled “60 WRD/MIN Art Critic,” have never had their art written about. For the most part she has executed this project in smaller towns throughout the United States with the support of a writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. In these settings, her presence incites tremendous excitement.

She consults an online thesaurus. What is a synonym for “Lovingly”? Jorg stirs, he smiles and looks around at his friends. What a strange experience, to have someone craft language before your eyes about your heartfelt and time-consuming creative activities.

 

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Michael Rakowitzl, Photo by Roman Maerz, Courtesy of Documenta (2012).

Stone+

In “What Dust Will Rise?” Michael Rakowitz presents an entire room of enclosed vitrines and display tables immediately conjuring the space of a museum, a special collection or an archive. Upon closer look, you notice handwritten notes in thin black marker ink on the glass panes of the display shelving. Like many artists in this installment of documenta, Rakowitz engages in the legacy of the Nazi presence in Germany and in the present military operations and occupation of Afghanistan. The building in which his installation is presented, the Fridericianum, was a library when it was bombed in 1941 and all but 15% of the books were destroyed. The artist elegantly draws a parallel between that sited history, infusing it in the present, with the interrelated history of Taliban destruction of cultural artifacts in Afghanistan – most notably the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.

Presented on the tables I encounter replicas of books destroyed in that bombing, carved out of stone quarried in Bamiyan by artisans Rakowitz commissioned in Italy. Proceeding through the space, books from other bombings, fires, and cultural assassination appear. Many of the books were original printings with intricate woven and printed cover art, shown here in rich three dimensional carvings of the cover, spine, and worn pages – all beautifully carved with precise details. Other books take the form of an open spread, drawing attention to the content through subtle and surprising connections with the form or the act of destruction that inspired the installation. Others, like the oldest lexicon of classical medieval abbreviations, are just devastating because of what they contain, and what knowledge and culture was lost.

Surprise is the crucial word for this experience. As I proceed from case to case and book to book, I keep thinking that I have comprehended the scope of the artistic gesture. And then the next object or collection startles me.  He did what? I think. He really brought some building fragments from dismantled public housing in St. Louis, the Twin Towers, and the Berlin Wall? Yes. Stone carving chisels from Bamiyan made from the remnants of exploded cars and abandoned tanks belonging to the occupying forces? Yes. Surprise after wonderful surprise, the installation unfolds with linkages and nuances that dispel an attempt at easy summary, but provoke curiosity in an unwritten narrative about our ongoing human projects of creation and destruction, war, imperialism, pre-modern and modern.

A highlight of the exhibition, this surprise echoes the best parts of documenta13, an exhibit without an overarching theme – forcing each work to be viewed for what it is.

 

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Claire Pentecost, Photo by Anders Sune Berg, Courtesy of Documenta (2012).

Soil+

Entering from the garden into the narrow glass doors on the side of the Ottoneum, I am excited to see the work of Claire Pentecost in such an ideal location. Prominently and symbolically located in the the first theater built in Germany, now serving as the Museum of Natural History, the  installation is the entrypoint for an entire building full of works about seeds, science and ecology – one of the most coherent sub-themes within this massive and themeless exhibition.

Pentecost produced this work in residence at The University of Kassel Faculty of Organic Agricultural Science in Witzenhausen and following her participation in a soil workshop at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

The outcome is a multi-modal installation all centered around a proposed currency called Soil-Erg. She made dozens of drawings with pencil and mud, illustrating a heterogeneous paper money version of Soil-Erg, each depicting a different ecological scene or significant activist and research figures working with food and science. Above the two walls of paper currency, are differently sized medallions of soil. The elaborate tables at the center of the room are piled up with ingots of soil, reminiscent of fantastical gold stashes from Indiana Jones or Fort Knox.

Along the back wall is an intervention into the museum’s collection – a move made by a number of artists who found inspiration in the specificity of the temporary exhibition venues. On the left there is a glass display unit from the collection of the Otteneum that shows slices of soil from different depths of the earths crust. To the right, Pentecost fabricated a similar companion unit that serves as a compost pile that will accumulate over time. The insides are equipped with microphones and through use of a headset you can literally hear the energy, heat and process of the decomposition of organic waste. On one wall of the unit, a hand-written chart depicts the phenomenon of corporate land-grabbing in the global south where North American and European companies are buying up massive farm land and even creating “soil farms” throughout Africa and Latin America.

Pentecost’s participation in documenta13 is itself heterogeneous. She is one of the few exhibiting artists who also made a book for the 100 Books 100 Days project, she gave a number of lectures and workshops, made a video for the website dealing with the importance of seeds to culture, and was an instructor at the summer retreat on the theme of “retreat” at the Banff artists residency in Canada.

 

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Theaster Gates, Photo by Nils Klinger, Courtesy of Documenta (2012).

Wood+

The immersive “12 Ballads For Huguenot House” is spearheaded by Theaster Gates along with his design collaborator John Preus, studio manager Theo Boggs, and a rotating cast of staff from his non-profit Rebuild Foundation. Walking into the house,  I immediately feel a complex social energy. People buzzing around, up and down the stairs, posting schedules for the day’s activities and consulting with one another about what the morning has in store. The video and audio pieces scattered throughout the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building are still being switched on, and some people just waking from bed.  Art tourist’s are poking their heads into the sleeping quarters, asking the people clearly in bed, “do you sleep here”? The Huguenot House is undoubtedly alive with real humans and the art pieces themselves were just a small component of the overall project. It may have one artist’s name attributed to it, but something this alive is the work of many.

Mobilizing people to invest in places and buildings is one of Gates’ strengths. The building at 25 Friedrichsstrasse in Kassel had been empty since World War 2. Under very different historical forces, there are homes in Gates’ neighborhood in Chicago, Grand Crossing, that have also been abandoned for decades (though not quite as long as in Germany). As a crucial facet of his participation in documenta13, a deal was made where a house in Chicago would be purchased and its wooden and metal guts would be converted into objects to repopulate the building in Kassel and at a later date visa versa, forming a kind of architectural material exchange. This insistence that elite cultural institutions should subsidize projects in the places where he lives and works (which has now grown to include a number of Black communities throughout the midwest through the work of Rebuild Foundation) is something Gates unabashedly names in his public presentations.

And in the case of Hugenot House, this subsidy to Chicago cultural possibilities that lie in the future of that local project, have been reciprocated with real life-force being breathed back into the long abandoned building. Throughout documenta, it has been the site of performances, daily yoga classes, community meals and what are said to be the best parties in Kassel every Wednesday night throughout the four months of the exhibition.

Conclusion: The Rematerialization of the Art Object?

As Paul Chan, another participating artist with Chicago ties, commented in a recent interview during documenta, “It is a funny time in art when making something quiet is seen as radical.”(3) The expectation has been implicitly fostered through curation and critical writing that new art needs to be participatory. It is not dissimilar from trends in governance and commerce – participation is the key to the hearts and minds!

As a counterpoint to this trend, these four projects start from complex social problems and engaged in the social processes necessary to activate and engage those problems, and then they made art objects and forms. Finding material resolutions to distill the complexity of the world into a form is one of the contributions artists have historically made to the societies in which they live. The work presented at documenta13 by Chicago artists produces a productive challenge for the debates around socially-engaged art practice and its treatment in educational and art presenting institutions. Formalist reactionaries now commonly antagonize participatory art with the same odium as was applied to performance artists in the decades past while Social Practice fundamentalists claim that objects are dead and process is the new vanguard. Perhaps these artists show a third way, a marriage between the qualities artists have long attempted to capture with material forms and the complex social processes necessary to engage the complex social world in a meaningful way.

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Footnotes:

1) Rakowitz, Michael – Conversation with the author (7/5/12)

2) Crawford, Bob – AREA Chicago (2008), http://areachicago.org/bob-crawford-and-margo-natalie-crawford/

3) Chan, Paul – Bad at Sports (2012), http://badatsports.com/2012/episode-358-paul-chan-with-john-preus/

 

[Special thanks to Judith Russi Kirshner, Marcia Lausen, Jennifer Reeder, Lisa Yun Lee, Carolina Ariza, Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, and Scott Berzofsky]