54th Carnegie International Carnegie Museum of Art

Katarzyna Kozyra, The Rite of Spring, 1999/2004. Six-channel video installation; color, sound.

The 54th Carnegie International opened with a gala, red carpet celebration at the Carnegie Museum of Art with Peter Fonda, John Waters, and Baron Phillippe and Baroness Marion Lambert in attendance. Contemporary art has come a long way since the time of the “wild-beast” avant-gardists of the late 19th century. The acceptance of contemporary artists into mainstream, respectable society is telling, however—that classification comes with a price. Much art today is an excuse for an event, for entertainment and status for those of a certain class. I refer readers to the Seen section of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (October 22, 2004, Section C, pp. 1–3).

Laura Hoptman, along with an advisory committee that included Francesco Bonami, Gary Garrels, Midori Matsui, Cuauhtemoc Medina, and Rikrit Tiravanija, curated the 2004/05 installment of this historical exhibition. Begun 108 year ago, it is the second oldest worldwide international display of contemporary art. Over 400 works by 38 artists, representing five continents, were presented under the theme “Ultimates.” According to Hoptman, “These artists use art as a vehicle to confront what philosophers have called Ultimates—that is, the largest unanswerable questions ranging from the nature of life and death, to the existence of God, to the anatomy of belief.”

Reading her essay, as well as listening to Hoptman speak at the press preview, sounded alarm bells, calling to mind Roberta Smith’s essay “When Exhibitions Have More to Say Than to Show” in which she anatomizes a particularly pervasive contemporary trend: “Call it trickle-down festivalism…It’s the phenomenon of exhibitions that, while nowhere near as large as shows like Documenta, nonetheless display similar traits—a Lazy Susan of moralizing primness, eccentric materials, intellectual dryness, multi-disciplinary amorphousness and high-tech spectacle slowly revolving on a pedestal of arrested artistic development.” This malady infected the 2004 Carnegie International, just as it did the most recent Venice Biennale and Documenta—all theory, with minimal substantive art.

This exhibition didn’t pretend to be an inclusive, zeitgeist survey, but it wasn’t a spine-tingling presentation of wondrous work either. Instead, a competent pageant of staid international art (for the most part rooted in Western aesthetic influence) was on view. Following the pink-banner paths meant to direct audience flow became a tedious journey given the smallish scale of much of the work and the compartmentalized rooms. What stood out throughout was a narrative, graphic, figurative sensibility in the work, which should come as no surprise since Hoptman was the Assistant Curator of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art prior to coming to the Carnegie. In her catalogue essay she writes that the show intends to illustrate an impulse toward a search to what it means to be ethical. But a problem arises in transferring such theoretical aspirations into visual representation. I am not convinced that the assortment of art selected for this exhibition inspired anyone to “Ponder the Meaning of Life,” as suggested on the billboards and bus advertisements presented throughout Pittsburgh. Still, several artists managed to touch on significant humanist issues, especially Kutlug Ataman.

Entering the show, one encountered Ataman’s complex installation, which was awarded the Carnegie Prize. Forty old TV sets, second-hand chairs, and stands made up this multiple-channel complex video installation, which presented 40 simultaneous portrait/interviews of the inhabitants of the town of Kuba—a refuge for people who reject mainstream Istanbul society. No editorializing is evident in this alluring archive piece, which presents slices of personal views. There is no beginning or ending to the ongoing deluge of shared information. Viewers were free to move around the installation, but given the 40 hours of interviewing enacted here, one could not take in the entire work.

Lee Bontecou, installation view. Photo: Tom Altany

Moving 180 degrees from the serious content of Ataman’s work, Polish artist Katarzyna Kazyra provided frolic and fun in The Rites of Spring, a six-screen animated video installation of naked seniors jumping and gesturing to music from the 1913 Modernist ballet. In a separate darkened room, naked stylized figures placed against a stark white background resulted in a disjointed presentation of artificial movement and nuance created by the artist’s careful choreographic framing of the static bodies.

Lee Bontecou, along with two other senior artists, were given mini-retrospectives. Bontecou, the ingenious sculptor who made her mark in the late 1950s, was represented with a group of signature sculptures, as well as several impressive new mixed-media mobiles that evoke science fiction and hint at planetary systems and private universes.

The inclusion of the Serbian Neo-Dadaist/Conceptualist Mangelos, who died in 1987, was a mystery to many; however, those who recall Hoptman’s book Primary Documents, an anthology on Eastern and Central European artists, will realize that one of his red globes adorns the cover of her book. His grandiose installation in the Hall of Sculpture displayed multiple globes and wall texts imparting his manifestos on systems—mathematical proofs, scientific theories, and perceptual schemas—intended to prove the meaninglessness of logical thought. Notwithstanding the tedium of the work, Mangelos perhaps best fit the show’s theme.

Fewer works would have enhanced the presentation of Fernando Bryce’s deconstructivist redrawings. Several of his handsome sepia drawings are inspiring, with their references to Cold War political headlines that take issue with media packaging of historical information. Still, a room filled with 230 works of ink on paper becomes reduced to a monotonous and academic topographical exercise.

Isa Genzken, in her apocalyptic architectural constructions Empire/Vampire and Who Kills Death, addresses disaster, devastation, and terror. Each of the miniature stage settings discloses a pageant about survival in a horrible situation. A twist of purpose is evident in her constructions of toys, shoes, kitsch, and debris, in which paint poured over the parts becomes the unifying element. Continuing down the road of the fantastic, idiosyncratic delicacy pervaded the small sculptures of Kathy Butterly. Butterly’s refreshing ceramic work compelled viewers to step closer in order to inspect her diminutive and purposely misshapen porcelain vessels.

Maurizio Cattelan, world renowned for his controversial sculptures of the maimed Pope John Paul II in Warsaw and the simulated lynched children in Milan, didn’t pack the same punch with his fabrication of a shoeless John F. Kennedy in a coffin. Viewers could only see this simulation of the former president lying in state on certain days. Cattelan perhaps would have scored another knock-out had he chosen the “beloved Ronald Reagan” for the heated 2004 election year—timing is everything.

Kutlug Ataman, Untitled (installation view), 2004. Photo: Tom Altany.

When I reviewed the 2001 Carnegie International (Sculpture, May 2001), I asked whether the show had outlived its function. After seeing the 2004 International, I’ve come to the same conclusion: in an era when international biennials abound, when the Internet connects us to boundless information about contemporary art, and when people glob-trot at will, the Carnegie Museum of Art needs to reconsider and rethink the Carnegie International. The old paradigm doesn’t work and academic philosophical rationalization is not answer. The Carnegie Museum must step into the 21st century and begin reinventing the Carnegie International, taking risks as Andrew Carnegie hoped for Pittsburgh to do.