ELSEWHERE: The Tainted Garden and Other Essays on Art, Life, and the Anthropocene by Kim Levin (BookLocker, $18.99.)
Kim Levin’s ELSEWHERE: The Tainted Garden and Other Essays on Art, Life, and the Anthropocene consists of 35 essays written between 1991 and 2017 and never published in the U.S. Ambitious in scope, this volume provides constructive commentary and clarification for our era of rapid change in both art and life. Covering a period of transformation from the end of Postmodernism to today’s quandaries about the nature and relevance of art, the identity politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and digital technology, social media, and global interconnectivity, these essays (written for exhibition catalogues, lectures, and books that only appeared in translation) are what Levin refers to as “art writing,” as opposed to art criticism, because she had complete freedom to delve into issues without any restrictions.
A former art critic at the Village Voice, contributor to Flash Art, Parkett, Artstudio, Sculpture, and VOIR, and curator of numerous international exhibitions, Levin has been immersed in the art world for several decades, observing firsthand the evolution of contemporary culture across social and technological change. After a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in Egyptian Archaeology from Columbia University, she opted not to finish her Ph.D. at the Institute of Fine Arts, choosing instead to become an art critic. Nevertheless, her academic training has been invaluable to her approach, including in this volume. As she explains, “Egyptian art extends over thousands of years, and it all looks pretty much the same to an outsider…In between the major kingdoms are periods of 200 to 300 years, but the culture continued. What was going on in those between times? I think that’s why I came to realize that all this talk about the end of painting, the end of art, was really only about the end of the Modernist period. We were and maybe still are living in an intermediate time.”
The essays in ELSEWHERE unfold chronologically, highlighting pivotal artists, historical events, and social issues. Levin focuses on artists who were not always in the mainstream. As she told Ann Landi earlier this year, “I have a proclivity for art that is unexpected, unpredictable, and goes to extremes. I like to be astonished in a good way.” Levin’s incisive essays also provide insights into subjects that many readers might have thought sufficiently familiar. This is clearly demonstrated in the opener, “Art That Makes Itself,” in which Levin examines the important role played by Sol LeWitt and Jean Tinguely in radically transforming the development of contemporary art. Despite their differences, “both are precursors of our current Post-Structuralist, postmodern, deconstructive artistic climate, in which many are involved in questioning origins, distancing themselves from the actual making of art objects, attempting authorlessness.”
Levin’s astute observations about art and its connection to social issues are lucidly conveyed, and she is at her best when she writes about idiosyncratic and often outrageous artists. Here, she champions David Wojnarowicz, Jon Kessler, Karen Kilimnik, Kim Jones (Mudman), and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, among others whose work, she feels, should command greater attention. The “Tainted Garden” of the book’s subtitle is used in a metaphorical way to describe the practices of Agnes Denes, Alan Sonfist, Mel Chin, and Mark Dion, who were all concerned early on with the exploitation of the environment. Yet ELSEWHERE is not intended to be a “Cassandra” read; rather, it emphasizes how, for decades, artists have treated issues of major social concern, which are now (once again) gaining widespread attention.
“Jon Kessler: Empire of Images, Cabinet of Signs” uses Kessler’s kinetic sculptures from the mid-‘80s, which were influenced by Japanese anime and Chinatown kitsch, as a means to examine how the global spread of trite iconic forms has contributed to a world of artificialities and simulations. Early on, she saw the significance and influence of Asian artists on contemporary art in the U.S. In “Gesture Performance Behavior Attitude: Asian Influence on Contemporary Art in the USA” (1995), she reveals how Japan’s Gutai movement was a precursor “not only of Happenings, but also of Conceptual art, post-minimalist process and Anti-form work.” She also argued for the importance of Yayoi Kusama back when few Americans knew of the artist’s mirrored installations. Levin cautions us about the misuse of words used to talk about influence, providing an example of how a Western artist like Brice Marden is praised for being inspired by Asian art, yet Asians who respond to Western works are considered “derivative.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are questioning just what the future will hold for art, artists, museums, and galleries. Back in 1999, Levin wrote “Future Obsolete” in which she discusses how the art world over the previous several decades had grappled with multiple paradigm shifts. She focuses on how artists and theorists alike at the turn of the millennium dealt with the evolving notion of “looping time” as opposed to the traditional linear concept. She notes that technology had contributed not to the “rosy” future imagined by certain Modernists but to an era of existential angst and increasingly ephemeral artworks evoking apocalyptic content. The short essay “Fortress of Solitude: Mike Kelley’s Kandors” was written as an online review of Kelly’s posthumous 2015 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, mounted after a huge, rambling retrospective at MoMA PS1 in 2013. Levin discusses why the “Kandor Series” (1999–2011) is at the core of Kelly’s later work from the 1990s until his death in 2012. The series, which addresses “repressed memories, abuse and alienation,” also became, as Kelley described in Mike Kelley: Kandors (Munich: Hirmer, 2010), “a mirror of the failure of Modernism’s vision of a technological utopia.”
ELSEWHERE reaches a highpoint in the last essay, “Everywhere and Nowhere: From the Myth of Progress to the Sixth Extinction” (2017), which plunges us into the reality of life in the here and now with a discussion of how artists are functioning as “canaries in the coal mine.” Levin references Walter Benjamin’s description of the “Angel of History,” which is based on Paul Klee’s depiction of an angel moving backward, away from what he sees (Angelus Novus). Benjamin provides a perfect metaphor for Levin’s essay: “But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught his wings and is so strong the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, toward which his back is turned and the rubble heap grows sky-high. This storm is what we call progress.”
“Anthropocene,” the last word in the book’s subtitle, draws attention not only to the grim state of the planet but also to rise of nationalism and dysfunctional government. Levin states, “I live in a country I no longer recognize as my own, wondering at what point might I be forced to ask for refuge elsewhere. We now live in a world destabilized by political disruptions and environmental catastrophes. We live in a world of eroding nation-states, expanding transnational entities, and global emergencies. Seas are rising, coral is dying, deserts are expanding, and glaciers are melting down.” Her concern is palpable, and her selection of artists underscores the tone—from Doris Salcedo’s homage to victims of migration by sea and Mona Hatoum’s tracking of global flight paths to the aftermaths of slavery in Ellen Gallagher’s work.
My primary (and small) regret about this book is that it lacks an index, which would have a been a useful tool. More images would also have been helpful. Regardless, this is a must-have book for anyone interested in the evolution of late 20th-century art and the state of art today—students, curators, critics, collectors, and historians as well as generalists. Levin’s love of art and her understanding of a wide range of artists and the society in which they work come through clearly, but perhaps her most important contribution is her broad approach. Positioning developments in modern and contemporary art within a social context has become increasingly necessary in these critical times of transformation.