Unfinished History

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through April 4

By Fred Camper

The Museum of Contemporary Art has been a troubled institution for some time. In the last few years its director and most of the curatorial staff have resigned; new director Robert Fitzpatrick appointed new curators only a few months ago. Since museum exhibition schedules are normally set years in advance, results of these appointments would not normally be visible for some time, but shortly before the appointment of senior curator Francesco Bonami, the MCA decided to bring his “Unfinished History” here from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A survey of current art from five continents, the show includes works by 23 artists: installations, videos, sculptures, photographs, and a large rug. The show’s PR, some reviews, and even the wall labels might lead you to believe there’s also film on view, but all the moving images are shown on video.

Though it might seem hasty to judge a curator on the basis of a single exhibition, the MCA has been adrift for so long it’s hard to refrain; based on this show, the prognosis must be guarded at best. On the one hand, the exhibit brings together a number of artists not seen in Chicago before; some of the art is very good; and the show has the provocative theme of increasing cultural diversity in the coming millennium, an idea somewhat muddled in the wall texts and introductory video but a bit clearer in the catalog. (“History, as a business, is now finished,” Bonami writes in his catalog essay. “The next one will be written by a community of peaceful mongrels, not us.”) On the other hand, there’s as much bad as good art here; aesthetic judgment seems to have taken a backseat to the issues the curator hopes to address; and the works are so different that the viewing experience is rather inchoate. Bonami quotes (with apparent approval) that ace mass murderer Chairman Mao: “Chaos is the perfect condition for a society in transformation.” This show’s messiness hardly equals the moral abyss of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but it does make for muddled seeing and thinking.

There’s scant sign of the artists’ hands here, except in a few pieces. There are no paintings. For a few works the handcrafting was farmed out to artisans–Afghani weavers, Chinese stonecutters, the Italian taxidermist who preserved the hanging horse that closes the show. I find it curious that an exhibit as politically correct as this one never questions the way postmodern artists have reinvented themselves as international business managers, almost colonialists, assigning much of their labor to others. The Mao-quoting Bonami never points out the irony of a Japanese artist employing Chinese stonecutters–since Japan borrowed many of its artistic traditions from China centuries ago and conducted a bloody attempt at colonizing the country in this century.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be handmade by the artist to succeed. The exhibit’s strongest work, Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent, is a two-screen video projection about gender roles installed in a medium-size room, the images projected on opposite walls. One shows a man singing into a microphone with an appreciative audience behind him, while in the other a woman stands silent facing the same auditorium, which is empty. Halfway through the videos, the man stops singing and the woman begins. The wall label tells us that women are banned from singing in public in Neshat’s native Iran, and Bonami in his catalog essay suggests that history often involves an imagined future; Neshat both reveals the present reality and projects a better future. Her biases are clear. The woman’s complex vocalizing is infinitely more interesting and inventive than the man’s somewhat banal pop singing, and while the video of the man is a static shot, the camera rotates lyrically around the woman when she begins singing, echoing her soaring vocal lines. These choices support Neshat’s point, but what really makes the piece work is its formal elegance: the two images are presented as equivalents as well as opposites–identical camera movements along the theater seats, for example, precede the singing in each. These images face each other in an eloquent confrontation, at once reminding us of inequality and arguing for equality.

Even more utopian is Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantome, a giant model of a city made out of discarded packing material. Brightly colored and diversely shaped, his elaborate futuristic architecture–curving buildings, high towers, elevated highways–is endearingly optimistic. The piece resembles some outsider art in the exquisite care with which it’s crafted; each simulated pane of glass, for example, is precisely placed and impressively reflective.

Kingelez’s faith in technology is perhaps natural to one who lives in a third-world city such as Kinshasha, long devastated by a corrupt dictatorship. Roman Signer, from Switzerland, is more skeptical. In his video Bett (“Bed”), the artist lies in bed in a sparsely furnished room while a small remote-controlled helicopter hovers about him, sometimes coming uncomfortably close. The sterile composition focuses the viewer on the copter’s almost balletic, unnervingly unpredictable movements, forming a contrast to the static figure. And here the bland, artless, uninteresting imagery, typical of much content-heavy art, heightens one’s awareness of danger–will the copter fall and slice Signer’s face?–recalling some of the work of Chris Burden.

Also effective is Yutaka Sone’s Amusement, a marble sculpture of a roller coaster based on one near Tokyo, made by Chinese stonecutters to Sone’s design. Focusing on the work’s content, Bonami writes that “the significance of the roller-coaster structure is that it contains within itself the potential for human annihilation.” I was more interested in Sone’s choice of marble–the material of classical sculpture–to depict a kitschy amusement-park ride. Rendering the roller coaster’s complicated scaffolding as solid marble gives the whole a permanent feel–less an endorsement of the present, however, than an ironic commentary on our own age’s impermanence.

If none of these pieces is a masterpiece, all offer intelligent, well-composed commentary on millennial issues. Other works are just as laden with content but so lacking in formal control as to be almost inarticulate. In White Flight, the Swede Mats Hjelm projects black-and-white video footage his father shot during the 1967 Detroit riots (which the wall label incorrectly dates to 1968) side by side with color footage he himself shot recently in Detroit. Frames within frames feature interviews with black leaders, but the racket from nearby sound-making installations (this is another one of those big, noisy MCA shows) sometimes drowns out their words. Hjelm often pairs similar images–bombed-out houses or squads of officers yesterday and today–making the point that not much has changed in Detroit. Um, I think we knew that. And while Hjelm’s father’s footage is sometimes poorly shot, its handheld street perspective indicates a cameraman engaged in the action, while many of Hjelm’s views were taken from the safety of a moving car, offering the disengaged, arguably colonizing vision of a tourist. Nothing about the piece implies that Hjelm is aware of this irony.

Worse, White Flight is both incoherent and ugly. The pale tones of video projection and Hjelm’s indifferent compositions and use of movement produce a washed-out, random melange. Walk down any Detroit street and you’ll get more pleasure from the facades and textures of the buildings, well kept or ruined, than you’ll find here. The dual-screen format makes the trite point that little has changed, but a bad Sunday painter has more control over paint than Hjelm does over his two screens.

Of course, sometimes the results are worse when an artist is in control. Another dual-image video, Andrea Bowers’s One and the Same Body, pairs footage of Rose Bowl tailgate parties with footage shot at the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis, projected one on top of the other; Bowers also achieves a near-Cinemascopic width by distorting the videos horizontally in a kind of anamorphic expansion. It comes as no surprise that people at tailgate parties don’t look all that different from people in malls or that stretching people sideways makes them look ugly. Bowers’s piece has a distasteful air of superiority, of art-world snobbery. And her methods are easy and manipulative–the same lie could be achieved by a Video 101 student juxtaposing and distorting imagery of viewers of one of Bowers’s pieces and pigs at a trough.

The mistakes in the show, then, are largely failures of visual intelligence. Wing Young Huie’s portraits certainly have the “correct” degree of ethnic diversity, and I enjoyed looking at the varied faces and body types in Middle School Graduation Party, Lake Street, 1997. But aside from the gesture of blowing the photos up very large, there’s no artistry here: this is nothing more than multicultural wallpaper. Thomas Hirschhorn’s big, formless installation, Spin-Off, could have appeared in a freshman exhibit at almost any art school. It includes aluminum-foil vines (one of which is taped to a video monitor whose onscreen image continues the vine shape), copies of various articles taped to the wall, fashion photos, and a lot of photos of seminude women. I think Bonami likes this self-indulgent mess: he approvingly quotes Hirschhorn as saying, “I’m trying to connect things that I don’t understand.” But one connection–between Hirschhorn’s giant model of a Swiss army knife with all blades extended and the girlie pics–is all too clear. This is the sort of thing Chicago critic Susan Snodgrass once called “boy art”–and unfortunately it’s no more than that.

Group shows are supposed to have a thesis–but I also think that each work should help the viewer see and appreciate the other art on view. The results can be splendid when the work is from related cultures, as in the Art Institute’s recent “Ancient West Mexico” exhibit, or when a more diverse exhibit has an underlying aesthetic intelligence, as in the Chicago Cultural Center’s show of outsider art two years ago. In “Unfinished History,” unfortunately, the juxtaposition of very different pieces often detracts from one’s ability to see them. Viewers who’ve seen Kingelez’s Ville Fantome will look in vain for order in Hirschhorn’s mess; viewers who enjoy the precision of Neshat’s two-image video installation are likely to be baffled by the chaos of Hjelm’s and Bowers’s. It’s as if the work here were chosen solely for its social content.

The exhibit’s introductory video, made by MCA staff with Bonami’s approval, seems to confirm this view. A narrator with a cloyingly pleasant, impersonal voice takes us through the show, telling us what each work means. Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa–a huge, wonderful embroidered map of the world in which each nation is defined by a partial image of its flag–“reflects the changing geopolitical realities at the end of the cold war,” according to the video. But doesn’t a map in an atlas do the same thing? What’s fascinating about Mappa–evident when seen in the context of Boetti’s other work–is his obsessive translation of political realities into a handcrafted form, his almost annoying bright colors, the odd optimism of his decorative transformations. Artists often speak in their own self-defined languages, and in those cases one needs to see a number of pieces in order to really appreciate the work.

“Unfinished History” doesn’t encourage viewers to come to their own conclusions. I got a scary confirmation of that when a docent appeared with a tour group while I was looking at Signer’s Bett. They assembled within a few seconds, and the docent immediately informed everyone that the helicopter symbolized technology. Then everybody left. They got the “idea,” but they didn’t experience the work–and in a way they didn’t really get the idea either. If one watches the whole three-minute video, the helicopter begins to seem more intelligent, more emblematic of human intentionality, than the expressionless, motionless Signer. And indeed it is controlled by a human. This reversal tells us a lot more about the way the human presence has begun to reside in the machines we’ve made than the docent’s “helicopter equals technology” summation.

I wouldn’t normally go after art docents, famous for their facile interpretations, but what this one said was consistent with the exhibit’s wall labels, introductory video, and one-work-per-artist norm. All seem to exclude the possibility of discovering the art on one’s own. Of course, one can always ignore such “aids”–I seldom watch the introductory videos for shows I’m not reviewing–but a museum like the MCA presents art to the uninitiated, and by giving art one-line meanings it manages to turn the intellectual clock back a few hundred years, eradicating the whole modernist idea of the viewer as equal participant in the work. Is this exhibit really as democratizing and socially aware as it pretends, or is it a piece of intellectually and aesthetically retarded party-line propaganda? A little of both, perhaps, but sadly it seems more the latter than the former.

De-emphasizing the viewer’s imagination is perhaps related to Bonami’s view of the individual as adrift in today’s cultural seas–it seems we’re kin to the Russian soldiers in Alexander Sokurov’s five-hour video Spiritual Voices, whom Bonami calls “insignificant pawns in a game that’s forgotten most of its rules.” Perhaps this sense that there are no “rules” is what allows Bonami to show this film on five monitors in a semicircle, a different section visible on each, rather than on one screen. Sokurov’s work is very slow, and his intensely spiritual imagery requires deep concentration. I found this installation–which Bonami told me Sokurov approved–virtually unwatchable: try to concentrate on one monitor, and the occasional movement or edit on an adjacent one soon distracts you. The film’s idea–that the soldiers are adrift–comes through in about five minutes, but the work’s aesthetic power is obliterated by the mongrelizing effects of the multiple monitors.

Hints as to how this disregard of aesthetic considerations could have crept into an exhibit presented by two major art museums can be found in Bonami’s catalog essay, in which he discusses a number of films but almost always in terms of their plots, rarely mentioning compositions or camera movements. Much of the art he discusses only in terms of its subject. Bonami takes a similar leveling approach to language. At one point he writes, “We must leave–even momentarily–our identities behind, in order to move ahead into a world made of real differences, into a dialogue where English is nothing but a useful tool, a medium of exchange, and not a language related to a people, a country, a History.” Later he calls art “this contemporary esperanto of expressions and ideas.” Perhaps lowercasing the E in Esperanto is meant as a sign that he means the language metaphorically, but it’s hard not to notice his positive attitude toward Esperanto and disparagement of English, which he apparently wants to Esperanto-ize.

English is still, thankfully, “a language related to a people, a country, a History.” Look up words in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll find citations going back to the King James Bible or to Chaucer, a whole litany of usages, each of which has left a residue of meaning. A great writer draws on these dimly remembered traces, these ghostlike overtones. This is why it’s much harder for a nonnative speaker of any language to appreciate its literature than to read its newspapers. Conversely, Esperanto has little literature of note, a fact confirmed by a friend who knows the language. The late-19th-century invention of a Polish physician, it’s not really any culture’s principal language and has had little time to develop a history. Worse, my friend tells me, its simplifications–few synonyms, an extremely regular grammatical structure–make it highly unsuited to literary forms.

Yet the simplified, easily translatable Esperanto appears to be Bonami’s principal metaphor for art. I’m guessing this is why he offers ready one-liners as explanations, why he readily groups together works related only by one-line explanations. And perhaps this is why many of the artists on view appear to be functionally illiterate in the “language” of their media. Double-image projections, for example, have a long history in avant-garde filmmaking, none of which Bowers and Hjelm seem to acknowledge. Portrait photography has an even richer tradition, but you wouldn’t know it from Huie’s feel-good posters.

This inattention to form–in the show’s catalog essay, wall labels, video, and organizing principles–is what I found most troubling about “Unfinished History.” Aesthetic form is what differentiates a work of art from an essay. If we’re interested in an argument on a particular subject, why not turn to modes that can present it much more clearly and objectively? There are many books about urban geography far more illuminating than Hjelm’s boring Detroit video. And excuse me, but if I’m in an art museum, I’d like an aesthetic moment or two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Mappa” by Alighiero Boetti; “Turbulent” by Shirin Neshat; “Ville Fantome” by Bodys Isek Kingelez.