Caution: Swoon Zone
Let's say you hate contemporary art. You really hate it; you find it overrated, inexplicable, absurd, boring, obscure or a classic case of the emperor's new clothes. Then, lost soul, you need to see "Outbound: Passages from the '90s." It is the art world equivalent of a tent revival, and if it doesn't make a believer out of you, it will at least bring you face to face with the power and glory. Organized by the director and curators of the Contemporary Arts Museum, "Outbound" manages to be diverse and international without being about diversity and internationalism.
"Outbound" sprang from the question, Who are the artists who defined the '90s? Working from an initial list of more than 100 artists, the exhibit's organizers, with input from colleagues outside the CAM, whittled their selections down to ten artists during laborious discussions. In the end, they focused on specific works, not artists, honing in on things that had profoundly affected them at first sight. The staff sought works that evoked "something of a contemporary equivalent to the 19th century's Stendhal Syndrome, a state of swooning rapture produced by an encounter with a great work of art."
Four uniformed mannequin sentinels greet visitors to the exhibition. Fred Wilson's Guarded View (1991) presents guard uniforms from the Jewish Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in a display that looks like a history of institutional fashion. The uniform styles reflect the organizational attitudes of the museums themselves; for example, the MOMA uniform is more casual that the Met's. But each mannequin is dark-skinned and headless; they are anonymous and unindividuated presences, a graphic reminder of the way some people perceive live museum guards.
In 1991 Wilson, who once worked as a museum guard, offered a more personal illustration of his point at the Whitney. He met his gallery audience, chatted extensively with them over lunch and then asked them to meet him upstairs after he changed into costume. That costume was a Whitney Museum guard uniform. Wilson went upstairs and stood by the group, next to a sign bearing his name and indicating the tour starting point. The group milled around impatiently, waiting for Wilson to arrive. No one "saw" him until he announced himself. In a similar vein, Guarded View comments on the hierarchies and prejudices that exist in allegedly enlightened and objective museum spaces; it is the same sort of prejudice that occurs in certain segments of society in which speaking to household staff as real human beings is considered déclassé.
Sociopolitical undercurrents also run through the video work of Shirin Neshat and William Kentridge. Iranian-born Neshat's video installation Rapture (1999) metaphorically addresses Islamic culture and alludes to revolution, Iranian and otherwise. Black-and-white videos are projected on opposite walls. One presents a group of women in black chadors; the other presents a group of men in white shirts and black pants. The separate films face each other, and the groups alternately ignore and react to each other. The black-draped women are sculptural as they move in a group across a rocky desert. The men on the opposite wall march purposefully but pointlessly around a ruined castle. The sound is wonderful; there is a dramatic and militaristic crescendo of drumming, until the women watching on the opposite screen ululate (that trilling throat noise) and bring the men to a halt. The two groups stare at each other, and the viewer looks from one side to the other like at a tennis match.
History of the Main Complaint (1996), a video by South African artist Kentridge, is one from a series about Soho Eckstein, "a voracious South African industrialist with a heavily burdened conscience," and his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, a "more sympathetic, anxious soul." The highly original and incredibly evocative images are created through stop-frame animation, as Kentridge works and reworks his sensitively drawn charcoal images. Like Neshat's work, there is no dialogue, only a haunting and melancholic score, Claudio Monteverdi's 17th-century madrigal Ardo, meaning "I burn" or "I am consumed." The video beautifully, subtly and poignantly addresses sins of commission and omission, as well as hope for atonement and absolution.
Contributing social and artistic activism to the '90s, Project Row Houses created new ways for art to integrate into and support communities. In Sharing the Wealth (1999-2000), PRH founder Rick Lowe and executive director Deborah Grotfeldt have set up temporary offices in the CAM for the duration of the show. They're answering questions and calls, and holding meetings and conducting business in the gallery space, the vibrant collaborative nature of a developing nonprofit organization transplanted into an exhibition setting. The walls are covered with portraits of and statements from Third Ward residents as well as proposed painting schemes for row houses. Founded by Lowe in 1992, PRH began with 22 shotgun houses on Holman Street in the Third Ward and today serves myriad functions. The houses themselves have been restored as an act of architectural preservation, and they in turn provide housing for single mothers, exhibition spaces for artists, and rooms for a host of education and social services. A Web site (www.NeoSoft.com/~prh/) has been set up in conjunction with the show to inform the community about PRH activities.
On the opposite side of the gallery, Cai Guo-Qiang's The Dragon Has Arrived! (1997), a rustic rocket of sorts, is eternally blasting off. Both dramatic and unwieldy, the structure was built from the weathered wood of a 20-year-old shipwreck. The wood's wonderful patina and the rocket's pagodalike tiers combine to make you feel the weight of 5,000 years of Chinese culture, while projecting undertones of contemporary militarism. The ancient monumentality of the work is juxtaposed with the sense of movement created by internal fans that blow Chinese flags out from the base, like flames.
The weightiness of the rocket contrasts markedly with Jim Hodges's You (1997), an enormous lacy curtain. Sewn entirely from the petals of dismembered silk flowers, it proves that something amazing can be made from items retailed at the suburban craft mecca/hellhole Garden Ridge Pottery. This delicate tactility and sensuality can also be found in the beautiful, gauzy silk organza of Ann Hamilton's (bearings) (1996). Two 14-foot-high circular "skirts," in black with white lining, swirl, pause, swirl and pause endlessly. The viewer can enter and leave at paused intervals, standing inside the sheer voluminous wonder of the swirling fabric.
Janine Antoni's video installation Swoon (1997) uses lush baroque folds of red velvet for romantic effect. Draped over three-fourths of a wall-size back-projection video screen, the velvet reveals only the projected legs and feet of two dancers. A mirror on the opposite wall reflects the curtain and video as well as the viewer, who is a part of the installation. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake alternately plays, which induces an overwhelming temptation to pirouette. The meat of the piece lies in its near silence, filled only by the labored breathing of the dancers and the hollow sounds of their feet on the wooden floor.
Robert Gober's 1997 untitled work is a dreamy vision of tidal pools and gently lapping water. The viewer peers into an open suitcase on the CAM's floor, through a metal grate and into a sunny memory. A father stands in the pool dangling a child's feet over the water; only the legs of the two are visible. It's like gazing into someone's tender and poignant memory.
Matthew Barney pushes dreamy into an otherworldly state. His live pigeon-filled installation The Ehrich Weiss Suite (1997) contains objects of mourning related to the death of the central magician character in his 1997 film, Cremaster 5. (The "cremaster," incidentally, is the muscle responsible for raising or lowering the scrotum, depending on the temperature.) Barney's work uses a complicated personal mythology that addresses ambiguities of gender as well as religion, pop culture, masculinity, transformation and sports. (Much has been made of Barney's stint as a college football player.) Decoding the elaborate symbolism of his art is both rewarding and exhausting, but his material aesthetic is phenomenal. It's strange, otherworldly and intensely tactile, featuring viscous plastics, Vaseline, acrylic and silicone. The films and photos have a supersaturated color. The installation's objects are predominately black and white, and even the pigeon shit works into the color scheme. Barney thinks of everything.
It can always be argued that different artists or works should have been included in "Outbound," even other works by those already included. Wilson's site-specific and Hamilton's massive installations, for example, are some of their strongest works, but they're impossible to show. In the end, what "Outbound" really demonstrates is the range and power of creative vision. It is a big, juicy slice from the best that '90s art had to offer.
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