Two women take turns pouring water over each other's heads as they sit talking. They're wrapped in towels, and water drips down their bare shoulders as their voices echo in the room. Behind them is a stone basin with faucets; the setting is a hamam, or Turkish bath. The video is part of the installation Hamam (2001) by the Turkish artist Esra Ersen, which is on view at "How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, a sprawling group show of works by international, er, global artists organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Hamam is like a giant wooden box turned on its side, with the interior painted a pale aquatic/institutional green. The green-tinged black-and-white video is shown on a monitor set low in the wall. Sitting down to watch it in the intimate, low-ceilinged room makes you feel like you're sharing the women's space, listening in on their observations and stories (the video is subtitled in English). One of the women does most of the talking, animatedly telling stories about her childhood and her boyfriend and complaining about receiving those (apparently global) sexist e-mail jokes about women. Hamam creates a wonderful sense of place. It's like visiting a foreign friend and hanging out with her girlfriends.
When you travel, you take yourself out of your own context and willingly throw yourself off balance in new and unfamiliar territory. Visiting "Latitudes" is a little like that. But it's also a little like an overscheduled package tour -- the show hosts work by artists from China, India, Argentina, Turkey, South Africa, Japan and the United States.
"How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age"
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose
Through September 26; 713-284-8250
It's something of a conglomeration, with "global-ness" as the loose organizing principle -- most pieces are primarily global in origin, while a few address globalism itself. Overall, there are strong works in a range of media. While many of them make cultural, pop-cultural and political references with nuances that you may or may not get, the wall texts work hard to provide context. Ultimately, though, you just have to be open to the work. After all, there's no need to read every guidebook before you experience a country.
A commonality emerges in the strong sense of place evoked by Hamam and several other video works. Heaven-6-Box (1995) by Japanese artist Hiroyuki Oki is a loving meditation on the seemingly everyday. Most of the film has an audio track that would be at home in a '60s romantic comedy, while nervous electronica triggers the few anxious moments. The light in Oki's film is warmly nostalgic, like that of old home movies. In his works, even banal, unattractive parking lots seem like pleasant, welcoming places. A mellow radiance permeates his thoughtful, empathetic observation of the world. A kindly-looking old couple kneels on the tatami floor in front of the brilliant light of a window. A businessman in a suit stands in the street as the sun sets, and you want to give him a hug. Shots of vegetable gardens and concrete buildings are equally beautiful. The warm benevolence of the images calls to mind the angels' loving scrutiny of humans in Wings of Desire.
Wang Jian Wei's Living Elsewhere (1999-2000) is far grimmer and more documentary, as it records the lives of four families eking out an existence in an abandoned subdivision -- a gated community filled with the white skeletons of spacious villas begun seven years ago but never finished. These are the concrete shells of Chinese McMansions. They house illegal residents -- farmers who fled the countryside for city jobs that never materialized. Now they live primitively in the sprawling empty rooms, hauling water with yokes and wooden buckets and trying to keep out the weather from the gaping picture windows. They farm pitiful sections of would-be lawn to feed themselves and their small children, who are so stiffly swaddled in layer upon layer of clothing that they move like zombies.
The term "globalization" has a negative "multinational corporation" connotation, but it's also about the world becoming more connected and countries and cultures influencing and feeding off one another in positive ways. There are also increasing numbers of people, artists among them, who lead globally peripatetic lives.
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The exhibition's accompanying catalog is like a stack of seminar materials -- including essays by curators and scholars and the text of discussions, letters, conversations and e-mails -- with an allotment of intellectual hand-wringing. It's a lot of information; some of it is interesting, and some is tortured curatorial overanalysis of the issues surrounding showing work by people from different countries and cultures. Discussions about breaching curatorial and institutional comfort zones are both intentionally and unintentionally revealing; it all seems a little self-absorbed and angsty.
But going beyond known territory can be a difficult thing, especially in art, which is inherently subjective. Contemporary art in particular is often haunted by the emperor's-new-clothes syndrome. "Am I really getting this or is it bullshit? Do I think this is bullshit, but actually I just don't understand it?" As long as you're within your own culture and know the context of work, it's easier to interpret things.
In a discussion from the catalog, a curator introduces the idea of it being okay to say "I don't know" -- it almost seems like an attempt at self-reassurance. But the sentiment is valid: Fear of being wrong can confine you to familiar territory and ensure you never venture out, creating a kind of intellectual agoraphobia. More curators need to take risks and go beyond their "comfort zones."
"Multiculturalism" was an art buzzword in the '90s, and a lot of work by multicultural artists was shown, primarily in shows about multiculturalism. A similar thing seems to be happening with the 21st-century buzzword "globalism." But, of course, a truly global approach to art will be impossible until artists from far-flung places are regularly included in shows not specifically about the "global."