Contemporary Art Centre
January 16-March 8, 2009
Recently, I visited Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, to witness opening events for this monumental group show at CAC called Code Share. Old Town Vilnius was a snowy Northern wonderland made of spiraling cobblestone streets, Gothic cathedrals, and cave-like, battleaxe adorned restaurants set underground in vaults. Baltic amber shops line the streets. CAC is a great museum: a gigantic, modern space lodged between City Hall and a puppet theater. Trakai, a 14th century castle lodged on an island, is a quick 45-minute bus ride away. Visit Vilnius if the opportunity arises!
Titled after the commercial airline practice of partnering up to share passengers, services, landing rights, and technical resources, Code Share enlisted curators from two biennials per continent to select works collectively representing twenty artists from ten biennials (!!). Artists and curators were flown to Lithuania to participate, underscoring the significance, and apparent complexities, of global conversation. Designed with such an encoded curatorial strategy from the get go, this bold survey expressed its ambitious international experiment with mixed results.
Code Share’s relevance reached maximum potency as I witnessed curator, Simon Rees, opening night, beckoning artists into his office to re-book cancelled flights due to a Lithuanian airline’s bankruptcy. In light of Rees’ aim to assess global contemporary art trends through cultural aesthetics, it seemed apt to view works through a nationalistic lens. In some cases, artworks felt spectacularly foreign, in a good way. Pulled from the Istanbul Biennial, Emre Hüner’s animated film, Panoptikon (2005) enlivened tempera-painted, paper cut outs of masked, costumed humans and animals swimming in scientific imagery, into narrative sequences through two-dimensional animation technique. Drawing from medieval bestiaries, medical practices, and warfare, scenes showing four-leggeds growing out of flowers, men sporting snail-shells slithering across a room packed with dinosaur bones, or a port scene in which a zeppelin-like ship mediated archery battles were rendered with the colorful precision of Turkish and Indian miniature paintings.
Matthew Brannon’s remake of his Whitney Biennial installation, comprised of letterpress prints hung on plywood walls connoting interior views of Madison Avenue high-rise apartments, originally critiqued hierarchies specific to New York society and referenced east coast snobbery with biting wit. But Brannon’s particular brand of displacement felt wonderfully odd on view in Vilnius. A print of a pink ham pinned with pineapple and cherry, in Bad Manners (2008), for example, may not have symbolized old-fashioned elitism in a country where pork is a staple food. Yet the text accompanying the image reflected materialistic competition across the board: Halfway across the intersection you catch yourself mid-thought. The unfinished plate. The second house. A too tight watch. A tap on the shoulder. He wouldn't dare. He hasn't the nerve. This is my sand castle.
Not that works exuding regionalism limited audience. On the contrary, works that succeeded most were those that enlightened viewers to those very socio-political issues that universally plague artists. Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s videos, Masters of None (2006) and All Together Now (2008), leveled this regional playing ground by obscuring their characters’ identities behind hoods. As their hooded casts play charades and tackle physical tasks, like cleaning trash and chopping wood, one questioned what the masked character meant to various societies, and if in any, they pointed to anything but repressed expression.
Some works, on the other hand, fell flat beside such strong statements. Nigerian artist Bright Ogochukwu Eke’s maze woven from plastic soda bottles was a didactic statement against consumer waste, and didn’t exude the Modernist conceptualism it strove for. And while Australian artist Kate Rohde’s basement installation modeled after natural history displays was delectable, as if a pastry chef had unleashed her cake decorating talents upon a cabinet of curiosities, it expressed less its aim to depict British colonial Australia as an ossified cultural phenomenon than high kitsch. But all the better for such broad representation; in this wide-ranging exhibit, it was difficult not to expand one’s criteria for international art appreciation. In this, Code Share was a striking success.
(photo: animation still from Emre Hüner's Panoptikon, 2005)