The Institution as Sanctuary: 2018 Queens International Biennial

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Essye Klempner. Photo: Queens Museum

‘What cordial hours we spent with our guests there, looking out from the terrace into the beautiful and peaceful countryside without suspecting that on the Berchtesgaden mountain directly opposite sat the one man who was to destroy all this!’

-Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

Stefan Zweig and Count Harry Kessler are much on the mind, as before us pass sinister frames of the slow-motion train-wreck: yet another failed utopia, this time of a liberal, borderless world of benign, self-regulating markets. We live now in an environment tinged with xenophobia and fear, increasingly akin to the late Habsburg and Weimar years.

Culture suffers — and flourishes — when madness sets in.

An institution that had a torrid 2018, with the controversial departure of director Laura Raicovich, summarised here and with Raicovich’s response here, has recovered its poise with a focused Queens International biennial that combines formal and material rigour with a commitment to urgent conversations surrounding ecological collapse, the built environment, and of course, identity, the American cause célèbre in perpetuity.

The museum already had a charged history, as seat of the U.N. General Assembly (1946-1950), and site of the Resolution 181 (1947) which partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab States. Built in 1937, expanded successively by Rafael Viñoly Architects (1994) and Grimshaw Architects (2013), it is a brooding structure of glass facades amongst massive masonry piers, sort of a cross between the Palais de Tokio (Paris) and the Piazza Augusto Imperatore (Rome). It sits atop a bluff between the vaguely dystopic park of the 1939 World’s Fair and a dual carriageway. Yet the space! Here, work breathes and people flow easily in the generously proportioned, high-ceilinged galleries.

The museum, with almost no permanent collection, is unburdened of a legacy that might otherwise force exhibitions built around art loans and tortured curatorial visions. As an institutional priority, it chooses to engage heavily with a local community that includes families of diverse extraction: East and South Asian, Latin American, East European. Many in these groups live under a shadow of a challenging current political climate, involving deportations and reduced access to public health and nutrition assistance. The boundary between management’s (self-imposed) moral obligation, and its board’s fiduciary obligations to patrons and society-at-large, not to mention potential legal jeopardy arising from well-intentioned political action, led to the Raicovich contretemps. The Museum’s predicament is the more important as it is hardly unique: echoed by cultural institutions elsewhere, say Brazil under the 1960s-1970s dictatorship as well as today, or in the controversy currently enveloping the Volksbühne here in Berlin.

The biennial primarily included artists working in the light-industrial Queens districts of Long Island City and Ridgewood. Sophia Marisa Lucas invited as co-curator Baseera Khan, a New York-based performance artist, to develop a show that, while acknowledging the specific complexities facing the Museum, created a critical dialogue with the (contemporaneous) Carnegie International around the meaning of the word ‘International’ in a time of sprouting biennials. The Queens show, containing forty-three artists, cross-generational and multi- ethnic, can’t be done full justice here, hence this review presents a few highlights.

The exhibition website is itself an artwork created by software artist and writer Ryan Kuo (recent resident of the Museum’s respected Studio Program). It has bios and interviews with the artists, and essentially uses the architecture of the building, as well as the plans created by Exhibitions Manager John Wanzel, as raw material for a dynamic ‘walkthrough’ of the show. Kuo’s site, besides providing a point of engagement for viewers outside New York, explicitly foregrounds the fascinating tension between localised / experienced / architectonic space and online / simulated / flattened space.

Kim Hoeckele (b. 1980) also engaged directly with the building’s architecture. Her work, centrepiece of the 7 October 2018 opening, featured performers who weaved in and out of the galleries and balconies of the Museum, reciting variations of the Homeric epithet ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. The saffron-tinged performance came to a climax in the principal atrium of the museum, under Essye Kempner‘s (b. 1984) suspended azure cyanotype. Kempner’s ecological practice embodies a critique of capitalism’s effect upon the built environment, and the cyanotype itself acts as a record of sorts: at a dinner held in the Museum, each artist was asked to place an object on the emulsion-coated tablecloth. The tablecloth was exposed to the gallery’s natural light at dusk and dawn, creating a photographic imprint of the collected objects and table settings. The suspended fabric, by virtue of its scale and in the context of Kempner’s practice, reminds one of Susan Schüppli’s ‘dirty pictures’: climate-change is leaving a quasi-photographic imprint on the Earth (1).

The large east gallery is one of the most exciting, with Milford Graves’ (b. 1941) collection of exuberant sculptures that allude to his varied interests, including the effect of rhythm on the human heart (related to which he is named on a U.S. patent). Meanwhile, around the corner is the quiet intervention of Slovak artist Peter Kašpar (b. 1983) that poses a minimal plywood sculpture impregnated with fibre-optic red lights, which in turn, are powered by solar panels. In this, and other work, he has questioned systems of knowledge that are commonly accepted as shibboleths in our culture.

Asif Mian (b. 1978) approaches systems from the perspective of surveillance, with a thermal camera in the main atrium observing polypropylene garments, stand-ins for visitors…or migrants, as they are cyclically heated and cooled. Thermal cameras are used on borders and by military drones, and are intensely politicised instruments, as eloquently documented in Richard Mosse’s 2017 show at London’s Barbican. Continuing on this vector of the weaponised Capitalocene, Kanad Chakrabarti (b. 1974) explores how intense consumerism and the military-industrial complex have intertwined into a Gordian knot that is slowly strangling us all. He does this through a video installation that questions the place of the essay-film in a time when smartphones and social media have relegated cinematic collectivity to an elite sport.

In the same gallery, Beatrice Modisett (b. 1985) and Arthur Ou (b. 1974), work with the materiality of the flat image. Ou’s photographs, which re-physicalise ‘filters’ through an archaic process of hand-tinting, are intensely concerned with time, meant as both process- time and as the viewer’s subjective, elastic time. Perceived time and the absorbed viewer have been theorised in connection with both photography and painting, most notably by Michael Fried(2). Modisett’s paintings too are based in process, but here it is the physical flow of paint, under conditions of restraint and constraint, that drive the final outcome. In doing so, she continues to mine the rich tradition, to a certain extent specifically American, of treating paint as a quasi-sculptural medium that, again, at its best, prompts a sense of absorption in the viewer.

One of the potentially most joyous works is itself an exercise in spatialised time, in that it unfolds over the show’s five-month run and over the entire museum. The curator and theoretician Brian Droitcour (b. 1980) and artist Christine Wong Yap (b. 1977) are collecting responses from comment boxes distributed through the galleries, as well as libraries that are sites for the biennial. The responses are disseminated through Instagram and a publication. In doing so, Droitcour and Yap are gently, humorously questioning the professional critic’s stranglehold on received opinion in the Artworld. Often the crowd- sourced reviews are written by children, and thus have a certain freshness of vision that, after all, artists from Picasso onwards have been trying to access. Equally, they appear to want to re-establish the museum as an space for healing and reflection, a resonant goal in post-religious societies (at least from a U.K./European perspective).

This edition of the biennial has also involved the Queens Library network, with installations at the Jamaica Central, Lefrak City, and Flushing branches.  Patrick Killoran (b. 1972) made a barely-noticeable intervention in the library, creating a sight-line of receding voids through a section of emptied book-shelves.  His work raises the question of ‘where’ the ‘artwork’ actually lies – in his view, his grey plywood frames frame the actions of viewers, many of whom are not in the library to see art, as they bend down to peer through nothing, at nothing.  He creates a situation that ‘proposes the useless’ in a space institutionally defined by goals (research, internet access, warmth).  At an spatial-architectural level, his work presents a binary: the library as ‘visible index’ of what it contains.  This is emphatically different from the way books, and information are increasingly accessed, via the web and search engines, which effectively obscure the index behind an algorithm and down-play the lovely serendipity of a wander through the stacks.  Killoran’s work is quiet, possessed of minimal materiality, combined with conceptual tightness, and recalls a certain European  transcendental sensibility very much opposed to the voluptuous, identity-riven and market-orientated flavour current in the New York art scene.

In particular, the Killoran and Droitcour/Yap projects also implicitly take us back to the underlying political/social conditions that the Museum, and to a certain extent, many other cultural institutions find themselves in – in an environment of political threats and intimidation, how do institutions retain theoretical rigour and historical awareness, while avoiding accusations of elitism? How do museums, particularly regional ones, remain relevant for the local, non-specialist communities, who are, after all, tax-payers and voters?  To what extent do they have a critical role, to lean against the prevailing wind, even at institutional risk?  On this note, in any way, presuming to compare a (still) comfortable and safe New York context, with the more-or-less forgotten, yet still deadly, plight of the Occupied Territories, it was a bittersweet thing to read of the Qalandiya International, currently underway in Ramallah and Jerusalem, covered here.

‘Today I have sold my beloved Weimar house. How many memories and how much of my life vanish with it.’

-Count Harry Kessler, The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1937

(1) Schüppli, Susan. ‘Dirty Pictures’ in Living Earth Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project 2014-2016. Eds. Belina, Mirna and Arie, Altena. Amsterdam: Sonic Acts, 2016.

(2) Fried, Michael, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

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Kim Hoeckele. Photo: Instagram @guiaer_and_runzhong
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Milford Graves. Photo: Instagram @sculpthead
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Peter Kašpar. Photo: Instagram @peterkaspar
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Asif Mian. Photo: Instagram @doosan_gallery
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Kanad Chakrabarti. Photo: Instagram @ukc10014
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Emmy Catedral, Umber Majeed. Photo: Instagram @notadancingbear
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Brian Droitcour and Christine Wong Yap. Photo: Instagram @thepeoplesguideqi
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Emmy Catedral, ray ferreira, Cullen Washington Jr. Photo: Instagram @notadancingbear
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Beatrice Modisett. Photo: Instagram @jandrewarts

 

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