The Institution as Sanctuary: 2018 Queens International Biennial

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.

Kim Hoeckele. Photo: Instagram @guiaer_and_runzhong
Milford Graves. Photo: Instagram @sculpthead
Peter Kašpar. Photo: Instagram @peterkaspar
Asif Mian. Photo: Instagram @doosan_gallery
ephedra 1
Kanad Chakrabarti. Photo: Instagram @ukc10014
Emmy Catedral, Umber Majeed. Photo: Instagram @notadancingbear
Brian Droitcour and Christine Wong Yap. Photo: Instagram @thepeoplesguideqi
Emmy Catedral, ray ferreira, Cullen Washington Jr. Photo: Instagram @notadancingbear
Beatrice Modisett. Photo: Instagram @jandrewarts


Watching Brexit From Sicily

It has been curious to see Brexit unfold, from southern Sicily. In Noto, a stunning Baroque town, albeit rather gypsy-ridden, our queries to waiters last Friday morning at 8AM were met with befuddlement. Similarly, the tourist information lady, glancing at her purple nails, denied all knowledge of the EU but grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of a mayoral election in the next village. Saturday morning, at Caffe Sicilia, the best gelato/sweet shop in Sicily, the cosmopolitan staff were veering between despair & resignation. But by Saturday night, in Ortygia, with its marina of large yachts, one could pick up snippets of conversation amongst hordes of Milanese businessmen. The bronzed thirty-something French couples at dinner were chatting about Londres, the tragedy of the young, in between mouthfuls of linguini con ricci. Even the Gazzeta Dello Sport, Italy’s version of a serious pink broadsheet, was leading with analysis of Brexit.

The FB/Twitter hand-wringing & hysterical calls for a second referendum seem, besides their implied disrespect towards the 52% that voted to exit, to focus far too much on impact on the UK. Granted, the metropolitan elite in London have lost the warm & fuzzy feeling of being ‘part of Europe’; while a long-planned move to the Costa(s) or Puglia might have to be re-thought. Science & culture will undoubtedly suffer through loss of funding, and Cornwall apparently misses its EU cash infusions (I thought only Third-World Countries got development aid?). Still, the British electorate, whether Remain or Leave, may ruefully appreciate the possibility of Britain finally being rid of loathsome financiers as banks choose to migrate operations into the EU.

That aside, I’m not sure how anyone can have any clear view on what will happen finally, given that we seem to be stuck at the starting-block: the gun has been fired, but no one is in a rush to trigger Article 50. It would appear, until that is done, the entire question remains in limbo – hostage to the fascinating ritual fratricide of the Tories & the (mostly irrelevant) idiocy of Labour. A deux ex machina to move things along can perhaps arrive via a second referendum, court challenge, or HM addressing the nation as she memorably (if inadvertently) did on the occasion of the Chinese Premier’s visit.

But that’s the UK side. What the markets are telling us though, is that most of the worry, at a geopolitical level, is for the EU itself. European banks have taken a beating in anticipation.

Centripetal forces continue to imperil an incomplete project that only lurches forward through increasingly frequent existential crises. I can see a fork in the road. On one hand, the core EU countries can double down on unification : try to push the ball forward on fiscal & banking union, now that the tenacious objections from London have (presumably) been silenced. Yet, my suspicion is that even within the core EU, both leadership & electorate, there is little consensus on increased centralisation, consequent loss of sovereignty, erosion of  democratic accountability, and the fiscal transfers that would be needed to overcome deep economic imbalances.

The other, more likely, possibility is that the noise around Brexit, and the more urgent nationalist movements in Italy, France, even Germany, will further hamper the move towards federalism and induce more paralysis. Although the Spanish election seems to have gone okay this weekend, Italy remains the one to watch: its banks are undercapitalised, while Renzi has been a disappointment. A referendum this October looks eerily like the UK one, a protest opportunity for an alienated electorate combined with a promise from Renzi that he will resign if he loses. Recently, voters, disgusted with corruption, have elected mayors in Turin & Rome from Beppe Grillo’s insurrectionist/anti-Euro Five Star movement. In the background Umberto Bossi of the secessionist Northern League watches events calmly, puffing on a cheap Toscano cigar.

Yet the elephant in the room, even if the Remain campaign sort of politely ignored it, is the clear inability of the EU to control its external border. Sicily remains on the front line, though the scenes of 2 years ago have been better managed by Italian authorities – back then there were hundreds of migrants sleeping under the sun in Catania’s port and we were shown the remains of a wrecked migrant boat in Siracusa’s coast guard station. Tourism is the main earner here in the south, and efforts have been made to not present tourists with scenes of chaos. Yet one need only go into the outskirts of certain towns here or talk to the locals to see the social stress induced by large-scale migration into an economy long plagued with unemployment. And of course, many migrants have rapidly moved up the Italian penninsula, arguably with support of local Mafias, and onwards to Europe. It is fear of this ‘Other’, to use the term fashionable in London’s cultural/academic circuit, rather than the apocryphal Polish plumber commonly cited in the Brexit debate, or the nuances of gross vs net transfers to the EU, that probably did most to influence the voters in Hull and Huddersfield.

Unfortunately, the migration problem appears insoluble, in the short-term. To a certain extent, it is the result of an enthusiastically interventionist policy, on supposed ‘humanitarian’ grounds, in N Africa (Libya). Yet a pragmatic non-intervention (Syria) hasn’t worked well either. If one is monadically pre-disposed, one can plausibly link the migration problem to water scarcity, climate change, flawed integration policies (France), excessively permissive multiculturalism (London), or of course, the original sin of France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Ironically, the relatively benign Italian colonialists of Eritrea & Libya are reaping the bitterest fruit at the moment.

In summary, we are probably seeing the clash of several inconsistent pressures, playing out on the European stage. For the UK: a long-term desire to benefit from the 500m strong common market, selling them services (financial and otherwise), while assiduously avoiding many of the associated constraints and obligations. For the Leave camp as a whole: an incoherent mishmash of free trade, buoyant house prices, unfettered finance, reasonably open borders that somehow manage to keep out said Others (but possibly let in Polish builders who, after all, do a rather good job). For many Labour voters and so-called progressives: an equally incoherent, if less well articulated (they weren’t at Eton after all), shibboleth of anti-capitalism and workers’ rights (except when said workers vote the wrong way in an otherwise correctly-constituted electoral process).

And of course, the EU continues to embody a great mass of inconsistencies that are unlikely to be resolved before it is torn into pieces. However – the EU, as envisioned by Monnet, Adenauer, Schuman, and de Gasperi, was always a work-in-progress, a bureaucratic capolavoro that would, by concrete steps, each individually boring and unimpressive, achieve a de facto union. Brussels, having neither the power of autocracy nor the fiscal clout of a modern nation, is reduced to governing via regulation. It must impose a degree of uniformity across the bloc – in the hope that years of dirigisme may, perhaps, create a political unity out of centuries-old plurality.

It is also natural that the path is littered with failures and fudges.  As another great European – whose mix of idealism and brutal pragmatism would be useful today – said: ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best.‘ (Bismarck)

In any case, the step-by-step approach didn’t reckon with the pace of events post-2008, that have often rumbled the EU into action. Moreover, the project is built on a certain foundation of sand: one need only spend time travelling through Italy to see the deep antipathy & distrust that separates North & South – a mirror of the EU’s own divisions. While many young London-based Brits might see themselves as European, and plenty of young Italians have decamped to London in search of opportunity, it’s not at all obvious that institutionally or culturally, the average Sicilian is particularly keen on the promises of enlightened rule from Brussels. Possibly rightly, he has internalised Don Fabrizio Salina’s recollections on Sicily’s 2,500-year history as a colony.

All the punditry notwithstanding, no one is sure how this will ultimately play out, and most likely we will all become bored with it within the next few days – never mind 2019, the presumptive end of the Article 50 timeline. But we can take great comfort that the UK’s negotiating team, and such Anglophiles as still remain in Brussels, will have ample guidance in back catalogues of Fawlty Towers & Yes Minister !

Pronounce to rhyme with ‘Basil’: BREXXX-IT !!!