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Keep Still and Carry On

Image: Kameelah Rashad, A familiar repetition, 2016, inkjet print.

Kameelah Rashad, A familiar repetition, 2016, inkjet print.


By Nancy Nesvet

New York, NY – Three weeks after President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, five weeks after Miami’s declaration as a Zika-free zone, five months after Brexit and nine weeks after the close of Art Basel Miami, artists and other Americans and Europeans are emerging from a catatonic state of denial, protesting and marching and executing art projects that address the US and worldwide political situations.

Art Basel Miami showed films by Alfredo Jaar and stills including William Pope L’s “Gold People Dance Contest, 1931, recalling the year of Hitler’s rise to power, and Sanford Biggers video showed shotgun holes in African figural sculptures, (sponsored by Marianne Boesky Gallery) calling attention to current politics.

But whereas various Art Basel Miami projects were relevant to current politics, they often addressed events literally, whether in signs proclaiming “The City of Love and Fear,” “Circle Bird,” 1998, Ken Noland, or “LOVE IS THE ANSWER, USA,” DFace, a mural in Wynwood created for Art Basel Miami this year, other work in other cities spoke to current events in work created recently or earlier, relevant to current US and worldwide elections and situations. Rather than proclaiming, this work attempted solutions or at least, possible approaches to find ways to carry on.

The supercharged, superfast supercrowded and super-loud environment at art fairs including Art Basel Miami often makes it difficult to engage with a work slowly and quietly. This is the reason the exhibition “Enacting Stillness,” introducing art to be contemplated and seen quietly and at one’s own pace is so timely and important in the realm of art today.

“Enacting Stillness,” an exhibition of social-justice engaged work, sponsored by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, at the 8th floor gallery in New York featured several artists’ performance, both live and in video exhibition, sculpture, collage, printed and painted work to address reaction to current and ongoing world politics.

Stillness can function as a space for contemplation itself or thinking about what action might be taken to bring awareness to problems in the world, and ultimately, to influence the viewer to bring about change. Stillness allows time to contemplate the best route to take, the best way to bring awareness and influence.

Agreeing with Curator Sara Reitman, writing in the catalogue “an individual who is quiet is not necessarily idle”. Watching videos of stillness in acts of political resistance from India to Occupy around the world, I found myself quiet and still watching Bruce Nauman’s “Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square,” 1967-68 (choreographed by Meredith Monk), on video where Nauman dances, limited within the confines of a square drawn on the floor, to the point of fatigue.

Close by, in the exhibit, is Kirsten Justesen’s “My Skulptur II” (1968), incorporating a black and white photograph of Justesen in a fetal position, confined within a box on the gallery floor. Frustrated with the position of woman as object, often on a model’s step, Justesen gives up to curl in the fetal position, confined within the limits of the box she might recently have been modeling on, literally boxed in.

In “A Familiar Repetition,” (2016) inkjet print, Kameelah Rashad excerpts texts by Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. ‘commenting on the long wait for changes to racial, economic and political inequality. The distorted letters and format frustrate the viewer trying to read them, similar to the frustration of waiting for that change.

“Transmigration of the SOLD,” Yoko Inoue (2006-2016), features an Asian woman, in a booth on Canal Street, in Chinatown, New York, festooned with knitted American flags, commissioned by her from knitters in Isla Amantani, Peru, one of which she sits unraveling. Rarely is a one-worded message so beautifully and minimally expressed. Clearly asking, is America unraveling, we empathize and understand. Sara Reisman, in the catalogue, notes this “reversal as a form of resistance.”

Bringing the objectification of women into the mix, Kimsooja also created “A Homeless Woman,” (Cairo), 2001, a video of a performance piece, where she posed as a homeless woman, disempowered, in various places around the world, prone on the ground, lying on an elevated rock, lying motionless to be silently contemplated by the noisy urban crowds passing by her. Should we disturb her? Can we? What is our responsibility to this peaceful, sleeping, homeless woman? And do we acknowledge her as a living being, or only an object to be stepped around?

That responsibility is also questioned by the video, “Sympathy for the Devil,” Claudia Joskowitz, (2011) where an apartment building in LaPaz, Bolivia houses a Polish Jewish refugee and Klaus Barbie, the Nazi known as the Butcher of Lyon, who as neighbors and refugees, share more commonality than many of their fellow Bolivians. Living side by side, having both escaped, affords them a forced neighborly relation despite hating each other because of what they are. In current times, many citizens of the world and our nation are forced to coexist and interact though they differ greatly and often despise each other. If both are to live, they must live side by side.

This questioning of identity and reason to coexist despite unbelievable difference also exists in William Pope L’s instructions to “Be African American. Be Very African American.” which asked people to perform “blackness”. One resulting interpretation, mounted on the gallery wall traces the path through a building of one seemingly escaping, followed by a linear tracking device.

Although Brian Friel famously said in his play, “Dancing at Lugnasa,” “If you can do nothing else, dance”, Brendan Fernandes in his “The Working Move” (2012), photographs dancers interacting with plinths. Whereas Sara Reitman writes that this “calls into question how physical labor is valued in the production of art,” I saw the plinths as obstructions to the continuance of the dance, much as Dara Birnbaum, years ago in her “Wonderwoman” video, arrested the movement of the woman by the barriers of trees.

More artists are exhibited here to convincingly address the need for co-existence, contemplation and stillness in a society and world moving too fast. Although the artists could not have contemplated them at the time they created this work, recent events concerning immigrants’ status in our nation, admittance of refugees, and the knitting of pink hats for the women’s march relates to and magnifies the significance of the images of immigrants, people of racial and ethnic minorities and the woman unraveling the flag-design knitted piece in this exhibition.

Blocks away, at Galerie Lelong, in New York City, “Burning all illusion, (2016) work by Samuel Levi Jones at a just closed show, reviewed separately by Artscope, literally deconstructs encyclopedias, law books and reference books on African-American history. In the interest of environmentalism, Sam Jones rescued these volumes from library trash meant for the dumpster. In exhibiting only the front covers without any words (except in one instance), he shows empty shells without the now irrelevant law and history. Only the pattern remains, having the book judged its cover, which says nothing.

Such is history and law now, with fake news prevailing. We judge people and their history by the patterns they make, not as individuals. Perhaps we need to go forward from slogans, and quick looks at video screens to contemplate and dissect the messages put forth by individual artists, and members of the society they are part of. These exhibits, in their questioning and confrontation make a good start.