Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006
Single-channel video with color and sound, 20 minutes
Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.
Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons The New School for Designâ€¨
Curated by Claire Gilman & Margaret Sundell
Organized by Independent Curators International
January 29 through April 9, 2010
The act of storytelling is above all, an act of history. Through an engagement with memory, involving both recollection and improvisation, and the process of narrative translation, the figure of the storyteller has assumed an active role in crafting both personal and collective accounts of history. Over the past decade, we have seen a wave of widespread structural change––our global society has felt the onslaught of rapid urbanization, the violence of war and ongoing displacement due to these varying forces, all of which have led to the silencing and negation of subjective accounts, frustrating our sense of collective memory. In a continued exploration of the documentary mode, contemporary artists are responding to the threat of this marginalization and erasure, utilizing the narrative form to examine these transformations and highlight the varying perspectives and conditions that exist in contrast to other mediated historical accounts. The work of the fifteen artists presented in The Storyteller, an exhibition curated by Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell and organized by Independent Curators International, addresses this trend within Contemporary art, one that consists of imaginative reinterpretation and reconstruction, blending both fact and fiction in order to challenge the very way we internalize, historicize and transmit these unfolding events. As these artists’ practices affirm, storytelling is as much a form of testimony as it is agency––it allows us to position ourselves within the often-contested narratives of history.
Within the tranquil exhibition space at Parsons The New School for Design, The Storyteller offers a refreshingly thoughtful, politically-geared exhibition, spanning diverse media such as video, photography, drawing and sculptural installation, while simultaneously addressing ongoing socio-political issues and events from diverse geographic locales. Upon entering the gallery, we see Joachim Koester’s The Kant Walks (2003) consisting of seven photographs accompanied by a written text by the artist. Koester’s photo-essay documents the urban landscape of contemporary Kaliningrad through the artist’s own retracing of the paths that Immanuel Kant followed during his daily walks in the 18th century. Through these peripatetic retracings, Koester chronicles the diverse architectural topography of what was then Königsberg, capturing abandoned industrial yards, somber medieval castles and bleak housing blocks, still bearing the haunting marks of destruction caused during WWII. Koester’s meditation on the city’s lost history blends both past and present, defying a Cartesian reading of time and space––the artist intermeshes imaginative speculations of Kant’s life with his own personal attempt at ‘reading’ Kaliningrad’s history through its palimpsestic traces.
Joachim Koester, The Kant Walks (#3), 2003
Seven Chromogenic Prints, two wall texts, Photographs: 18 ½ x 23 ½ in. each, Wall text: 11 x 8 ½ in. each
Courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York and the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, Miami
Nestled within a corner space of the gallery, Lamia Joreige’s ongoing video project from 2006, Objects of War, confronts the traumatic impact of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) through documented testimonies. Within this work, a number of protagonists each relay their experiences through recollections surrounding a particular object, creating a stark tapestry of individual accounts, each reflecting, to varying degrees, the ethos of this period. These testimonies, differing from emotional and poignant, to casual and mundane, highlight the very tension between ‘memory,’ a process full of gaps and fissures, and ‘history,’ a continuum that reflects this very rupture. Through Joreige’s grainy, lo-res footage, the viewer is faced with a myriad of accounts, frustrating any single reading of an event and underlining the lacunas that exist within any narrative of history.
In his series of ink and watercolor drawings depicting commonplace scenes during the Iraqi War, Steve Mumford’s Iraq (2003-2005), is a study of everyday life in Baghdad during the height of the U.S.-led war. Through lyrical drawings configured with loose lines and washes of somber color, Mumford’s drawings bear the composition and immediacy of photographs, yet hold a certain temporality that the latter do not. Unlike photojournalism, centered upon capturing that key ‘moment,’ the act of drawing implies a sense of lingering, contemplation and intimacy with a certain place or subject. In 2005, the artist released Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq, which featured these drawings alongside his own vivid personal anecdotes providing context and detailing his experiences in Iraq. This project highlights Mumford’s subjective engagement––his mode of gestural storytelling––that forms part of an intimate exploration of a city under siege, countering the reductive imagery of war and distorted news coverage disseminated by mass media outlets.
Ryan Gander, As Time Elapsed, 2005
31 books, (The Boy Who Always Looked Up) on MDF shelf, one viewing copy of The Boy Who Always Looked Up; stack of playing cards
Approximately 18 1/8 x 5 1/8 x 7 7/8 in. overall
Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Lisson Gallery, London and Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo.
Other artists in the exhibition, such as Cao Fei and Ryan Gander confront the practice of storytelling through an engagement with fabulation. My first encounter with Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006) was through the haunting music that reverberated throughout the gallery space, an original score composed for the work by a Chinese rock band. Fei’s video work is composed of three parts, or chapters, echoing standard literary form and providing a loose narrative structure to an otherwise abstract, non-linear piece. Whose Utopia chronicles the workers at a light bulb factory in the Guangdong province of China, at first depicting scenes of calculated post-industrial efficiency, of machines whirring, conveyer belts gliding and the partially obscured faces of workers industriously laboring. Each subsequent part portrays a number of workers reenacting a myriad of imagined personas––a young man slowly motions on an electric guitar and a woman gracefully dances ballet en pointe while donning a pair of angel wings. Within the final chapters of Fei’s work, the mechanized movements of the factory are replaced by a sense of fluidity and fantasy, reinforced by the solemn, at times unearthly music that accompanies the piece. In contrast, Ryan Gander’s work examines another facet of the modernist legacy, namely the ramifications of urban development and the potential for architecture to alienate and at times, dehumanize a community. Through his use of constructed fictions and by utilizing the stylistic format of a children’s book, The Boy Who Always Looked Up examines the legacy of failed utopian ideals via Erno Goldfinger’s contentious Trellick Tower––all told through the eyes of a young boy. Alongside a viewing copy of the book, Gander’s installation, As Time Elapsed (2005), floats high above, as if physically reifying the sense of distance and enchantment present within the artist’s tale.
Accompanying the exhibition is a series of film screenings, showcasing the work of Omer Fast, Jeremy Deller & Mike Figgis, and Liisa Roberts, which similarly confront issues of historical reconstruction and the rise of documentary ‘fiction.’ Within an exhibition that spans a diversity of viewpoints, geopolitical contexts and mediums, the show rightfully demands the viewer’s attention––I returned several times to linger with the video-based work, read through Gander and Mumford’s books and revisit Koester’s text. Much of the work successfully opened up an array of attendant issues and broader questions, and the multiplicity of perspectives directed me on my own search for a sense of grounding and personal understanding of the maelstrom of global events that envelop us on a daily basis. In The Storyteller, curators Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell have highlighted a key phenomenon within contemporary artistic practices, one that exposes the lapses in the way we remember and the fictions that we often create, alluding to our own implication in the way we both perceive and construct history.
The Storyteller is a traveling exhibition organized and circulated by iCI (Independent Curators International), New York. Guest curators for the exhibition are Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell. The exhibition, tour, and catalogue are made possible, in part, by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; iCI Benefactors Agnes Gund, Gerrit and Sydie Lansing, and Barbara and John Robinson; the iCI Partners and iCI Advocates.