Three years in the making, Walker Art Center’s ambitious new “9 Artists” show is a perplexing, uneven conundrum. Still, if you have the patience to give them an honest hearing, the eight featured artists have sparked the most genuinely provocative exhibit the Walker has staged in some time.
Curator Bart Ryan cheerfully declined to say why there are just eight artists, beyond such red-herring explanations as eight was too even a number, or nine alluded to unnamed collaborators. Perhaps someone dropped out, or the ninth “artist” is the viewer left to puzzle the meaning of photos, videos, sculpture, wall pieces, slogans, tchotchkes and politics of all stripes — transnational, class, ethnic, sociopolitical, familial, sexual and artland.
Sounds migraine-inducing, doesn’t it? Well, trust them on this one and give it a try. Seeing all the videos would take hours, but even snippets can be rewarding. The smart catalog (Walker, $45) voices many issues in the artists’ own words.
The artists are much-talked-about in international-biennial circles but largely unknown in the Midwest. They originate everywhere (Israel, Vietnam, Angola, Australia) and live all over the planet (Berlin, Basel, Kinshasa, Oslo, etc.). Their one shared conviction seems to be that ivory towers don’t suit them. They want to engage with the messy reality of contemporary life — to question, to provoke and ideally to change the dominant culture.
The most dramatic and memorable piece is “And Europe Will Be Stunned,” a 70-minute faux documentary video by Berlin-based Israeli artist Yael Bartana. In three parts shown simultaneously, “Europe” recounts the story of an idealistic young Pole who launches a movement to bring Jews back to his homeland, where 3.3 million were killed in the Holocaust or expelled in postwar pogroms. Inspired by his rhetoric, a Jewish group builds a kibbutz on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto as aging Poles look on in bewilderment.
After the charismatic youth is assassinated, some Israelis continue a militaristic defiance of Europe while followers vow to carry on efforts to reunite the two cultures. The movement’s Nazi-like symbols and Hitler/Kibbutz youth groups introduce unsettling ambiguity that has sparked controversy in Poland and elsewhere. Reaching beyond Polish/Israeli history, Bartana’s quasi-fictional group seeks to void national boundaries and welcome all displaced and stateless people, a utopian goal that would indeed stun Europe if realized.
“How Not to Be Seen,” by Hito Steyerl, another Berlin-based talent, offers an ironic and often comic look at the American surveillance industry which has, since the 1950s, been continually refining its tools for keeping track of people. It was filmed on a huge desert test-pattern that security agencies once used to test the resolution power of aerial surveillance cameras. On the premise that people might want to escape prying eyes-in-the-sky, Steyerl suggests ways to become invisible. Besides disappearing into a gated community, a factory or a military zone, escapees might become superheroes, women-over-50 or be liquidated. Her mix of wry humor, fast-paced visuals and brutal statistics make the video a gripping watch.
Memorial in kitsch
The strangest piece is a huge collection of kitsch collectibles — ceramic figurines, Disney trinkets, tabletop Asian deities, cookie jars, etc. Obsessively assembled by a Chinese-American artist and his mother, the collection was preserved by the artist’s friend Danh Vo after the man’s death. A bizarre double portrait of son-and-mom, the collection is also a shout-out to clean your cupboards, fast.
Vo, a Vietnamese-born Dane who lives in Switzerland, also persuaded his father to design his own tombstone — a black granite slab that will be installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden until the senior Vo dies, after which it will be relocated to a Copenhagen graveyard. Together, Vo’s installation and tombstone sculpture serve as curious meditations on filial piety, family obligations and memorial rituals.
The strange and unexpected
Other works are similarly strange and unexpected. An installation by Natascha Sadr Haghighian touches on environmental issues when she mikes the sound of an Evian bottle crackling and posts a sign saying, “I can’t work like this.” Via photos, drawings and video interviews, Bjarne Melgaard, an arguably self-destructive Australian-born Norwegian New Yorker, challenges the prevailing notion that homosexual behavior should be corralled to conform to heterosexual norms (i.e. marriage, parenting, safe-sex practices).
In slogans expressed through huge vinyl letters, Liam Gillick equates the state with a commune. In videos, the amusingly pseudonymed Nástio Mosquito, a musician/performer from Angola, sits in a decaying building and essentially rants about religion, justice, interracial sex (he’s for it) and the questionable relevance of art.
A critic of what he calls the “narcissism” of art, Dutch theorist Renzo Martens is using art to “gentrify” an impoverished community on a former Congo River plantation. In a video lecture recently delivered at the Walker, Martens explains the project, which is, of course, partly a satire of Western corporate-governmental exploitation of the “creative class” to revitalize urban neighborhoods.
For all its sprawling ideas, competing sounds and time-consuming videos, this is actually a compact show. There’s more to think about than to see, and even more to act upon if so moved. Kudos to Ryan and the Walker for gathering these provocateurs and letting them rip.