The Restless Earth
The New Museum, New York, NY
7 May — 29 June 2014
Under the Same Sun:
Art from Latin America Today
Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
13 June — 1 October 2014
It is said that you can learn a great deal about a person by perusing the titles of their library. Writers introduce clues to their intentions through epigraphs, often chosen as much for ambiguity as (im)pertinence…literary abbreviations as synecdoche. For Alejandro Cesarco, even the seemingly impersonal notations that form indices and footnotes provide clues to a complex unspoken (or unwritten) personal narrative, while Camille Henrot collects phrases, both verbal and visual, such that they – disconnected from their source and reformulated – serve as an ongoing assemblage of aphoristic messages to the experience of belonging within thought that precedes us.
For both artists, words extracted from their original context are a kind of shorthand substitution of the act of reading for the act of writing. Reading as impulse. Inspiration. Formulation. Collection. Connection. Dissection. Intersection. Creation.
And now to begin as if to begin.
Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation (1926)
As if each climb of the hill represented setting out anew…a Sisyphean effort of entropic growth, (dis)order, and decay.
Camille Henrot’s (b. 1978, Paris, France) survey exhibition, “The Restless Earth,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the New Museum, includes videos, installation, drawings, and sculpture. The four videos, of which Grosse Fatigue (2012) is the standout – the result of a residency fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, which garnered the Silver Lion award at the 55th Venice Biennale this past year – share an anthropological attention to detail but also a self-critical reflection on the impact of classification systems on how we shape our worldview. The manner by which we order knowledge matters – whether our systems are scientific, religious, or social – whether they stack, round out, or compress – is significant.
By her own admission, Henrot is highly influenced by experimental cinema and Grosse Fatigue bears some resemblance to an earlier work by Leslie Thornton entitled Paradise Crushed (2002), a video collage with a running lower third written by the filmmaker as a composite of creation myths. In addition to sharing a narrative based on cultural mythology, the two works crest on an ecstatic wave of acoustical rhythm as a means to revitalize collective narratives. As if only by moving through the sensual realm, can the rational adequately manage its encyclopedic project; as if devoid of the senses, information renders the universe increasingly flat as well as abyssal, destructive of the life systems it purports to sustain.
Oliver Wendell Holmes sardonically suggested in 1859 that once image records were made the originals could be thrown away, for the public was perfectly happy with images rather than the real thing. Both photography’s analog and the computer’s digital medium compresses human form, rendering it beyond the limits of touch and smell, creating an image of bodies that we can scrutinize in time and detail as we might never dare face-to-face with the actual physical equivalent – except perhaps that of our lover. But it isn’t only representation that flattens form but the procedure of conservation within the act of classification as we see indicated in drawer after drawer of life forms in Henrot’s video: tagged, folded, and pressed like so many laundered shirts in the vast archives of the Institute. Henrot plaintively pits the death knoll of preservation of the specimen against a once vigorous life force of preservation of the species.
If Grosse Fatigue, through its profusion of visual and auditory associations, links us to our means of knowledge production, the artist’s newest installation, Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers? (2012–2014), brings us closer to the obsessive preoccupations of the artist as individual. The New Museum exhibition opens onto a riotous panoply of ikebana flower arrangements, each selection of flora structured as a visual analog to a quotation prized from the artist’s own library in much the same way flowers represented emotional sentiments in Elizabethan poems or Victorian etiquette fused symbolic meaning into the presentation of flowers as gifts.
Such an orgiastic profusion of fauvist color, arranged with the precision of a highly idiosyncratic florist, serves as brazen homage to the literary works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, D.H. Lawrence, Ovid, Melville, Stein, Woolf, and Foucault (to name a scant few). Yet these specimens of nature have been so completely bent, twisted, and fashioned into intricate sculptural assemblages as to remind us that our visual symbols are as arbitrarily analogous to existence as letters are to the words and thoughts they represent. Where are the roots I wonder: the rhizomatic connections that make life possible? For Henrot, the possession of nature precipitates, as Foucault acknowledges, a corresponding pressure of finitude and death.
Each time I must relearn you.
There is something in it of an unresolved temporality.
Or perhaps attributable to the faults in my memory.
Nathanaël, Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal (2012)
Alejandro Cesarco (b. 1975, Montevideo, Uruguay) too once worked with flowers. In 2003, he ordered and sent a bouquet to each of ten different artists, all of them women. As an act of admiration, a gesture of gratitude, or a gift of kindness, Flowers performed what the artist terms as “micro-relational politics.” His audience included Vija Celmins, Elizabeth Peyton, Roni Horn, Yvonne Rainer, Lynne Tillman, Louise Lawler, Yoko Ono, Rachel Harrison, Andrea Fraser, and Sherrie Levine…not as a group but individually. The artwork consists of the receipts. Or does it? Like Henrot’s quotations, the receipts are synecdoche to a wider array of relations including selection, arrangement, transaction, exchange, receipt, reaction, response, and remembrance. It suggests an unresolved potential, opening the question of reciprocal relations: when we offer a gift, how will it be received? Will it even be acknowledged? What is the manner of response?
A gift of flowers plays part in an interpersonal exchange, intimate yet reserved. It is a manner of speaking without explicit language or intent. Equally discrete as his gift giving, Cesarco writes as he reads, guarding sentiment, exchanging thought. In a small pamphlet produced to accompany his video Present Memory (2010), commissioned by the Tate Modern, he writes a text of saudade (a rather untranslatable Portuguese term for melancholy and longing) via excerpts of texts by Roland Barthes, Susan Stewart, Nietzsche, Proust, and others. Where the video is silent, the pamphlet sings in the slow rhythm of solitude, evocative of a narrative without revealing description or intricate plot.
Similarly, his indices – an ongoing series since 2000 – describe the content of books that, according to the artist, he hasn’t “yet written and most probably never will.” Index (2000) is included in “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today” currently on view at the Guggenheim. It is one of 40 new acquisitions curated by Pablo Léon de la Barra, for the second in a series of three regional exhibitions (South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and North Africa and the Middle East) that constitute an initiative to broaden the global range of the museum’s contemporary art collection. But while there is an effort by the museum to show these collected works as a response to the “complex, shared realities that have been influenced by colonial and modern histories, repressive governments, economic crises, and social inequality, as well as by concurrent periods of regional economic wealth, development, and progress,” Cesarco’s piece in particular resists such a totalizing perspective.
Index is at once personal and cliché. Made when he was just barely out of art school, it speaks less for the experience of growing up in Latin America as it does for the artist as a young man, for the sophisticated education he pursued, and the interests that lead the artist from his home in Montevideo to New York City. We discern a fascination with European neorealist film, Marxism, and psychoanalytic theory. We sense a precocious recognition of women as both makers and bearers of meaning. We glean a hint of eroticism, longing, and solitude. And in the midst of multiple references to the theoretical trends of the 90s (voyeurism, the gaze, the uncanny, perception, and desire) we find a persistent preoccupation with memory. Index, while autobiographical, is hardly confessional. Cesarco recognizes that some stories are best told between the lines and that silence itself is a form of speech.
This is the pause that slows the presumption of classification – that excessive compulsion to speak of or for the world – and, instead, opens a passageway for another to enter.