What the hell am I looking at?
This was the question I continually asked myself as I wandered aimlessly through the Carnegie Museum of Art’s 2018 Carnegie International. What is this pile of industrial materials in the Hall of Sculpture? What is this coffee stand? What are these random photographs?
Why was I so tragically lost? Did I finally slip a gear? Burn out that last remaining brain cell? Forget my graduate degree? Repress the traumatic details of working in the art world for a decade?
I wish this meandering confusion was easily explained as a simple brain fart. Instead, it came courtesy of an infuriating conceptual approach (read: rationalized laziness) to curating by the global contemporary art exhibition’s curator Ingrid Schaffner. With 32 artists and art collectives spanning the Pittsburgh museum, the Carnegie International mirrored the proliferation of biennials and triennials that, rather than engage and educate the general public, exist to bolster the collections of the wealthy and speak to a closed circuit of those in proximity to money, power and privilege. Ironically, the International achieved the goal of these global art exhibitions to portray the current contemporary art world by simply echoing its increasing economic and social stratification.
I should preface before embarking on this rant that many of the enraging issues with the exhibition didn’t relate to the included work itself, though Schaffner didn’t seem to take any big risks with her selections. Despite the claims that she traveled to 23 countries on 5 continents in her curatorial note, the artist list reads like a litany of artists that had–or were included in–major exhibitions in the past five years, such as Kerry James Marshall, Zoe Leonard, Mel Bochner, Postcommodity, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Alex Da Corte, El Anatsui, etc. However, this isn’t to say that the work wasn’t worthwhile. Perhaps the best part of the exhibition was an off-shoot of the International curated by Koyo Kouoh entitled Dig Where You Stand that culled artwork from the Museum’s collection to confront narratives of colonialism within the institution. Some of the art in the International itself was also downright stunning, from Alex Da Corte’s campy candy-colored holiday neon Mr. Rogers’s house with 57 existentially terrifying videos inside its glass structure to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s elegant portraits of fictionalized Black men and women.
However, I was able to enjoy these works, in particular, because I already had prior knowledge of the artists and their creative output before venturing into the museum. If I came in knowing nothing, I can’t say what I would gain, which hits on the main problem in the wide-ranging exhibition. The International eschewed traditional explanatory wall labels that might provide viewers with an entry point into the work. Instead, Schaffner and her curatorial team emblazoned the most bare bones information (not even the works’ medium) on the wall, as well as a random page number. After some detective work, I realized the number corresponded to a page in the exhibition’s catalogue The Guide, a small chapbook filled with teeny-tiny type featuring extensive extraneous details and interviews with the artists about their works. Is Ingrid getting a cut of the merch or something?
Rather than quickly browsing a wall label, with the opportunity to glance at The Guide if they wanted to know more, viewers apparently had to either fork over the $15 for The Guide or locate a museum copy squirreled away in the galleries (I only spotted one on a bench in the middle of an installation). But this is if you even understood what to do. While in the exhibition, I never saw anyone with The Guide. The visitors I witnessed were milling around in an equally baffled haze. The Museum did create a “how to” video, placed strangely near the bathrooms and the machines in which guests pay for parking (after which you’ve got 15 minutes to sprint to your car and leave, foreclosing the possibility of returning to the exhibition if you finally know where to find more information). Featuring the sculpturally coiffed Schaffner, as well as Associate Curator Liz Park and Curatorial Assistant Ashley McNelis, who seemed as if they were in a hostage video, this “User’s Guide” attempts to detail how to correctly go through the show. Now, if you have to make a video telling viewers how to see an exhibition, you need to rethink your curatorial choices.
If viewers did ask a for a map, the front desk provided The Plan, which located the various artworks around the museum with some seriously bizarre descriptions such as “pillars of pictures of archives,” “furniture consumed by sculpture” and “cast of fictitious characters assembled on canvas.” Who wrote this? Flipping the plan over, you were awarded with a random photograph of a palm tree. I don’t know either.
According to The Art Newspaper, Schaffner explains her anti-label choices by quipping, “Some labels aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.” While this is undeniably true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t toss some simple sentences on the wall to give viewers a bit of insight. And I’m not strictly pro-label. If an exhibition’s theme is strong enough, then labels are not always needed. Yet, in a random collection of contemporary art, the museum has a responsibility to educate the public, which is precisely where Schaffner and the International failed.
Not only is leaving viewers in the dark unfair to the paying public, it is also unfair to the artists themselves whose work isn’t put in its proper context. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is that many of the pieces connect to Pittsburgh’s history, such as the number of Alex Da Corte’s videos, which gestures to Heinz 57. There’s nothing Pittsburghers love more than local references and as a Pittsburgh native, a fact the Carnegie doesn’t let us forget, Schaffner should know this. I know my father, a steel engineer, would have liked to have known the rusted detritus arranged after a Navajo sand painting in Postcommodity‘s installation comes from the Carrie Blast Furnaces while we were in the museum rather than looking it up online later.
At my most cynical, I’d assume that Schaffner and the Carnegie Museum of Art apparently didn’t care enough about engaging regular people. Who cares about the slobs walking through the door? Figure it out yourselves, plebs! The only way to truly understand the work seems to be by getting a personalized walkthrough from the curatorial team, as many of the art press flown in by PR agencies did if the interchangeable reviews in many art publications are any indication. This shows a failure of not only curation, but art criticism in 2018. If art critics can’t put themselves in the position or show concern about the experience of the general public when going to a museum show, then what are we doing?
The most criticism lobbed at the 2018 Carnegie International from other reviewers seems to rest on it is lack of a firm political statement, but I would argue that its curation is, in fact, very political. But, it’s not political in a flattering way for the institution or the art world at large. By looking at the work with a dearth of context, I felt distinctly as if I was at an art fair, only assuming that someone somewhere saw the art as significant or more importantly, profitable. While I’ve previously ranted about the lack of context devaluing the experience of art in art fairs, I expect much more from an institution.
All this goes to raise the question: With the ever expanding amount of biennials, triennials and other global exhibitions, which has appeared to reach every mid-sized city right now, who are these shows for anyway? The central conceit is that local art goers will be able to see art from around the world without visiting major cities like New York or London, while host cities can attract outside tourists to bolster the local economy. But, if viewers from an exhibition’s host city can’t appreciate or access the material, then is it just a show to supplement the CV’s of already collected artists?
For her part, Schaffner keeps mentioning “museum joy” in reference to her curatorial intent in interviews. In an interview with Hyperallergic, she defines this as, “The pleasure of being with art and other people in a museum where we’re all together to do the creative work of interpretation. And may that museum joy inspire us all to want to travel more into the world of contemporary art, into exhibitions and exhibition-making — and also to see the experience of our museums as places creating contemporary culture.” This is laughable and shows how divorced high-profile curators can be from the public at large. The alienating 2018 Carnegie International actually likely does the opposite from inspiring people to travel to exhibitions and exhibition making. It seems to me that it is more likely convince people that yes, indeed, the only part of the Carnegie Museum worth visiting is the National History section. There’s a reason the Art wing is always empty.
Much of the cliché knee-jerk reactions from the general public about contemporary art–that it’s cold, bizarre, weird, or could be made by a child–comes from a lack of entry into the work. It’s not that the public is ignorant; it’s that they feel separated from, sneered at and condescended to. The reality is that many people feel intimidated and marginalized in institutional spaces for a range of reasons–both economic and social. Some museums are taking pains to attract audiences that are more reflective of their city’s population. For example, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, recently increased its nonwhite visitorship to 45%, which is closer to Atlanta’s 59% nonwhite population.
As inequality is growing, we currently live in an American society that is separated by the haves and have-nots–the elites and everybody else, as evidenced by the rich grifters that made it into the White House. According to Emmanuel Saez from UC Berkeley, in 2015, Americans in the top 1 percent averaged over 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent, and those in the top 0.1 percent make over 198 times the income of the bottom 90 percent. With Trump’s tax breaks, these number have to be even more stark now.
And this economic stratification makes Schaffner’s bizarre adherence to The Guide even worse. The implication is that in order to not feel at a loss, viewers should purchase a catalogue at $15 in addition to the already high $19.50 admission fee for adults, which immediately separates out low-income populations. At a time when many in the art world seem okay with cozying up to that top 1% no matter how unethical, is this what we want from our smaller institutions? “Contemporary art hates you” is a fine dogma when spouted satirically from our filth elder John Waters, but if your goal for an exhibition is to inspire “museum joy,” then do the fuck better. Or if you’re not and you’re only going to play to those already in a position of affluence or influence, at least be honest about it.