Thursday, October 03, 2002

CAC's opening 'experience' unfolds

Building's first exhibition will be one of wonderment and on-the-edge displays

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The construction of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, designed by Zaha Hadid, continues at the corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, downtown. It will be an exciting addition to the cityscape when it opens in May. But what has been constructed behind the scenes — the plan for the opening exhibition — is every bit as dramatic.

        “The building was the inspiration for the show,” says Thom Collins, the center's senior curator. “I wanted the opening show to amplify its unique experience. There will be things to look at, but the show is more about experiencing and doing things with people you know and don't know.”

[photo] The Center for Contemporary Art will have a dramatic opening.
| ZOOM |
        Visitors will experience a sensuous soak in a hot tub, a walk through a rainbow, a little foot massage and a swap meet.

        Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art is about participation. An international roster of 45 artists — 68 percent representing women and minorities — will present takes on place and identity.

        “It's an all-star lineup, the cutting edge of contemporary art you would see at international festivals,” says Carey Lovelace, vice president of the International Association of Art Critics.

        “It's not the usual suspects.”

        One of the suspects, the late Cuban conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is the inspiration for the exhibition's name. An avant-garde visionary dedicated to engaging the viewer in the experience of his art, he has worked in billboards, static installations and through a male dancer dressed only in a silver thong.

        The title piece we'll see at the opening asks the viewer to pick one sheet from two stacks of paper, 26 inches high. One stack is imprinted: “Somewhere Better Than This Place.” The other: “Nowhere Better Than This Place.” The artist asks the viewer to decide whether he is an optimist or pessimist, a believer in the after-life or a man simply existing in the now. It sets up a dilemma and creates tension. It is dynamic and at the heart of the CAC show: to provide a lab where one might experience new ideas and feelings.

        Mr. Collins has divided the show into four sections he sees as the key themes in art of the last decade.

Social order

        Mark Lombardi draws on major political and financial scandals to create large-scale diagrams that illustrate the intricate web of connections that lurk below the surface. His oddball annotations have included the subplots of the Whitewater savings and loan scandal, where Mr. Lombardi was able to connect Vincent Foster's suicide with General Sukarno of Indonesia, and the chart featured in the center's opening: “Inner Sanctum: The Pope and His Bankers”(1966), where Mr. Lombardi connects the Vatican with Lech Walesa.

        “They are not fantasy; they come out of Lombardi's incredible research,” says Mr. Collins. “They demonstrate the secret ordering of our social life. Mark was constantly trolling for information, constantly filing it away.”

        The pieces in Social Order reveal how are lives are ruled by external forces such as law or religion and how powerful these forces are. “To change the world you have to understand how it operates,” says Mr. Collins.

        Colectivo Cambalache will create a conceptual swap meet where visitors are invited to bring items, ideas or skills to barter. Puerto Rican artist and former social worker Pepon Osorio will show “Badge of Honor,” a mixed media installation re-creating the jail cell of a real-life father, juxtaposed with the pop-culture bedroom of his teenage son. Images of the two men are projected onto the walls of their respective rooms. Interviews Mr. Osorio conducted with the estranged family give audiences access to a highly emotional dialogue unfolding behind a common wall.

Changing social relations

        Interaction with others in unexpected ways is key to this segment of the show. The work includes a steel, teak and fabric structure by Marie-Ange Guilleminot where visitors may receive foot reflexology.

        Mexico City-based Santiago Sierra will build a large wooden cube with Down syndrome adults who are part of the Greater Cincinnati workforce. Swedish videographer Mats Hjelm will present “White Flight,” a trilogy on power, masculinity and violence where the documentary films of his father taken in 1960s Detroit run next to the artist's footage from the same location 30 years later.

Social identities

        No artist better exemplifies the theme of this section than New York photographer Nikki S. Lee. Ms. Lee investigates a sub-culture, then injects herself into the milieu, adopting dress codes, hairstyles, attitude and behaviors.

        Selections from her Project series in which she has become a skateboarder, a senior citizen, a lesbian, a yuppie, a drag queen and a schoolgirl, among others, will be on display.

        Avant-garde performance artist Patty Chang will create a piece especially for the opening, enhanced by large-scale photographs of earlier performances. We'll see images of her drinking water from a mirror on the floor of a public restroom, carving and eating half a melon that has been inserted into a bra she is wearing and shaving her pubic area while blindfolded.

        In the final segment of the show, artists will re-create a cyclone and rainbow in the gallery, plus set up a hot tub filled with medicinal herbs for museumgoers to soak in. Birds will fly through the space, and a group of local teens will be recruited to hang out in a club space created within the museum.

        At first glance it appears there will be plenty to do and plenty of wonderment in this event. It is a show any museum would be proud to have, and it will bring divergent talent to Cincinnati.

        “The idea of doing an exhibition that investigates the complex notions of social space . . . is long overdue,” says Olga Viso, curator of contemporary art for the Smithsonian's Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

        “I commend Thom Collins for giving form to what I consider an important concern of artists working today. Somewhere Better Than This Place promises to be both a timely and up-to-the minute exhibition that encompasses a broad range of international production at the forefront of contemporary art.”


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