Sunday, June 8, 2003

This art is good and hot


Now that the dust has settled, the opening exhibit at the Rosenthal Center stands out as a powerful collection of work

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] "Cultural Melting Bath: Project for the 20th Century" by Cai Guo-Qiang
| ZOOM |
The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art just raised the bar.

The inaugural show at the center, Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art, is a winner. Senior curator Thom Collins has brought together an international roster of artists, working in diverse media, to offer a sampling of what's hot in contemporary art.

Many of the artists work in nontraditional media, and all of the pieces are performance-based. Through the re-creation of a cyclone, a makeshift kitchen serving curry and a whirlpool of medicinal herbs, visitors can interact with the work, making each encounter a personal one.

The media reflect what's popular: video, film, photography and installations. While some of the works are highly symbolic, others can be taken at face value.

Collins has theoretically divided the show into four themes:

• The social construction of identities

• Discourses of social order

• Changing patterns of social relations

• Social encounters organized around shared experiences of the sublime.

I'm not sure I understand the delineations, but the illustrative art works for me.

The title comes from a piece in the show by Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres that consists of two equal, knee-high stacks of oversized white paper. On one stack is printed "Somewhere Better Than This Place" and on the other "Nowhere Better Than This Place."

Viewers are encouraged to take one or the other, presumably signaling their worldview, and according to Gonzalez-Torres, break down the barrier between art and viewer.

Which is precisely what the new and improved art center is trying to do. Collins was able to mount an exhibition that shows the building to its best advantage and engages an audience that ranges from first-time museum-goer to art professional. He also has made a contribution to the field of contemporary art.

The variety of gallery sizes makes it possible within the confines of six floors to have a number of unique experiences. For example, the smaller galleries are wonderfully suited for video, and Collins has collected an interesting group.

Irani artist Shirin Neshat's "Fervor," part of a split screen trilogy on male and female roles in Islamic society, is played in a small, darkened gallery where the two screens dominate the space. It is a mesmerizing black-and-white narrative, heavy with imagery. Viewers are transported to a religious sermon where a man and chador-clad woman are warned against the evils of sex and subtly resist. It is a powerful experience.

Taking this concept one step further, with Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Zackin's "a small world," an intimate gallery is tricked out to look like a middle-class rec room circa 1970. There's shag carpet, wood paneling and an old plaid couch set before two screens.

Here Super 8 film of the artists' childhoods is played simultaneously matching up trips to Disney World, birthday parties, piano lessons and a backyard barbecue. Watching the similarity of experiences between an African-American Christian male and a white Jewish female is a heartwarming plea for racial harmony.

Raising questions

The center has said it is interested in raising challenging questions and providing a forum for free expression. It has had success in representing many of the problems Cincinnati faces.

Certainly videos by Mats Hjelm and his father, Lars, of the same Detroit streets in the '60s and '90s graphically depict the artists' feeling that we have crawled only a short way toward equality.

But in organizing the show, Collins took a global view and made diversity a top priority. So with "Where do I begin" by South African artist Moshekwa Langa we revisit racial issues, but this time in relation to apartheid. Holding his camera at knee level, Langa recorded black South Africans boarding a bus for forced resettlement. The sad parade of feet and legs is hypnotic. Although we see only the lower extremities, we are aware of a mournful dignity and resignation.

Collins says he was looking for a true representation of what is going on in contemporary art, not only across cultures but also across racial, political and religious lines. The 35 artists in the show represent 21 countries but even more sensibilities and affiliations.

A mandate of this magnitude doesn't seem possible with only 18 months of planning. But Collins, along with assistant curator Matt Distel, pulled it off - all the while mounting last year's exhibitions in the museum's former space.

After creating a wish list of artists they wanted to exhibit, Collins whittled it down and began shaping the themes.

Making a statement

Because this was the inaugural show in a much-anticipated building, it was important for the center to make a statement about the institution, its mission and audience.

This was achieved in several ways. By selecting, for example, Patty Chang, a New York-based performance artist with a cult following, for a commissioned piece, the museum was sure to draw a young, hip crowd. Chang is an oddly compelling figure whose work always has an element of the grotesque.

The center's commission is funny and horrific. On double video screens, Chang and a male counterpart gorge themselves on junk food while seated in bathrooms at the SRO Metropole Hotel next door. The video depictions (in light of Collins' divisions) appear to be about self-objectification and consumption.

Moreover, graphic design firm groovisions' "Chappie 33" also appeals to the Xers by utilizing Japan's most popular anime character.

By including the video and artifacts from "When Faith Moves Mountains" by Belgian artist Francis Alys, Collins widened his audience even more. Those interested in video and performance were joined by those entranced by its hopeful message and political overtones.

Illustrating Christ's instruction that faith can move mountains, Alys gathered 500 people in the desert outside Lima, Peru, to literally move a sand dune by shovel. This performance occurred soon after the terrorist activities of the Shining Path and other left-wing groups ended under the leadership of Alberto Fujimori but at a great cost to the Peruvian people.

Touches everyone

With interactive exhibitions such as Marie-Ange Guilleminot's "Paravent," a wooden circle where foot reflexology will be administered starting next week, Rirkrit Tiravanija's Thai kitchen where center staffers serve curry or Monica Bonvicini's "violent, tropical, cyclonic piece of art having wind speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour," anyone can participate and be touched by the show, abstraction aside.

Which gets us back to the museum's main message: Art is for everyone.

If you go

What: Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art

When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday and Thursday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday; noon-6 p.m. Saturday, through Nov. 9.

Where: Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art

Admission: $6.50; seniors (65+) $5.50; students with ID $4.50; children 3-13 $3.50; children 2 and under free. Members free. Annual memberships start at $45.

Information: (513) 345-8400 and www.contemporaryartscenter.org

E-mail mbauer@enquirer.com




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