In the early 2000s, professional art audiences would work themselves into a froth of excitement about what they might find at that year’s biennials. They would earnestly debate whether or not the very fabric of exhibition time and space had been ripped open in Istanbul or if new models of audience had been synthesized at Manifesta. Signal works by new artists might be discovered in Sydney. Older artists might find their work ‘reassessed’ at Venice. (Whenever I hear curators use that word, I imagine the artist in their studio receiving word of the evaluation, a little like Josef K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial; ‘Hey guys, my case has come up! I’m going to be reassessed. Fingers crossed!’) Revealing arguments would be made about the cultural contexts in which these shows were staged; about cultural tourism versus commitment to the local community. But then, at a certain point towards the end of that decade, the bubbles started to go flat. Big Statements About The Human Condition and giddily optimistic notions that biennials were going to bring about world peace started to look a little silly as financial recession and real revolutions took place; changes that would reveal the professional art industry’s embarrassing immunity to the credit crunch, and its being sidelined from ‘springs’ and occupations. Perhaps the fizz went out due to the multiplication of art fairs. Or maybe it was the fault of Contemporary Art Daily’s flatline feed. It might have been one too many instances of instrumentalization by city governments that did it. Size was a factor: large-scale biennials seldom seemed to have been made for human beings to visit. They increasingly looked like shows conceived with one eye on the history books and the curatorial seminar room, and the other on prestige job vacancies at major museums. Long lists of artists, sometimes numbering into the hundreds, and corollary events unfolding over the course of months turned exhibitions into an ideal form that you would invariably miss some crucial part of because you had such trifling things as a life to lead, a job to maintain, and friends and family to care for.
The older stops on the circuit – the Venice Biennale, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie International, the Whitney Annual (and later Biennial) in New York, the Bienal de São Paulo and Documenta in Kassel – have largely weathered the passing trends in exhibition giganticism and political grandiosity. Most of them are old enough to have survived economic crashes and global conflicts, to have outlived many artists and curators who put editions of them together. Once there was a time when, if you lived in London and wanted to know what was going on in US art, you would have to have flown to New York to see the Whitney. Now there’s not quite the need if you live in a city on the art industry circuit; sooner or later, work by those artists will float into your town on the art fair breeze, or in some outpost of a blue-chip gallery. (And if not, you can search out images of their work online.) If the need to be representative of the zeitgeist has now faded, then it should follow that these older fixtures in the calendar can be freed up to play around with other approaches.
Which brings me to the 2013 Carnegie International, at the core of which was the idea of play. In the control room for this edition of the 117-year-old show were Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers and Tina Kukielski, who brought to Pittsburgh’s rich and diverse Carnegie Museum a blessedly manageable list of 35 artists and collectives, half of whom were women, representing 19 different countries. They included under their umbrella a mini-show, entitled ‘The Playground Project’, organized by Gabriela Burkhalter, which looked at the history of playground design and included work by Isamu Noguchi and Niki de Saint Phalle. The trio also re-arranged the museum’s modern and contemporary collection. This Carnegie was of finite size and its outer limits easy to reach, all of which made for a satisfying visit. There was little by way of new discoveries to be made – by and large, the artists were familiar names – but there was a diversity of accents, approaches, voices that felt concise and thoughtful. Nor was the show bossy; there were a number of different entrances and routes through and the curators privileged drift over determinism. Where some curators might be tempted to make a song-and-dance in the wall signage about their skilfully organized nebulosity, the trio just let visitors get on with looking.
Outside, on the museum’s lawn, was the Lozziemouth, a serpentine set of tubes for kids to clamber over and inside, designed in 1972 by Swiss artist Ivan Pestalozzi. Forming part of ‘The Playground Project’, this more literal invocation of play was for kids only. For adult visitors, the idea of was altogether more cerebral. There were ‘playful’ interventions in the museum collection, such as Gabriel Sierra’s simple idea to paint the walls of the architectural cast gallery a rich, vibrant purple, to eye-popping effect. Or there were treasure hunts; going in search of Mark Leckey’s film Made in ’Eaven (2004), depicting a silver Jeff Koons bunny in the artist’s small London flat-cum-studio, in the rare minerals and jewellery wing of the Carnegie. The curators had fun with juxtaposition: Phyllida Barlow’s large sculpture Tip (2013) – an almost entropic tangle of wooden beams and fabric – teased Richard Serra’s ploddingly heavy Carnegie (1985), from the museum collection, next to it.
However, for this visitor, Baumann, Byers and Kukielski’s interest in play felt like wishful thinking. It came off as academic, an exercise in well-intentioned theorizing. Certainly, there was humour in the show – in Sarah Lucas’s saucy, anthropomorphic sculptures, for instance, or the stunning set of paintings and sculptures by Nicole Eisenman that derange and defile the human figure – but humour is not always synonymous with play. And there was little to laugh at in Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases (2006–13), grids of photographs depicting lesbian women in South Africa, many of whom have been the victims of violent homophobia. Ding Q Le’s collection of watercolours made by Communist soldiers during the Vietnam War were fascinating yet hardly playful. Zoe Strauss’s project, for which she set up a portrait studio in the nearby working-class town of Homestead to take photographs of local people, which would be given to the sitters as well as exhibited in the museum, was moving as much as anything else. So, too, was Pedro Reyes’s ensemble of automated musical instruments, fashioned from weapons seized by the police from Mexican drug cartels; how often does the average contemporary art maven find themselves up close to automatic pistols, ammunition belts and other tools of death?
If this exhibition spoke clearly to me about anything, it was about how important, right now, the depiction of the figure is. The importance, for instance, of making visible those occluded by issues of economics (such as in Strauss’s photographs), race (the exhibition included a strong suite of paintings by Henry Taylor), gender and sexuality (Muholi’s Faces and Phases, or Lucas’s sculptures). The importance of speaking about the relationship between the body and technology; Leckey’s recent film Pearl Vision (2013), which tries to articulate an almost sexual level of desire in relationship to the perfected metal forms of a snare drum. The ways in which figurative painting can still find imaginative forms of conversation with art history, such as in Eisenman’s work. Seen in contrast to abstract works in the show by, for instance, Sadie Benning, Wade Guyton and Vincent Fecteau, an artist whose work I’ve long admired – all, granted, coming at formalism from very different positions – the figurative works felt far more urgent. Perhaps this is in part because today we find abstraction in high finance and commerce, and formalism in empty political rhetoric, all of which makes invisible the damage done to people, to bodies in space. This jaded critic may not have found the 2013 Carnegie to be particularly playful, but I did find it modest and thoughtful. I wish there were more like it.