You inevitably bring baggage to the Carnegie International. Like the (US-focused) Whitney Biennial, it’s a survey exhibition that asks to be anticipated as a statement about current developments in art in general. Press releases, interviews and speculation add to this. Curator Douglas Fogle was reported to have scoured the four corners of the globe doing research. A few months later eyebrows were raised when the disclosure of the artists list looked like he might just as well have stayed in Manhattan. Critic Roberta Smith did the maths in the New York Times: she noted that approximately half of the 39 artists were from just three countries (the USA, UK and Germany), and that more than a third of the artists were represented by just three Chelsea galleries (Gladstone, Tanya Bonakdar, Anton Kern). And, one may add, only 12 are women. The biggest let-down for art professionals, though, was probably that an overwhelming majority of the artists on the list had already been shown widely in recent years.
But then there is the actual show. It’s worth trading in the anticipatory baggage for a little receptiveness: it is hard to ignore the fact that Fogle has pulled off a series of thoughtful stunts that make up for a good amount of the doubt provoked by the statistics and demographics of his selection. First, he has managed to fill with life the show’s title and premise, ‘Life on Mars’ – the idea of humankind being seen as if through alien eyes and vice versa, explaining itself as though to extraterrestrials. The rhetoric of the ‘human condition’ has been exhausted and is often full of false generalizations and puffy claims. But here there is work that does make you think about the basic question of what it means to be an earthling, in a way that offsets the portentous with the humorous and the humble.
Maria Lassnig’s painterly practice is as good a starting-point as one can get in this regard. For more than 50 years she has explored ways to register ‘body awareness’– the experience of her own body’s gravitational pull and presence – on canvas. Untitled (The Assistant), one of four paintings from 2008 on display, is a collision of two protagonists’ legs and arms, of clown-like hands with a bench-vice-shaped face, and of inflamed orange with hypothermic blue. This groan of slapstick failure speaks eloquently across the room (and three generations) to Matthew Monahan’s Youth Fenced In (2008), one of several works of foam-carved, broken torsos, heads and limbs pressed into columns held together with straps, like provisional architecture made from rubble and derelict ancient statues. Less obvious but equally striking is the correspondence to Phil Collins’ 35-minute film zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpksom) (Why I Don’t Speak Serbian (in Serbian), 2008). Here language itself becomes debris, physically felt. The artist asked residents who endured the Kosovo war to recount their experiences, in Serbo-Croat. The camera scans their faces slowly, showing the microphones above their heads. Those of Albanian background, having learnt the oppressors’ language, speak falteringly; and those of Serbian background, their native tongue suddenly become a stigma, speak hesitantly. A Serbian mother struggles for words to describe how her son was killed, and her heart-stopping pauses and sighs are like aural equivalents to Lassnig’s and Monahan’s twisted bodies.
A literal highlight is the late Bruce Conner’s ‘Angel’ series (1973–5), life-size photograms in which the artist’s own hands feature as wings amid the silhouette of his body shining like other-worldly plasma. Hung next to casts of antique statues on the balcony of the Carnegie’s Hall of Sculpture, the installation could easily have come off as a little lofty – but the candy-coloured glass domes and screeching video loops of Mike Kelley’s Superman headquarters installation Kandor (2007), at the centre of the hall, are the mad scientist’s antidote.
There are more thoughtfully-hung rooms of strong work: a Paul Thek-ish cluster of drawings and paintings by Friedrich Kunath is placed in proximity to actual Thek works such as the brilliant 96 Sacraments (c. 1975): lines such as ‘To pee. Praise the Lord’ scribbled into a Lufthansa notebook. Marisa Merz’ Untitled (Living Sculpture), strips of bent aluminium hung under the ceiling like an alien nest, look fresh and current – but were made in 1966. Manfred Pernice has positioned his déjà vu 12 (2008) under the staircase, deliberately allowing it to be taken for leftovers of an earlier installation – a low-key conglomerate of pressboard boxes and vitrines adding up to an eccentric meditation on the American public sphere, from Bunker Hill to soda cans to underpasses. It also indirectly alludes to the fact that the Carnegie refrains from engaging directly with its urban surroundings – unless one counts Doug Aitken’s Aesopian Migration (2008), the vast façade projection of animals such as white peacocks and bison filmed during their quiet stay at all-American motels, as a fable of such engagement. And unless one counts the aerial space above the building’s roof: Mark Bradford’s huge white letters HELP US (2008), placed there, will appear at some point in the near future on Google Earth, and while allusions to hurricane Katrina victims and messages to extraterrestrials collide awkwardly, the ‘US’ reads less as ‘we’ than as ‘U.S.’ Big claims asserted humbly, in deadpan manner … actually, the more I think about it, the more I like the show.