This is the 53rd in a series of surveys of international contemporary art that began in 1896 to showcase 'the old masters of tomorrow'. Held every four years, it is the largest such exhibition in America. All but a handful of the 40 artists, organised by the museum's Curator of Contemporary Art, Madeleine Grynsztejn, were familiar names, the promise of few surprises was met by an exhibition that provided very little in the way of new frameworks or contexts.
Of course, there were strong works. Jeff Wall's big lightbox, Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona (1999), a picture of a maintenance person at work in an institutional space, is a wonderfully layered reflection on the hidden, domestic supports of high Modernism. Janet Cardiff's In Real Time (1999) was a walk through the Carnegie Library, guided by a hand-held video camera and headphones seductively intoning a discontinuous, melancholy narrative of unreliable memory. The disjunction between the video and what one saw and heard in the same space was compelling in a way that interactive works rarely manage. Another participatory work, Ernesto Neto's Nude Plasmic (1999), is a stretchy, biomorphic room made from something like pantyhose fabric, that the visitor can walk around in without shoes. With its sand-filled lumps and puckered nylon orifices, it has a slightly perverse 70s sci-fi feel. Roman Signer's videos suggest a comical version of the artist as mad scientist: Bett (1997), for example, in which someone lies bundled up in a bed while a radio-controlled model helicopter buzzes about like a giant mosquito.
Other artists seemed to have missed opportunities. Diana Thater's Delphine (1999), with its coloured gels on high glass walls, along with videos of dolphins and divers, transformed the cafe into a pleasantly aqueous environment. The walk from the cafe through the adjoining natural history museum was great, but the repetition of the underwater imagery in the Hall of Botany seemed a bit beside the point. Kara Walker's The Emancipation Approximation (1999) was beautifully installed around an ornate interior balcony, but the silhouette imagery has become very familiar. Similarly, Jane and Louise Wilson's large-scale video installation Gamma (1999) tracks through a decommissioned American military base at Greenham Common, but seems too generic an evocation of nuclear anxiety and military secrecy given the proximity of Carnegie Mellon University, a centre of military research.
Merely dotting the exhibition's globalist 'i's and crossing its fashionable 't's did not amount to providing any new way of thinking about some sorely overburdened work. Shirin Neshat was inevitably included, but interest in the staid identity politics of her film Soliloquy (1999) still seems to be supported by a neo-Orientalist aesthetic; similarly, putting trendy society artiste John Currin's vacuous tit paintings opposite Neto's work did little for them.
Among the lesser-known works, Bodys Isek Kingelez' Ville Fantome (1996) was highly reminiscent of Chris Burden's imagined Los Angeles, Pizza City, which he created around the same time. Ville Fantome is a large, table-top model of an ideal Kinshasa, shiny and fancifully post-Modern, constructed of bits and pieces of found urban detritus. A very different kind of model-making drives Gregor Schneider's Haus ur (1985, ongoing). Since his teens Schneider has been meticulously replicating his own house, fractionally scaled down, inside itself. For the exhibition, three rooms were reconstructed. Banal yet obsessional, it has a gritty quality otherwise absent from the show, and suggested the value of an experimental practice at odds with the glamorous business being conducted around it. Nahum Tevet's A Page from a Catalogue (1998) is a room-sized, delicately formal arrangement of geometrically shaped pieces of domestic-industrial materials that both reference furniture and question Minimalism. Tevet's work was situated opposite Jeff Wall's, allowing for something of a conversation about Modernism in one of the very few instances in which different works were allowed to interact in productive ways.
The exhibition was terrifically well-behaved: works were well installed, and looked just as nice as they could. That they were not, by and large, positioned so that they could speak to one another reflected the absence of curatorial vision. This leads to the question of the viability of these kinds of surveys. Are they simply a matter of collecting together a bunch of works that someone thinks are current, without attempting to thematise what is going on? If so, this exhibition is fine. Then there is the question of who such exhibitions are mounted for. I watched two or three generations of a family, including laughing children, walk backward and forward through Felix Gonzalez-Torres' plastic bead curtain Untitled (Water) (1995). They were having a great time. This is partly an index of Gonzalez-Torres' generosity, but it should also indicate - despite all the spouting about globalism - that what is familiar to art world denizens is still not necessarily familiar in Pittsburgh. Still, the idea that this show was geared toward a regional audience seems far-fetched, as it was evidently driven by an art-world insider sensibility (accompanied in the catalogue by the apparently obligatory, watered-down Deleuze and Guattari), so that the overall effect was a really good day in Chelsea, without having to go outside.