BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Unfinished History

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

A still image of a Russian dacha from Andrei Tarkovsky's film Nostalgia (1983) greets the visitor to an exhibition that contemplates carrying the human dramas of the 20th century into a braver new millennium. Rooted within the looming confines of the roofless Tucson cathedral are 23 antiphonies, each by a different international artist, that echo the still-unresolved histories of this century. Negotiating the global fluidity of post-Cold War culture, the works bear witness to ideologies that have fractured and obstructed the utopic desire that ushered in Modernity.

Maurizio Cattelan's stuffed horse, Novecento (1997), dangles pathetically from the ceiling. Its artificially extended legs function as a droll metaphor for the weight of history and the loss of the horse to industrial advancement. More literal is Alighiero e Boetti's Mappa (1992-93), which forms a backdrop to Cattelan's aberration. This brilliantly embroidered world map was produced by Afghani craftswomen who filled in each country's contour with the pattern and colour of its flag. It is as much a testament to abstract painting as it is a portrayal of the political entities that clutter contemporary geography.

Although painting as a medium is conspicuously missing from the exhibition, its language shows up in Pan Sonic's sound installation and video projection. Linga (1998) is comprised of a homemade oscilloscope that projects an instantaneous graphic display by capturing Pan Sonic's electrical soundscape directly onto cathode rays. The resulting black-and-white image is then projected onto the wall in a tight rectangle. Reminiscent of Duchamp's early films and electrocardiograms, the piece is minimal, Cage-ian and universal.

Koo Jeong-a is also interested in form, but form imbued with profound context, created not where language begins, but where it ends. Illuminated by a blue spotlight, Oslo (1998), rests on the museum floor like a disintegrated classical marble sculpture. Hand-ground aspirin is sifted into barren mounds of icy dust, particles of a material history made more beautiful with decay. Conversely, Yutaka Sone constructs an icon of 20th-century entertainment by commissioning Chinese stone-carvers to create the world's largest roller-coasters made from white marble. Amusement (1998) commemorates a magnificent feat of engineering designed solely to bring momentary thrills to the hedonistic masses. Celebrating the enormous strides in mass art this century, Sone is surprisingly the only artist in the exhibition to explore entertainment as a subject. While other participants in the exhibition consistently draw upon its structures and 'look', one gets a sense that the field of popular culture is a wholly developed construct.

Andrea Bowers attempts to understand the obvious pleasures and potential dangers of group psychology in her slide installation A Sense of Clear Self-evidence (1997), which bombards us with large flashing images of cramped and cheering audiences. Shirin Neshat's duel video projection Turbulent (1998) illustrates, via a fictitious singing competition, the separation of genders in some Islamic societies.

Several of the exhibition's galleries are framed with billboard-size documentary images of Minneapolis' Lake Street. Adhering directly to the wall, Wing Young Huie's black-and-white prints function like public-service announcements, celebrating the Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Native Americans that inhabit a main artery in this liberal mid-Western metropolis. Huie's pictures temporarily seize the fluid mutations of localised culture. Conversely, Thomas Struth's photograph, Musée du Louvre 4, Paris (1989) quickens the momentum to abrade larger historical narratives.

South Africa, Detroit, Tadzhikistan and Bavaria are no longer distant realities. Buzzing around our heads as we sleep, like the model helicopter in Roman Signer's single-channel video tape, Bett (1996), the past can either haunt us like the creatures in Goya's The Sleep of Reason (1797) or buoy up our hopes for a new post-historical world. But, as each artist in the exhibition reminds us, newness and art will always retreat into history.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.