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A global cacophony

The Carnegie International exhibition's daunting task: probing what drives artists in time of dramatic change.

December 05, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Pittsburgh — The Internet magazine artnet maintains a useful list of contemporary art fairs and biennial exhibitions, whose numbers have grown like kudzu since the 1980s. For the final four months of 2004, the list includes 31 entries.

One-third of these are biennials and other such periodic festivals, organized by national and local governments or independent museums and art agencies from Gwangju, South Korea, to Lodz, Poland. The other two-thirds are commercial events -- like Art Basel Miami Beach, a glamorous international gathering of high-end and hipster galleries, large or small, that today concludes its four-day sales-fest in South Florida. In these autumn festivals, thousands of contemporary artists and tens of thousands of artworks have been put on view.

Nestled amid all this global activity is a granddaddy of the genre -- the 54th installment of the Carnegie International. Now a quadrennial or quinquennial exhibition launched by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie 108 years ago, Pittsburgh's bright idea didn't have much competition in 1896.

European art academies had their annual salons, and a world's fair format with national art pavilions had recently been concocted for the first Venice Biennale. (It helped inspire Carnegie.) But that was about it. Nation-states were proliferating around the world, and the Venice Biennale and the Carnegie International emerged as important symbols (which also included the inauguration of the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm) for new networks of trade and communication.

Over time, however, the context for the Carnegie International has changed dramatically. Globalization is remaking the established system of international networks, and transnational corporations are edging out nation-states as agencies of influence and power. What, for example, is Al Qaeda if not a stateless corporation with global reach?

Carnegie curator Laura Hoptman is acutely aware of the shift. Her selection of artists for this installment of the exhibition unfortunately leans too heavily on tepid talents, many of them not widely known. Yet Hoptman is nonetheless to be applauded for attempting to get a grip on an elusive phenomenon. Periods of tumult, such as our own, are hard to pin down and decipher.

Here's a symptom of the show's problem: Thirty-eight artists are showing in this year's Carnegie International, but potentially the most resonant single work cannot be seen, except serendipitously. Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan withdrew his work from its initial display, and now it is being shown only on sporadic occasions. If you happen to be in Pittsburgh at the right moment -- I wasn't -- you're welcome to see it.

Still, merely on description the unseen sculpture captures the imagination -- and in a way only a handful of the other exhibited works do. A life-size wax effigy of President Kennedy is laid out in an open coffin for public viewing. Dressed in a natty dark suit and tie -- but conspicuously barefoot, a Catholic symbol of humility -- the pristine body shows none of the physical damage of the epochal 1963 assassination. This is Kennedy as if he had died peacefully in his sleep, rather than having had his brains splattered across his stunned wife's pink suit.

Cattelan has ordered that the open casket be set out in a Victorian reception room just off the Carnegie Museum's entrance, rather than in a gallery. (The ornate room is regularly used for museum functions, which is why the sculpture can't always be viewed.) I imagine this stately installation work to be a formal, public funeral for a mythic idea of an idealized 1960s. As a child of that era, the thought gives me chills.

Hoptman, like other biennial curators, has largely given up the false premise that these types of exhibitions can survey either "new trends," which are routinely marketed like potato chips at the various commercial art fairs, or "the best art internationally" of the last several years, which is impossible in a global environment. Instead, she has organized a theme exhibition -- even though she doesn't like the term. What she's looking for is not a shared content in art but a common impulse that drives artists to make their work.


Unlike last summer's Site Santa Fe, whose theme of "the grotesque in art" could have been assembled almost any time in the last 50 years, the 54th Carnegie International is concerned with the distinctive experience of life in our so-far awful new millennium. For Americans, the big events between the last Carnegie (in 1999) and the current one are obviously Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.

If these epic traumas showed us anything it is that domestic society, global stability and hope for world harmony are threatened by the grave inequalities that separate the haves from the have-nots -- and by America's conspicuous role in that stark disparity. Cattelan's public burial of an idealized ethos resonates with this knowledge.

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