Friday, October 12, 2007

Al Gore wins Nobel Peace Prize ... for art?

Al Gore is the co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring attention to the threat of global warming and “lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change,” the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee announced today. Gore, who shares the prize with the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is clearly the single most important figure for bringing attention to global warming, and a significant part of his effort was a work of art.

The turning point was his landmark 2006 documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth.” Certainly news of global warming had been dribbling out for years, but Gore’s work of art summarized and framed the issue in a way that helped millions understand its significance, many for the first time. The public awareness and worry this produced has been a driving force in focusing government and private efforts around the issue. It’s primarily Gore’s film that the Nobel Committee is talking about when it says, “He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.” Note how it functioned: in theaters, on DVDs, in public, outside the fine art world. This is the example that proves those who say political art is ineffective wrong.

In my survey of global-warming art in June, I wrote:
The most prominent example of global-warming art is, of course, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which has to be judged as one of the most significant examples of political art of the past century, up there with Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” and Rachel Carson’s non-fiction book “Silent Spring,” for its success in bringing public attention to the problem of global climate change. (I’m using the term “art” broadly to describe any creative endeavor, from painting to journalism to boat building.) Along with Elizabeth Kolbert’s reports on global warming that began appearing in the New Yorker in 2005 and Jared Diamond’s 2004 book “Collapse,” a study of how societies mismanage their relationships with the environment, “An Inconvenient Truth” sparked much of the global-warming art now appearing in galleries and museums.
That trend continues. The Cambridge School of Weston is planning a global-warming art exhibit for November and Montserrat Gallery of Art in Beverly (full disclosure: where I’ll be speaking on Oct. 25) is planning an exhibit of green art for next year.

Some of my previous reports on global-warming art:
  • A survey of global-warming art.
  • An April global warming demonstration at Boston Common in which people formed a human chain along a line 20 feet higher than the current sea level, where the Atlantic could reach if polar and glacial melting continues unabated.
  • Bradford Washburn and David Arnold’s photographs of the same glaciers, shot decades apart and dramatically documenting the effects of global warming.
  • Elizabeth Kolbert spoke at Boston’s Museum of Science in March.
  • Review of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick’s “Eisbergfreistadt” exhibition at Pepper Gallery in May, which featured narrative photos, prints, and sculptures — all based on the artist’s elaborate tall tale of a giant iceberg, loosed by “heat from factory smoke,” that ran aground in a German port in 1923, melted, and flooded the town’s industrial zone.
  • Review of ICA Foster Prize exhibition last winter, including notes on Jane Marsching’s global-warming art.
  • Preview of “Thin Ice” exhibition at Dartmouth College early this year.

"The Apartment at the Mall"

“The Apartment at the Mall,” the project in which Michael Townsend and seven collaborators created a secret apartment (pictured above) in neglected storage space in the parking garage at Providence Place mall over the past four years, became publicly known only after mall security stopped Townsend as he was leaving the makeshift squat on Sept. 26.

It was one of the most audacious and awesome underground art projects Rhode Island has seen — part MacGyver, part Robin Hood, part Bugs Bunny, part juvenile delinquent, and part genius philosophical joke. In a brilliant act of humorous intellectual jujitsu, they turned the weight of Providence Place, a major symbol of consumerism and redevelopment, back on itself to reconsider the place of malls and real-estate development in our communities. At the same time, the secret apartment clubhouse was a thrilling reminder of how Providence remains an inventive and surprising magical artistic place.

At its heart, the project is part of a body of local art examining and critiquing Providence’s development boom. As I reported this week, Townsend told me:
“With the mall in our neighborhood, there started to be in Providence a culture of trying to make sure that every square foot was being utilized to the best of its abilities.”

So in October 2003, Townsend says, he, Adriana Yoto, his wife and collaborator, and two friends decided to get to know their neighbor better — by spending a week without leaving the mall. Each had $20, though one guy quickly lost his bill. They dressed up to fit in. They spent hours examining every object in stores. They say some slept in a column in the garage and some slept in a forgotten room, which Townsend had spotted while the shopping center, which opened in 1999, was being erected.

“Going into the fourth day, we had a meeting at Borders,” Townsend says. “We said, ‘You know what, we could be here forever.’ ”

“And nobody would care,” Yoto adds.

“The word ‘micro-development’ came up,” Townsend says. “We said, ‘You know what? We have a responsibility to come back and micro-develop that space and make a home.’”

“Because,” Yoto says, “it was grossly underutilized space in a very prime real estate location downtown.”
Read the rest here.

  • The Providence Journal broke the story and has excellent reports here, here and here.
  • Check out this video of the artists moving furniture into the mall apartment. The pièce de résistance was the 8-foot-tall china hutch (pictured below).
  • Adriana Yoto has been conducting mall-related studies.
  • Michael Townsend is known for temporary public tape art murals and a sculptural installation secreted inside a tunnel near the Rhode Island State House that featured caskets suspended over water and flying and standing figures.
  • Additional examples of local art examining and critiquing Providence’s development boom include Jean Cozzens and Andrew Oesch’s “Magic City Repairs” at Stairwell Gallery in June and Brian Chippendale’s “Eagle Square” poster (reproduced here) and “Home on the Run” installation in the “Wunderground” exhibition at the RISD Museum last year. It’s also worth checking out “You Must Be This Tall,” a documentary film about the defunct Rocky Point amusement park (which JL wrote about here), and “Art in Ruins,” a website that examines the architecture and redevelopment of Providence.
  • For discussion of Providence Place mall see here, here and here.

“¡Sensacional!” at MassArt

Here’s the beginning of my review of “¡Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics”:
“¡Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics,” the new exhibit at Massachusetts College of Art’s Paine Gallery, is a funhouse of brilliantly clunky handmade Mexican street art. If you find the gallery scene lacking in pictures of gremlins eating ice cream, masked Lucha Libre wrestlers, and R2-D2 serving pizza, this is the show for you.

A wrestler pictured on a little advertising card from a joint called Cafeteria el Cuadrilatero (the Ring Coffeeshop) becomes a looming 20-foot-high cutout. A tunnel built in the middle of the gallery is painted with scripts and blocky lettering that shout at you from all sides. A tourism-board banner features a topless yellow mermaid sitting on a rock with her head thrown back in ecstasy. She remains, however, composed enough to hold a pair of wine glasses on a platter. A sun poised on the watery horizon ogles her bust. The banner’s slogan: “Mexico: Beyond your expectations.”

Organized by Mexico City’s Trilce Ediciones publishers and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, “¡Sensacional!” is thrillingly crude, crass, colorful, jury-rigged, do-it-yourself, joky, humble, and in bad taste. It is about ingenious responses to limited resources. It surveys the advertising imagery on walls, awnings, posters, and handbills across Mexico in all their funky glory.
Read the rest here.

"¡Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics,” MassArt, Paine Gallery, 621 Huntington Ave., Boston, Sept. 24 to Dec. 1, 2007.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Claire Beckett

Here’s an excerpt from my review of Boston photographer Claire Beckett’s exhibit “In Training” at the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center Galleries:
Private Dan Floyd lays face and belly in mud during basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Boston photographer Claire Beckett shows the wet soil caked on his arms, legs, and helmet in crisp, mucky detail. He seems close to us, but cold, wet, miserable, and alone. His eyes are wide, his lips parted, as if he’s been stunned. It is one of Beckett’s most striking photos in her exhibit “In Training,” at the URI Fine Arts Center Galleries, both for its verisimilitude and its nagging artificiality.

Beckett’s 10 photos here show Army and National Guard troops training in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Kentucky over the past two years. “My photographs do not have an overtly political or partisan message,” Beckett writes. “My desire for those viewing these works is that they might consider who the individual soldiers are on a human level. I am deeply struck by how young the soldiers are, by their physical vulnerability, and by the gravity of what is asked of them.”
Read the rest here.

Claire Beckett, “In Training,” University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center Galleries, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston, R.I., Sept. 14 to Oct. 28, 2007.

Beckett also has similar photos in her exhibit “Simulating Iraq” at Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Oct. 3 to Nov. 10, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “Private Dan Floyd at Basic Training, Fort Knox, KY,” 2007; “Private Rebecca Hill at Basic Training, Fort Jackson, SC,” 2006; “Private Kendra Duffy, Private Allison Bronner and Private Jessica-Ann Layug dressed as villagers at Basic Training, Fort Jackson, SC,” 2006.

Kerry Stuart Coppin

Here’s an excerpt from my review of Providence photographer Kerry Stuart Coppin’s exhibit “Between Me and the Other World” at Rhode Island College’s Bannister Gallery:
In Kerry Stuart Coppin’s 1991 photo “Black Men Learning to Fly,” rows of young black men hop and pump their arms in what at first looks like an aerobics class inside a gymnasium. The men wear sweat-drenched T-shirts and shorts. Then you notice their dress shoes. It turns out they’re members of a fraternity at the University of Maryland at College Park (where Coppin then taught) rehearsing a synchronized, percussive step dancing routine.

The men’s gestures — particularly a buff topless fellow in the center who, as he exhales, seems to ever so slightly levitate off the floor — reminded Coppin of the folktale “The People Could Fly,” about Africans who could fly but were sold into slavery and endured many miseries, until one day they flew to freedom. For Coppin, it’s a metaphor for the names, languages, religions, and history robbed from Africans when they were brought here as slaves, and the potential that that great legacy might be reclaimed and built upon.
Read the rest here.

Kerry Stuart Coppin, “Between Me and the Other World,” Bannister Gallery, Rhode Island College, 600 Mount Pleasant Ave., Providence, Oct. 4 to 26, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “Black Men Learing to Fly,” 1991; “Untitled: Africa in Rhode Island/Celestial Church of Christ, Providence Parish, Harvest Festival 2006,” 2006; “Boy Dreaming of a Reconstructed Continent / Dakar, Senegal,” 2001; and “Untitled: Juneteenth, Manhattan, Kansas,” 1997; all copyright Kerry Stuart Coppin.

Underground Providence

Here’s an excerpt from my report (with helpful editing by Ian Donnis) on Providence's underground art scene:
Rhode Island’s capital has a national reputation as an incubator of cool art — from designer Shepard “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” Fairey and Barnaby Evans’s WaterFire to the bygone monstery punk cooperative Fort Thunder and the feminist art gang that makes its home at the Dirt Palace. The art collective Paper Rad, which moved to Providence from western Massachusetts in the past year after hovering around the city for years, was listed in Vanity Fair’s “Art Issue” last December as one of the stars in its map of the international art universe. And now we have the nationally publicized "The Apartment At the Mall," as seen on CBS, Fox TV, and elsewhere.

Providence’s reputation and the national prominence of the Rhode Island School of Design remain magnets for artists. But even as new art spaces like Firehouse 13, the Stairwell Gallery, and 5 Traverse emerge, much locally made art seems perennially hidden in the mysterious and alluring underground, distanced from conventional galleries.

Seen in this respect, "The Apartment At the Mall" is typical of the local art scene and how artists here sometimes work in unexpected places, hiding on occasion in almost plain sight. To some, Providence’s gallery landscape may seem underdeveloped, particularly in comparison to the city’s zesty creative reputation. Seen another way, though, the partially hidden quality of local art is part and parcel of what helps to make it happen.
Read the rest here.

Nick Cave at RISD

Chicago artist Nick Cave spoke at RISD last night and described his 2006 “Soundsuit” (pictured at left) that the RISD Museum acquired this year and is on view there through October 11. It’s made of found knit sweaters, socks, driftwood, dryer lint, and paint. Cave said:
I’m thinking about these figures that sort of come out only at night. That are sort of like these bogeymen. And so they walk the streets and sort of absorb all of the hate. And the surfaces, they sort of collect all these relics as a way of protection, as a guardian.
Image courtesy of the artist and New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Honk Parade

Here are photos of the Honk Parade from Davis Square in Somerville to Harvard Square in Cambridge on Sunday, Oct. 7. Pictured above: a drummer from Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade.

A Boston Derby Dame puts on makeup before the start of the parade.

Parade marshals Tom and Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s “Car Talk” meet another parade participant.

The Boston Puppeteers’ Cooperative.

Bread and Puppet Theater of Glover, Vermont.

Bread and Puppet Theater.

The Smedley D. Butler Brigade chapter of the Veterans for Peace.

Environmental Encroachment from Chicago.

Environmental Encroachment.

Hungry March Band of Brooklyn.

Bread and Puppet Theater.

Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater.

MarchForth Marching Band of Portland, Oregon.

Photos copyright The New England Journal of Pretentious Research.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Nick Cave speaks at RISD Wednesday

Chicago artist Nick Cave (no, not the musician) gives a free talk about his “Soundsuits” (pictured) at the RISD Auditorium at 6:15 Wednesday evening. He may also (keep your fingers crossed) perform.

As I wrote in my preview, the 48-year-old’s…
art world reputation comes from his “Soundsuits,” lavish, strange, beautifully-crafted outfits resembling mash-ups of African tribal ceremonial dress, Ku Klux Klan robes, Roman Catholic clergy vestments, yetis, Star Wars aliens, plumed and sequined carnival costumes, and fabulous drag queen gowns. Locals might notice a resemblance to the monstery costumes of Providence’s Forcefield collective. … The name “Soundsuit” refers to how all the surface decoration jingles and rattles when worn. The costumes are charged by their contrasting associations: African versus white supremacist, religious versus pagan, straight male warrior versus gay peacock. But they’re more than the sum of their references. They tap deep archetypes that can make them feel awesome — in the old sense of quaking in the presence of mysterious ancient powers.

Below are (a bit out of order) excerpts from my recent telephone interview with Cave:

Cave: When the Rodney King incident happened. I was reading in the paper about how the police sort of brought description to him. You know they were talking about, I can’t remember exactly what it said, but they were talking about this big, black, male figure that was bigger than life, that was mammoth-like. And I just started thinking about these words that were describing this human being, and I was like, “This is just fucking insane to me.” And I realized at that point I needed to take a different responsibility, I need to recognize that this is the platform that I need to be delivering, to work on.

And my first “Soundsuit” was a twig-suit. Which I didn’t even know it was a “Soundsuit.” I was just sort of making a piece in response to that situation. So I gathered all these twigs in the park and made this suit. I wasn’t even thinking that I could get into it. That wasn’t even on my brain. And then I made it and then I put it on. And I was just like, “Oh. My. God.” And at that point I knew that I had, you know you just know when you’ve found it. And I just knew. And I thought, “Oh, God, am I ready to take on all of this right now.” Because I just knew that it was a sculpture, it was again this suit of armor, it was this sort very unfamiliar sort of territory that I wasn’t really quite sure what it meant. Still don’t know really. Then there was performance. So it’s all of these sort of things. In order to be heard, to have a voice, you need to be an activist. It was all of these things I was thinking about when I was in it. I could walk around in it and not really create a lot of gesture of movement. But then the moment I jumped in it, the clanging of those twigs against one another and this rustling sound. It just became this complete animated character. And so it was just like, “Shit, this is just a whole new direction.” That it’s powerful, loaded and threatening, all at the same time. And yet seductive.

…I don’t see myself as an artist first, I see myself as a humanitarian first. And what that means is that my art allows me to use it as a vehicle for change. And that really is what is important to me. I’m not really that interested in becoming an art star. As opposed to really sort of paying much more closer attention to my purpose in life and using my art as a vehicle to arrive there.

With my work, and particularly with the “Soundsuits,” for me it’s a combination of things. It’s really about bridging our differences together and meshing cultural references and cultural identities into this sort of global experience. It’s like, we can look at a “Soundsuit” and we may be able to talk about Turkish textiles, but yet the form of the suit may be pulled from a reference to Ku Klux Klan. It’s like bridging that with other references. And then we may be just swinging and talking about carnival in terms of maybe a surface application. So for me it’s like really allowing and yet it becomes its own identity, it becomes this foreign image or group of citizens that are of a new world.

Cook: One of the things that strikes me is that mix of racial and cultural references, particularly when you go back and forth between stuff that references African tribal clothing versus Klan hoods. It’s weird. It’s uncomfortable.
Cave: It is uncomfortable. But at the same time there is some level of attraction. And that’s really where it’s on the fence. That’s where it gets really kind of disturbing, because for some reason it is seductive. But at the same time you’re like, “Hmm.” But at the same time you’re like too fascinated, captivated by that sort of power. I think we all have those elements or intentions within ourselves. It’s erotic, it’s sexual, it’s provocative, it’s all these things that just sort of get us fired up and hungry and eager to partake in something that is perhaps unfamiliar. I don’t know. It’s very weird.

Cook: Why is it important to have that mix of opposing forces, like the Klan and what it’s opposing?
Cave: It’s not all coming there. Let’s broaden it out, open it up a bit. I think a lot of it comes from me really looking at myself as a black male in society. And also looking at African-American history and being empowered by that. Being empowered by the ability of a group of people that prevailed through horrific circumstances and still coming out of that feeling, you know, fearless. I realized that I have so much fuel to pull from in terms of that part of my history. And that is really fascinating to me. And there’s so much material there that I don’t have to come, provide these speculations or these theories that don’t exist. It’s all there. I have a lot to draw from. That to me is seductive. I can sort of skirt the surface, I can layer it with maybe 15, 20 different meanings. I have the power to navigate it and allow it be a sort of blur. And yet we can completely come in and give focus, focus, focus and target, and speak about one specific thing if we want to.

…It’s male power, it’s masculinity, it’s feminity, it’s really just all of the above. I don’t have these issues about that with myself. I’m very much about the whole idea of exploring that aspect of myself and trying to find a way to be just whole.

You know it’s like when I walk out of this loft that I live in, at that particular point my identity erased. Which is interesting. One day I was coming home from teaching at the school and all of a sudden I was surrounded by I would say 10 undercover cops. I mean literally surrounded me in fucking cop cars. I had to lay on the damn ground. They then eventually had me get up and checking me over and identity and ID and all this kind of mess, because the convenience store was robbed down the street. I’m like, “What the fuck?” And so I realized at that point, my identity, when I leave the privacy of my home, it is completely erased. Which then also allowed me to think about my work in that way, on these levels of perception and perceived and assumptions and things of this sort.

Cook: In the “Soundsuits,” it’s all mixed up, but it’s also directly engaging those sort of signifiers. Also at the same time if you wear it you’re pretty much completely hidden inside, your identity is concealed and hidden, but it gives off this sort of suggestion of identity through its shape and decoration.
Cave: Is it about this sort of second skin? Is it about this suit of armor? Is it about protection? It is about all of those things. It is about me protecting myself against a world that is prejudiced. It’s me sort of protecting myself in a world that is prejudiced against homosexuality. It’s all of these sort of things. I’m not in the studio thinking about one solo aspect of my life. All of this shit is just sort of layered and complex. And I used to think about that a lot. I remember working in my studio maybe 20 years ago and I all of a sudden had this revelation like “What the fuck am I doing?” I need to be addressing everything that I’m thinking about as I’m in the process of making. And not separate and decide well this work is going to be about this. When I’m thinking about maybe my brother who is ill, at the same time I’m listening to NPR about some nuclear explosion. Just all of a sudden it came to me that I’ve got to come to a place of truth.

…I think about things. Can you imagine driving home from a bar at 3 in the morning down I95 and then all of a sudden there’s a “Soundsuit” running down the expressway. ‘What the hell?’ Just shit like that. Because I’m all about these happenings, just creating these sort of happenings here and there. My thing is what do you do with that information if you saw that? How would you describe a twig “Soundsuit” to someone the next morning? How do you bring description to that, and for someone to believe you, that you’re telling the truth. “Are you like fucking crazy?”

Cook: Have you worn the “Soundsuits” on the highway?
Cave: Well, not exactly there. I’ve had encounters with intersections with maybe 20 “Soundsuits.” We just sort of enter an intersection, in the street, and just sort of stop traffic, maybe for about seven minutes, and then we just disperse. Here in Chicago. I’m always doing shit like that.

Nick Cave, RISD Auditorium, Canal Way at the corner of North Main and College Streets, Providence, 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007, free.

Images courtesy of New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery.