Failed utopias, form wrenched from utility, experience unhinged: if one were to attempt to buttress the work of all three participants in Artpace San Antonio’s summer 2013 offering under a central theme, the notion of dislocation comes to mind. Clarissa Tossin (Houston), Trevor Paglen (New York City) and Pak Sheung Chuen (Hong Kong), selected by Hou Hanru, remind the viewer that the International Artist-in-Residence Program is, in no subtle way, dictated by the proclivities of the guest curator; specifically, how and why certain work—or, more tellingly, a certain group of artists—fits into meta-narratives of their own devising. Hanru has long championed the idea of the “global artist,” itinerant individuals like himself who make work that traverses cultural boundaries in reference to—and/or in spite of—the rapidly shifting context of their physical location. Tossin, Paglen and Pak all fit this prerequisite, despite the varied aesthetic, formal, political, procedural and process-oriented concerns that manifest in each artist’s practice.
Given the layout of Artpace, a particular flow predetermines the experience of every exhibition, and thus Tossin’s installation is the first encountered. A relative newcomer to the art world (the artist completed her MFA in 2009), her work is nonetheless quite polished, presented with careful attention to archival practices and obvious underlying architectural concerns—a recurrent theme. As a native of Brasília, Brazil, the most radical, expansive New World manifestation of modernist ideals embedded into the built environment, the artist often grapples with the long-term social ramifications of quixotic, utopian notions forced upon an unwitting populace.
In Brasília, Cars, Pools and Other Modernities, Tossin’s roughly clockwise arrangement of images and objects forms an arc that begins in the late 1950s with archival images of the construction of Brasília (led by urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer) and ends abruptly, punctuated by a beaten-up beige Volkswagen Brasília outfitted with pool cleaning tools parked in the gallery—the same physical space that once housed a car dealership. Between these paradigms of the modern era, a video installation documents the artist’s road trip in the same little car from her hometown to Niemeyer’s “Strick House” in Santa Monica, Calif., an ultra bourgeois construction represented here through architectural plans and personal correspondence between the architect and the artist.
This is not the first time we’ve seen a marooned vehicle inside the confines of Artpace. Arthur Jafa’s My Black Death (2002) and William Cordova’s Moby Dick (Tracy) after ishmael, chico de cano y arl hampton (2008) come to mind, but Tossin’s installation has less to do with identity politics than the not-so-idiosyncratic practice of a society actively divorcing ideology from industry. Drained of lofty intent —as with Niemeyer’s involvement with the Strick House—he is just another architect designing playgrounds for the privileged. Likewise, Brazil’s attempt to propel itself into the future via a grand, planned, integrated community now amounts to little more than gated suburbs surrounded by favelas (slums)—utopia cannibalized. Overall, the installation is conceptually resolved but it is unclear if Tossin is attempting to be informative, generative or merely elliptical.
In the adjoining gallery, Trevor Paglen continues to assert himself as one of the most atypical conceptual realists since the late, lamented Mark Lombardi. Like Lombardi, Paglen traces connections that compress the world in soberly nihilistic ways; however, rather than simply documenting and aestheticizing government conspiracies, covert ops, shady surveillance practices and the like, Paglen now openly partakes in the engineering of reality. Take, for example, his recent project commissioned by Creative Time and realized via the Visiting Artists Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), The Last Pictures (2012). After years of consulting with artists, engineers, historians, philosophers and scientists, Paglen selected 100 photographic images that were subsequently micro-etched onto a disk and launched into space aboard a geostationary satellite, set to orbit at an altitude with no atmospheric drag. Hypothetically, once the craft has fulfilled its primary commercial function, the secondary payload—Paglen’s project—will orbit the Earth in perpetuity. Take a moment to appreciate the inherent duality—the twisted optimism and blatant determinism—of this gesture. Floating in a belt crowded by devices beaming thousands of channels of televised tripe or covertly monitoring our movements is one seemingly innocent carrier of modern hieroglyphics. If the craft does not malfunction, it could remain in orbit for billions of years—a silent witness to the demise of our society and, perhaps, the planet itself—or be intercepted before our sun goes supernova, dispensing one man’s impressions of our world to an undisclosed recipient. The possibilities are maddening.
After years of transmuting modern anxiety into artistic tropes, with The Last Pictures Paglen has, arguably, succeeded in inventing his own ontology. Following that logic, his installation at Artpace, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 2, Build 1) feels like a natural progression. Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite is a work-in-progress, part of an ongoing series represented here by schematic drawings, a short video loop and a massive metallic bloom—a sculpture meant for outer space, but visible from the Earth—that dominates the gallery. It is difficult to ignore the formal aspects of the object, which is precisely the point. This secondary payload would, in essence, aestheticize man-made matter that already occupies the night sky. This is not an abandonment of past practices involving video and satellite surveillance as content, but a new way of sublimating provocation and drawing attention to the shady practices of the military-industrial complex, which Paglen is clearly prone to do—and does so very, very well.
Upstairs, Pak Sheung Chuen’s installation awaits quiet contemplation. Pak’s practice is experiential and highly personal, often coupling the artist’s daily encounters and observations with subtle actions and interventions. During the mid 2000s, Pak maintained a weekly column in the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, which ranged from short-form writing and photographic documentation of performances and actions to interventions presented solely on the printed page.
In 2007, the artist spent a year in New York as a resident of the International Studio and Curatorial Program. Aside from producing a significant series of anonymous works including Page 22: Half-Folded Library and Norwegian Wood, this experience reshaped the way he engages with the world while abroad. Removed from the familiar, his daily dérive (unplanned journey) evolved into what the Situationist International called dépaysement, a state in which disorientation is embraced—even prioritized. Traveler’s Notes: San Antonio 2013.5.28-2013.7.14 encourages this sensibility. Vinyl text documenting his observations collected on the streets of San Antonio runs across the walls and floor of the gallery, encouraging prescribed, jerky movement through the space and inevitable interaction with other viewers—a framework that successfully mimics the negotiation of unfamiliar territory in the real world.
The IAIR Program selects curators, not artists. Once the curator submits a list of names, it is up to the staff of Artpace to help artists realize their projects. Collapsed utopian aspirations (Tossin), industrial objects absolved from customary function (Paglen) and an artist set adrift in a strange landscape by choice (Pak): Hanru’s selections maintain a certain poetic harmony without pedestrian repetition or overlap. This is the gift that a good curator brings to a conversation between artists and art objects, even when the work produced is, ultimately, beyond their control.
Author’s Note: As part of his residency, Pak is also in the process of producing a series of interventions for the Current. His first piece, Believers and Sacred Objects, appeared in Issue 13_25 (June 19-25); the second, Holy Dust Worship Club/Holy Back Worship Club, appeared the following week (June 26- July 2) in Issue 13_26; the third, an excerpt of Traveler’s Notes appeared after that (July 3-9) in Issue 13_27. The final installment will run later this month.