At the Eldorado Hotel's Agave Lounge, over fabulous margaritas, ArtSlant's editor in chief, Natalie Hegert, met with Santa Fe art critics Hannah Hoel and Lauren Tresp to discuss SITElines, the new SITE Santa Fe biennial…
Natalie Hegert: A point that I want to talk about is how [SITElines] functions as a model for a biennial. How different is this from another themed exhibition you would encounter in any other museum, versus a biennial? Why does this necessarily need to be considered a biennial? It seems more like an investigation of a certain theme that includes artists from across the Americas. What is interesting about this show or this model that they’re trying to put forward is it works as a long-term, intensive research project, which reminds me of the program of this one space in Utrecht called BAK, Basis voor Actuele Kunst. BAK chooses one theme and works with it for a period of three years, through a series of exhibitions and other programming, so they build up this trove of research through exhibition-making on whatever their chosen theme is. I wonder if this maybe might have been an inspiration on how they are approaching SITElines.
Hannah Hoel: Right, which is one reason SITE is subverting the so-called biennial model, right?
NH: Yes, rather than every two years essentially starting over anew.
HH: But by calling it a biennial, maybe at first, it gets the eyes of a more international community, just by virtue of its title, when in actuality they are doing a long-term research series of exhibitions.
Lauren Tresp: It might be a slow burn to figure out. Because we haven’t experienced any of the performances yet, those will be coming. And they are launching SITEcenter, which sounds like they are hosting artists-in-residence for longer periods of time than just the course of the biennial exhibitions. But again, that’s along the same lines of an extended, extensive research project. But I think it will take some time to see how it plays out. Things could change from what’s been planned thus far.
HH: So really calling it a biennial is because it happens every two years.
NH: Irene Hoffman mentioned in the talk this morning about the “collective restlessness” they have with the status quo of biennial-making and that drove the impetus of SITElines.
HH: Which puts them at the forefront of innovation, which is what they claim to be.
LT: But their commitment to showcasing innovative contemporary art from the international community is visible, not necessarily by the work that they’re showing, but by the model of the biennial as a recognized structure.
NH: Which proves the point that the biennial-system has become so entrenched, which is kind of what they are bucking against. One of the things mentioned in the catalogue essay and in this morning’s introduction is the emergence of what could be known as “biennial art.” I’m acquainted with a couple of scholars that did a statistical survey of biennials, over the course of I don’t know how many decades, finding that there are certain artists who show at biennials over and over again, making this genre of biennial art, which is something that SITElines is actively trying to go against. As a result, [here] we didn’t know more than half of the people on the artist list. So it was a real process of discovery, which is great.
HH: It feels like something an institution should be doing, supporting unknown artists and bringing them to the attention of the international community.
NH: On the website for the “Unsettled Landscapes” they have a map showing where all the artists are from, and it’s amazingly diverse. They are from all over North, South and Central America.
HH: That’s a huge accomplishment. And I wonder how many artists will go on to do other biennials, or what their careers will look like after SITElines. Grounding SITE’s biennial in geography so specifically is also really new for the biennial model that usually has pavilions from each country [for instance]. And I actually did feel, even during the press conference this morning, that there was this united identity of the Americas that I felt for the first time, which is cool to see everyone coming together to express our history as a continent, as opposed to divided by borders and politics.
LT: I like that the written materials on the website and in the galleries don’t really emphasize where the artists are from; it’s understated. This is the artist. They stand on their own two feet with their artwork and aren’t forced to represent the place they are coming from.
NH: I was just remembering the incident with the guy that smashed Ai WeiWei’s vase in protest of local artists being ignored in Miami’s contemporary art scene. Santa Fe has its own very specific artistic identity, which is sometimes really far off the mark when it comes to contemporary art—globalized contemporary art—and I’m wondering if you think Santa Fe artists will enjoy this exhibit or will they feel like they were…
HH: I think that’s been one of the biggest criticisms of SITE Santa Fe in the gossip mill, that they haven’t supported the local community enough. I know that there are four artists that are based in New Mexico and a curator who lives in Albuquerque. The artist-in-residence was here on and off for eighteen months, so I think they are trying to incorporate the community more. I give them props for that because it has been a source of gossip.
NH: When I was listening to the curators' talks they talked about looking not only towards underrepresented or unrecognized artists but towards underrepresented genres and mediums, for example landscape as a genre. I expected to see more of that, or more of a pointer to it in some way. There were the globes, which directly referenced the genre of landscape painting, by Yishai Jusidman...
LT: Those were some of my favorite pieces. The sphere of the globe mimics the eye and embodies the concept of the gaze, the gaze of the painter, specifically referencing the painters whose works are reproduced in those images. Also you have to walk around the sphere; you can’t see it in its entirety, it references the distortion not only the artists’ gazes but our gaze as well. It represents an equalizer when looking at the landscape from different perspectives.
HH: They also talked about the landscape and how it inherently suggests hierarchy in territorial disputes. I thought of that when I looked at the globes. I thought of the New World’s tension with European hierarchy, that [Jusidman] used José María Velasco Gómez from Mexico, Monet, and John Constable as the three painters.
LT: In the curator’s introduction this morning, Janet Dees said they didn’t look for work that fell into one of the categories of landscape, territory, or trade, they focused on works that combined elements of all three, and I think these globes are successful in doing that.
Jason Middlebrook, Your General Store (detail), 2014, Shipping container, wood, paint, reclaimed barn windows, glass, concrete, native plants from New Mexico, steel, leather, plastic, canvas, yarn, thread, soil; SITE Santa Fe commission; Courtesy of the artist, Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin, and Monique Meloche, Chicago.
NH: So maybe we can talk about the social responsibility aspect of certain works?
HH: Lucy Lippard wrote in the opening essay that the show privileges social responsibility over aesthetic joy. So I’m wondering if people are going to walk away with a sense of social responsibility. Are they more engaged with the artwork? And the SITEcenter program is also trying to get audiences to engage long-term.
NH: Which is challenging for any institution. How do you engage an audience in that way; how does art spur you to action? Was there anything that stood out to you that encompassed that?
LT: The only piece that really made me feel compelled to act was the shipping container by Jason Middlebrook.
NH: This is a shipping container with a lot of [artist-made] objects which are offered up for the audience to barter for.
LT: It is set up on the model of the general store. There are specific instructions as to what will be accepted as equal and comparable value for the items. And all of the items initially came from the East Coast, with the apparent hope that now items from the Southwest will be exchanged and added to the space.
NH: In a way that particular project is one that may engage the Santa Fe artistic community the most. Because I feel like a lot of the prerequisites for what kinds of items are worth trading would fit into what artists could make or produce here. So in a way it’s this interesting potlatch that happens with that. It certainly got my attention. I starting thinking, What could I make to get this particular piece? My eye is on the Ellen Harvey bird cage, but it specifies that I would need to present them with another homage to a dead bird, somehow [in exchange].
NH: Maybe I could take a picture of a dead pigeon? I’m going to be thinking about it for a few days...
HH: I like how it taught me something about trade. I came in thinking I could just come in with an object and drop it off and get a different one, but they want something very specific: like for like.
NH: Some of them are pretty general. You can get a teapot for a teapot.
HH: Right, but you can’t bring green chile for a teapot.
LT: But it has more concern for the economy of art, and the monetization, or potential de-monetization of art. Is that really a call for social action? It’s a call for action, but I'm not convinced that social responsibility applies.
HH: But it is interesting to talk about the nature of a new biennial as something that incites social change or responsibility, not monetization. Those pieces are hard when they’re fun and whimsical, and you’re not sure if you take them seriously.
NH: Humor in the show, however, was conspicuously absent. There was only a few pieces that involved humor, including the trade show, and the Future Farmers piece with the nail. There was also the Kent Monkman diorama piece with the “Miss Chief” character, which is this portrait of the artist as a drag queen in this diorama with wild buffalo, astride a motorcycle. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this piece!
Kent Monkman, Bête Noir, 2014. Installation view. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters Gallery, New York.
HH: It was really kitsch.
LT: There’s a lot of elements in it, but it’s pretty straightforward. I don’t know that there’s a lot of subtlety or nuance involved.
NH: That’s a good way to put it.
LT: Right outside of that room were the Mayan images by Leandro Katz. They were photographs that showed 19th century illustrations of Mayan ruins and sculptures alongside the objects themselves. They referenced this blurring between object, art and artifact.
HH: And to me it spoke to the issue of accurate history, as well.
NH: That piece was interesting too because it took place over such a long period of time, so that time was an element. Walking through the exhibit I counted a lot of pieces that were, perhaps, first performed or made in the 1980s, but are revisited now. Like the Agnes Denes piece, the “Wheatfield” in Battery Park, which was revisited. Oh, and the Mount Rushmore piece [by Matthew Buckingham]. That went back to 66 million years ago and in [extended into] the future, to AD 502,002.
LT: I liked the presentation of that piece as a timeline and its culmination in a single image. At first I thought they had not yet hung the artwork, because there was just text. But that spaciousness drew me in to read.
NH: I was surprised by that. I thought that was going to be the pre-historic view of what Mount Rushmore looked like before, but it ended up being the future projection. Scary.
LT: The text covered the history of the territorial battles over rights to the land. The image we’re left with, the future projection of the sculpted façade eroding beyond recognition, takes the struggle full circle. The issue of land ownership is superseded by the course of nature and it makes all of those battles obsolete. The piece was more focused on land as nature than as territory.
The group discusses getting more fabulous margaritas, but decides against them because they are getting cocktails later.
HH: Lippard’s essay opens with how the title, "Unsettled Landscapes," is ironic because all the themes arise from the settling of landscapes, so in a way, by settling we’re un-settling it.
LT: Unsettling in a psychological sense.
HH: And physically, we’re literally unsettling or disrupting the landscape.
—Natalie Hegert, Hannah Hoel, Lauren Tresp
(Image at top: Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - With Statue of Liberty Across the Hudson, 1982. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on a landfill in Manhattan's financial district, a block from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, summer 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund, New York City. Copyright Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.)