Saturday, January 29, 2011

Playing catch up, pt. 3

The last post on shows I didn't get to write about before they closed. In this case, I fudged the opening sentence because of late-breaking news, which I added because it helps make my point.

Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
10 September - 30 December 2010
Yona Friedman, Ville Spatial, 2010. On view with the exhibition "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism" at MOCAD. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen, courtesy of MOCAD.)
In early January of this year, Dennis Scholl, VP/arts and Miami program director of the Knight Foundation, posted a list of his "Top 8 for 2011," which included a nod to the curatorial chops of MOCAD Director and Chief Curator Luis Croquer. There's no better evidence for Scholl's opinion than the exhibition that ran at the museum this past fall "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism." The exhibition was quite simply the best that MOCAD has yet done -- the work raised central issues in the consideration of the Motor City's current zeitgeist, and the installation took complete command of the museum's quirky spaces.

"Spatial City" drew its inspiration from the ideas of visionary French architect Yona Friedman, whose 1958 manifesto Mobile Architecture defined a user-centric model of the built environment adaptable to the ever-changing needs of what would come to be known as postmodern society. Mobile architecture, as Friedman envisioned it, would tread lightly on the earth, going with the flows of an emerging global cultural economy. The exhibition featured 45 works in all media drawn from a roster of international artists spanning several generations, many of whom had never before shown in the US.

The show was originally conceived by Nicholas Frank of the Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Five additional participating curators, two from the Midwest (including Croquer) and three from France, collaborated to assemble the exhibition, each of whom adapted it, including specific artworks and local installation, to their particular venues. The work in "Spatial City" didn't necessarily expand upon Friedman's basic tenets so much as explore disjunctures and differences in the eddies and tides of various social, cultural, and political currents that define the condition of postmodernity, the basic drift of which Friedman had identified more than 50 years ago.

Friedman's installation in the first gallery near the museum entrance, Ville Spatial (2010), consisted of a loose network of triangulated mesh suspended from the ceiling upon which container volumes were placed at various intervals. The volumes suggested a topography both functional and aesthetic, where life support systems could be organized around the flexible needs of a diversity of occupants. The openness of the supporting grid would allow links and nodes to be established and changed as dictated, but still provide for ample natural light to fall on the ground below, enabling, for example, a cultivated landscape or a myriad of other uses. The contingent nature of the environmental plan offered opportunities for reconfiguration and thus evolution in contrast to what might be called "the embedded city" of traditional architectural convention, the inflexible conglomeration of massive edifices that in Detroit, for instance, now stands abandoned after their purpose has been seemingly served.

Sarah Morris, Midtown, 1998, color video.

The phantom metropolis of latter-day Detroit was brought into relief by the video installation of Sarah Morris, an artist born in the UK who divides her time between London and New York. Midtown (1998) offered a dramatic contrast to the broad, nearly empty boulevards of what was once called "The Paris of the Midwest"; in it the urban spaces of midtown Manhattan are shown pulsing with activity -- congestion on the streets and sidewalks, beehives of activity in office towers, flows of media images circulating above, all set to a soundtrack that vamps but never resolves. It's the yang to Detroit's yin.

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006-2007 (excerpt), color video.

Perhaps most poignant was the video by Chinese artist Cao Fei, Whose Utopia (2006-2007). The segment "My Future Is Not a Dream" is based on a popular Chinese song that has become an anthem of the younger generation of workers who are migrating from the rural interior to the special economic zones (SEZs) in search of work and upward mobility. The city of Shenzhen, for example, in less than 30 years has gone from a sleepy coastal fishing village to a teeming metropolis with an official population of just under 10 million and informal estimates, factoring in temporary workers, much higher. The video portrays individual dancers and musicians performing amid rows of sewing machines, parts assembly lines, warehouse fulfillment centers, and other spaces that have sprung up as China has become the global factory of late capitalism. The great migrations of a previous century, of course, were crucial to the emergence of Detroit as the engine of modernity. In China, the process has been raised to the nth power. (There's the old saying, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall," and there's some speculation that the inherent contradictions of the Chinese political economy will in time signal the end of the modern world-system as it has functioned for nearly 500 years. See economist Li Minqi's The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy.)

There were so many other works that could be similarly examined in this fecund exhibition. Just to remark on a couple: Ukrainian-born Kristina Solomoukha's Shedding Identity (identite permutable) (2005-6) consisting of mirror-clad boxes set on low horizontal planes, referencing the minimalist glass-curtain edifices of the International Style, upon on which images of skyscrapers, highways, landscapes, and commodities were projected, revealing the illusions of permanence of the built environment, which as all in Detroit are painfully aware, are in fact contingent. Korean artist June Bum Park's III Crossing (2002) video depicts a bird's eye city view with people and vehicles moving to the rhythms established by a giant pair of hands, a comment on the literally top-down influence of urban planning, which channels supposed free movement into predetermined patterns. 

Installation view, Kristina Solomoukha, Shedding Identity (indentit√© permutable), 2005-2006. On view with the exhibition "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism" at MOCAD.  (Courtesy of Frac Pays de la Loire. Photo by Corine Vermeulen.)

June Bum Park, III Crossing, 2002 (fragment), color video.

With this show, his first truly "big concept" large-scale exhibition, Croquer was obviously swinging for the bleachers. He knocked it out of the park.

* * *
Sincere thanks to the students in my CCS MFA program second-year seminar whose responses to the exhibition "Spatial City" informed this blog post, especially Troy Baker and Lei Zhjang.

No comments:

Post a Comment