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“PRETTY PICTURES” + THE VENICE BIENNALE

The Australian cultural magazine Daily Review posted an image-based summation of the Venice Biennale 2015 on May 9th—just two days after its public opening—with the provocative clickbait-driven title: “Venice Biennale 2015 Does Not Make a Pretty Picture.” While the title might suggest a markedly uncomplimentary attitude towards the event’s political hyperawareness, the review itself consists only of a short paragraph of text that is calculatedly evasive of any didactic judgment on the exhibition as a whole, instead presenting a surveyed collection of images and videos for the reader to inject their own interpretation. Ultimately, the review’s only deliberate qualification of the exhibition was deferred to the content of its title, seeming to observe exclusively negative imagery overwhelming every pavilion.

Yet curator Okuwi Enwezor’s remarks at the biennial’s Creative Time Summit reveals a much more nuanced intention that the writers at the Daily Review may have perhaps missed. Certainly, with a superficial interaction with Enwezor’s choice of thematic prompt—entitled “All the World’s Futures,” addressing a present “age of anxiety”—the exhibition could easily be distinguished as a grim demonstration of the tragedies upon tragedies that stain the current global landscape. Yet what Enwezor has attempted to extract through his curatorial choices can be likened to the global propagation of works of Abstract Expressionism on the part of powerful American institutions and individuals during the Cold War, as Eva Cockroft maintains: that is, utilizing critical cultural content and dialectical images in a public sphere in order to generationally influence a people’s perspective on their contemporaneous condition.

Obviously, there are discernable differences between the institutional proliferation of Abstract Expressionist works with a patently ideological agenda in Cold War-era America and Enwezor’s prompt. However, Cockroft’s explication illustrates the cause and effect of the cultural sector’s propensity (and even responsibility) to maintain a societal influence; to stimulate praxis by means of a prudent curation of poesis. And it is within this process that Enwezor’s curatorial decisions attempt to internationalize and demarginalize the global dialectics of contemporary art and its public, by way of internationalizing and demarginalizing what is arguably the most historically influential contemporary art event in the world. Enwezor’s biennial seeks to exploit the historical weight of the Venice Biennale such that it functions not as a selection of artworks that “represent” their elected nations in a fragmentary surveyed manner, but to compel its international public to—in his words—“really begin to re-envision the historical necessity to think historically in the present.”

It thus seems that the exhibition’s visual domination of seemingly negative expressions towards the current state of things is an inexorable product of its times. As the Daily Review’s article expresses this domination: “War, terror, government surveillance, and ecological degradation are prominent in [the artists’] responses.” Yet what distinguishes their predominantly text-less text of biennial coverage as clickbait content is its qualification of the images from the exhibition as “not pretty” (which, as another matter, is arguably simply false, as the highly aestheticized Getty-sourced photographs they present of the installation-based exhibition are in fact extremely beautiful). To condense the dialectical climate of this year’s biennial to the concept of “pretty” or not—perhaps a issue of the Western ontogeny of the discourse of visual culture—seems reductionist, irresponsible, and irreverent of the powerful statement and historical landmark that has manifested in the form of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Furthermore, the distinct effort on the part of Enwezor and the rest of the biennial’s curatorial team to expand their inclusion of countries instinctively disregarded in the discourse of contemporary art—including first-time participation from Mongolia, Seychelles, Mozambique, Grenada and Mauritius—seemed to go unnoticed in the Daily Review’s coverage. Instead the “not pretty” images that are featured within this article are featured from the pavilions of only the traditional powerhouses: Germany, Turkey, Russia, and Korea, etc.

To me, this myopic restatement of the biennial as a presentation of fragmented, dismal images seems fundamentally problematic: like a monoscopic camera fixed in position and focus, willfully perceiving a Venice Biennale as its most primitive iteration as a salon of artworks seen through a Western lens—a lens with a distinct propensity to “celebrate” internationalism by means of exoticism, paradoxically marginalizing everything beyond the Western world. However, that is not the Venice Biennale that has been carefully crafted by Enwezor, nor his recent predecessors. Instead, Enwezor asserts that the exhibition as a phenomenon has the responsibility to manifest a sort of virtual dialectical space for its public; to prompt a hyperawareness of their present condition with the weighty dialogue of their troubled history; to interrupt the painfully detached immediacy of our contemporaneous tragedies with the stillness of meditation in visual poetry. And just as the curator has these responsibilities to the public via the exhibition space, so does a publication to the public via its critical faculty within media coverage of that exhibition space. The Daily Review’s article seems to have disregarded that critical faculty, and thus spurned its own responsibility as a raconteur of the biennial as an experience.

A NEW PEDAGOGY FOR THE ARTISTIC FREETHINKER

A few months ago I began reading Gaston Bachelard’s seminal book The Poetics of Space, and—for lack of a more eloquent expression—it felt like a slap to the face. I equate the delicate extravagance of Bachelard’s literature to the willfully physical gesture of a slap because it simultaneously inflicted a sting of humiliation and pain while also inciting a moment of hypersensitivity and awareness to the reality of my situation: that I have some bona fide self-inflicted barriers that are frustrating the potential of my own artistic practice and production.

In beginning just the introduction to the book, I encountered one of those surreal moments in literature in which feels almost as if an author clairvoyantly projected your most sacred of contemplations into written word for you alone to ponder. What I read was what Bachelard articulated in a deceptively casual tone:

“Academic psychology hardly deals with the subject of the poetic image, which is often mistaken for simple metaphor. Generally, in fact, the word image, in the works of psychologists, is surrounded with confusion: we see images, we reproduce images, we retain images in our memory. The image is everything except a direct product of the imagination.”[1]

I began to wonder: Have I been working backwards? Could my intuition to be a student of psychology actually be a hindrance to my practice of image-making, if not the ruin of it? Of course, the psychologizers of public interest during Bachelard’s prime were the disciples of pseudoscientific artifacts like psychosexual theory—“scientists” who quite literally endowed scientific authority upon legends and folklore. But temporal detachment from Bachelard’s own academic landscape did not excuse me personally from the likes of would-be scholars whose analytical mechanisms have conditioned a trained impulse to demand resolute meaning from imagery. Logically, such an impulse then disallows reception of the pure pleasure of phenomenological experience—much less the ability to generate that experience for others, as Bachelard insists great artists are compelled to do.

Outside of my individual readings in phenomenology, the unconventional trajectory of my art education has truly challenged my perception of myself as an artist and aesthete to the extent that I am recently beginning to feel that I identify more truthfully with the latter than the former. At least some extent of this awareness is owed to the conditions surrounding my introduction to the notion of art as a critical practice at all, which occurred only two years ago. At the time, my consistent restlessness and enthusiasm to spearhead any and all opportunities for creative direction in professional and extracurricular settings appeared to be an unequivocal indicator that I was patiently harboring some substantial creative instincts. I planned to appease these instincts through an eventual career in advertising, but as I was preparing to transfer into Cornell’s Applied Economics and Management program accordingly, I promptly discovered that I retained not only a disinterest in the curriculum, but an active repulsion towards it that I could not readily articulate.

Disappointed and defeated, I then deferred back to the liberal arts as a course of study. Based on a primarily intellectual rather than career-oriented impetus, I made definitive decision to study psychology. Although I had no forecasted interest in careers in psychiatry, neurological research, nor human resources, I was inexplicably captivated by my coursework in neuroscience and perception in a capacity that was so effortless that I felt obligated to engage that intuition. I soon realized that psychology’s hold on my intellectual cravings resided almost entirely within the poetic and philosophical implications nested quietly in the folds of the hard scientific literature—implications that reformed my own speculative approaches towards psychosomatic and existential concerns, such as perceptual relativity, the truly unfathomable capabilities of our brains for adaptation and plasticity, and the question of consciousness.

Whether it was this early fascination with the causal relationship between psychological and epistemological study, the social pressures from my best friends (all of whom were architecture students and would therefore be staying on for a fifth year at Cornell alongside me), or simply the exhilarating prospect of traveling to Rome for a semester, my decision to become a student of art emerged from a particularly sudden, unprecedented, and admittedly rash decision-making process. Yet somehow, the combinations of factors brewed a perfect storm that inspired an unprecedented resolve within me—one indomitable enough to prompt the hastened production of my required twenty-piece art portfolio exclusively within the span of two months, with absolutely no prior experience of producing a single finished piece before.

When I describe this pivotal yet almost entirely oblivious transition in my life, I describe the experience as “falling into art,” in order to accurately capture the spontaneous, intuitive, and admittedly inadvertent impulse that sponsored the decision. In considering the excessive demands of the transitional process yet my unwavering determination to complete it (and clear the myriad of bureaucratic hurdles enacted just for me, due to the relative tardiness of my application), it now seems somewhat ludicrous that the decision itself was essentially a mere product of circumstance, contingent on the specificity of my situation at the time (which I might dramatize as a state of existential limbo).

While it is difficult to retrospectively imagine exactly what my professional motivations may have been in making this decision (I mostly trivialized the gravity of the choice by characterizing it as a mere proclivity for my “creative itch”), the curriculum immediately began to transcend my expectations of how it would redefine my values and priorities—academically and professionally indeed, but more profoundly, ideologically. I became obsessed with the theory and criticism of post-war and contemporary art, and selfishly dragged anyone and everyone I could to museums and gallery shows in order to have even the most illiterate of listeners to endure my stream-of-consciousness interpretations of the exhibited works. In gaining this surveyed insight, however, I became increasingly more conscious of the inefficacies of my own instincts in being able to transcend pure visual gratification and reach a state of critical, poetic content. When I have tried, my pieces have been stiff, impersonal, and didactic, as if I have meant to reverse-engineer a specificity of interpretation—the very “psychologizing” that Bachelard situates as an enemy to the experience of art.

This instinct, which ultimately ails the production of almost every piece I have created (although admittedly it may be somewhat symptomatic of the lateness of my introduction into any kind of art-making practice), is counteractive to the phenomenology of imagery that inspired me to pursue art as a legitimate academic focus at all. Bachelard encapsulated the ideal art-making and -consuming paradigm best: “A man’s work stands out from life to such an extent that life cannot explain it… Art, then, is an increase of life, a sort of competition of surprises that stimulates our consciousness and keeps it from becoming somnolent.”[2] And although it remains far from slipping into somnolence, my consciousness stubbornly maintains its conditioned response to imagery by analytically charging it with psychosomatic allegations and implicating it towards its own precedent references. Despite honestly legitimate efforts to reverse this, I still consistently find myself guilty of reducing art spaces to semantic classrooms.

Although perhaps my energies may evidently not be best suited for an independent art practice, the sensitivities that my albeit recent introduction to an art education have bestowed upon my creativity and autonomy as a freethinker are immense: they have elucidated a critical dialogue for my own political, sociological, religious, and philosophical beliefs to the extent that I feel more confident and active as a socially engaged and socially aware member of our civil society. But such enrichment is not nearly particular to me: in fact, artistic engagement endows this cognitive restructuring universally, transcending even the most societally engrained disruptors of equality such as race and socio-economic status[3] (which perhaps foreshadows the promising sociological outcomes that could result from the systemic reformation and democratization of artistic programming). Most importantly, however, even my limited extent of an art education has nurtured an increasingly severe skepticism towards our societal dependency on institutional education as an agency of scholarship and career orientation—that is, a dependency on the assumption (or rather, expectation) that the astutely named system of “higher education” is directly causal to a “higher order” of prosocial performance or even civic obligation.[4]

Admittedly, confessing my inability to effectively “phenomenologize” my art work may be both harsh and reductive to my expressive instincts and intentions. In fact, it is precisely within these inefficacies that I have personally begun to delineate social issues about which I care most deeply, and thus attempt to share within an aesthetic forum (however straightforwardly didactic my methods may be thus far). To take the most obvious example from my work, my first real venture into making any sort of socially critical artwork was also my most intense and most personal. After a particularly distressing incident of sexual violence—towards which I felt overcome not just from the incident itself but by the all-too-palpable misunderstandings, miscommunications, and unresponsiveness on the part of people from whom I sought help—I reactively began to put pen to paper as if to express my anxieties in a medium beyond the pragmatics of verbal language, which was evidently not a sufficient means of expression for myself nor for others. In the process of creating the works (which eventually became a series entitled Noli Me Tangere [2013] [Appendix A]), I had no real knowledge or expectation of what product would surface, nor whom the audience would be, but I was somehow driven by more initiative and intentionality than I ever had been towards my schoolwork.

The project’s progression was painful, cathartic, and ultimately tremendously educational for me—more so than any other project I had produced throughout my academic career to that point. Perhaps I was not altogether aware at the time, but the fruition of the project was a personal moment of realization of the candid value of my art education. In no other field was I so blissfully blithe about my grades yet so personally invested in my peers’ and professors’ reception to the work, and in no other field was the resultant object of my work so intrinsically motivated and therefore so productive.[5] Most remarkably, in no other field could I receive opportunities (much less utter encouragement) to liberally research social issues that pertained to my own personal and social landscape, and accordingly articulate my understanding of that research in a medium that was simultaneously perceptible yet intangible, moralistic yet nuanced, and confrontational yet interrogative. To me, this experience epitomized what learning really is.

Of course, this paradigm shift in public pedagogy has not been systematically implemented for quite observable reasons. Namely, how would one begin to “fairly” affix a grade or normative judgment to a product that is not a self-justifying treatise in itself, but essentially an imprecise yet intentional appeal for critical deliberation and dialogue? How would practitioners of a centuries-old tradition of evaluating categorical procedures of research, analysis, and explication (and in plenty of cases, post-rationalization) even begin to arbitrate measurable data from a product that dissents from those procedures’ perpetuity? And if this pedagogy of experiential intrinsic learning by way of artistic engagement truly has the constructive merit I believe it to have, how then might we begin to stimulate a systemically reformed education that breeds critical dialectics as much as actionable decisions? And ultimately entangled in this upheaval, how do we mediate the material values of “free market” capital with the intangible values of self-actualization[6] and actual freethinking?

The most immediate and profound barrier that directly obstructs this paradigm shift is the paradox of education as an institution. Our current model treats education as a product of a system dependent on fundamentally (though tacitly) political Western methodologies, fraught with their own self-imposed and self-maintained ideological dualities for the sake of comfort, ease, and propriety. While my politicizing of these dualities may seem indulgent or even “radical” (which embarrassingly seems to be one of the most forbidden adjectives among the utter jargon of present-day politics), the phenomenon of constructing them with such moralizing conviction (consciously or not) to the extent that they become an instructional manual for social regulation is necessarily a political phenomenon.

It therefore seems rational to me that what follows is the essential gesture of historicism, in all its reductive seduction. Let us consider this gesture ascribing upon the most classic of dualities: Us and Them (which Bachelard also refers to as Here and There, mentioned later). First, the most fundamental ideologies within the duality become detached from their pure semantics, and thus are reconceived as binary oppositions—that is, the Us and Them concept transcends from being a cognitive representation of the individual’s relationship to their externality and evolves into an antagonistic product of social identification, in which ingroups and outgroups are reduced to polarized beliefs. Second, the schism between those systems of beliefs becomes a matter of social competition, from which the system of beliefs belonging to the dominant party are those that become codified into complex, self-validating, and inherently artificial symbolic representations. Thus, moralistic judgments are imparted such that the set of values associated with the social identity of the ingroup is sermonized and the outgroup is demonized. As the dominant belief system is perpetuated throughout its historical trajectory as the ruling perspective, it becomes historicized—that is, represented as the historical reality: a truth truer than other histories; the proverbial Eye of Providence placed firmly atop the pyramidal hierarchy of literary and therefore cultural sanction). These particular artificial symbols (materialized as products of hierarchical order such as written law and organized classism) are indeed pragmatic in that they preserve the operational capacity to sustain the necessary social inequities erected into its own structure.

Those happenings that are considered evocative or provocative—as determined by the dedicated classifications of these historicized conventions—are then frozen in archival indices; those that are considered superfluous or counteractive to the narrative agendas are simply expunged from their ideological paradigms, and thus disallowed any acknowledgement of their incidence at all—neither contemporaneously nor among forthcoming generations of students and scholars—a true force of obsolescence. Subsequently, in the consistent repetition of this nearly algorithmic process, a palatable tessellation of narratives emerges—arranged in a configuration which occasionally bends and evolves, but never seems to truly rupture its original algorithm. To put it in Winston Churchill’s much simpler and more celebrated terms: “History is written by the victors.”

Once again employing the effortless resolve of his prose, I defer to Bachelard’s writing in the context of confronting of the issue of artificial dualities:

“’This side’ and ‘beyond’ are faint repetitions of the dialectics of inside and outside: everything takes form, even infinity. We seek to determine being and, in so doing, transcend all situations, to give a situation of all situations. Man’s being is confronted with the world’s being, as though primitivity could be easily arrived at. The dialectics of here and there has been promoted to the rank of an absolutism according to which these unfortunate adverbs of place are endowed with unsupervised powers of ontological determination… But in philosophy, all short-cuts are costly, and philosophical knowledge cannot advance from schematized experiments.”[7]

While Bachelard is ultimately addressing his line of reasoning specifically towards the architectural experience, he approaches the subject of interiority and exteriority as the phenomenological human experience, thus granting its validity to permeate through the entirety of the knowledge acquisition process, in a gestaltian sense. The here versus there duality that Bachelard illuminates in this context is precisely the social mechanism that has projected into virtual existence some of the most basal dualities upon which the Western world has constructed its social convention. The dualities are politically repurposed into a standard of binary oppositions, such as those injected between nationalism versus exoticism, simulated borders between human civilization and “nature,” “hard sciences” versus the arts, among literally dozens of other major and minor examples.

What I allude to in the lattermost example is the direct consequence that politicized oppositions have on the industriousness of scholarship—for at this point, what began as my own supposition of historicism’s implied teleology progresses now to encapsulate the system of education as a whole. The conception of history as an entity detached from our state of presentism is in and of itself reductionist, as it is within the contours of our historical understanding that we navigate our current world—both on a sociological as well as an individual timescale. While the loose ontogenetic procedure that I have thus ascribed to the process of historicism is theoretical in nature, it actually exists as the current paradigm of educational convention thanks to the victors of our colonial history. Accordingly, the bias of the empowered entities has generated a ruling system of beliefs within our society that can broadly be characterized by the dominating moralized values of capitalism, patriarchy, and luxury.

So in summary, the entire problem of education lies in historical governing bodies being granted the authority of deciding upon a peoples’ conceptions of what is true and what can be dispensed from study, for which they employ historicism in order to enforce. Why is this a problem? Because the notion of knowledge—understandings that individuals hold to be accurate, objective, and therefore applicable to their schemas of their own existence—should absolutely be egalitarian. Because if a population is denied ownership of a history that in its mere occurrence is an object of public domain, what knowledge can they truly own? If an individual’s own consciousness cannot even be free from the politicized agendas of hierarchical authority, are they truly free? And in what world does this systematic denial equate to a society that prides itself on its values of freedom and public education?

Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan is both hypersensitive and confrontational towards this institutionalized inequity of knowledge. Many of his works directly address the issue by means of memorializing some of those marginalized individuals whose contemporaneous social circumstances prevented their legacies from reaching the point of archive or heroism. For example, his Polar Eclipse exhibition at the inaugural Bahamian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2013 featured a video of Strachan trekking through a polar tundra (Appendix B) to pay homage to the voyage of Matthew Henson, an African-American who was one of the first individuals to successfully journey to the North Pole in 1909—a man whose accomplishments never before reached the pages of Western transcripts of our history. Not surprisingly, individuals of marginalized populations whose accomplishments are celebrated in the books of our Western histories have their recognition quickly trivialized by the exoticism that is imparted to outweigh the merits of their contribution; take, for example, the Disney animated feature film Pocahontas, which transformed the historical figure into a sexualized cultural icon.

“With a collapsing educational system and the distraction of tourism,’’ Strachan once wrote in a letter to Jane Farver, “a focus on developing an agency that allows its citizens to expand beyond its waters seems appropriate.’’[8] This notion of goading the viewers’ consciousness beyond their predetermined expectations is crucial to Strachan’s work and philosophy: he is cognizant of tourism’s impending threat of not actually allowing for global dialogue, but rather reinforcing the stratification of social identity, nationalism, and therefore, cultural expectations.

For example, of his experience presenting his Polar Eclipse exhibition at the Bahamas Pavilion, Strachan shared his observations that the majority of viewers of his show had reactions varying from surprise and intrigue to even shock and anger. Their expectations of the work presented at the Bahamian Pavilion—which was the country’s inaugural presence at the Bienniale—were that it would be representative of the Bahamas’ “national identity.” This was the effect of “postcolonial nationalism” that was appended to the Bienniale, by which he refers to the dominant notion that attending an international event in which works are presented by their geographical classifications should fulfill the role of essentializing the international identities that are represented. Viewers anticipated bite-sized iconography (perhaps with a trendy contemporary “twist”) reminiscent of the exoticized illustrations of the Bahamas that Western forms of cultural consumption have introduced: Caribbean culture, tropical weather, and the likes. They were instead shown imagery that on a surface level appeared indifferent and extraneous (if not blatantly contradictory) to the viewers’ established knowledge of the Bahamas as a destination: Strachan trekking through a polar vortex in the North Pole, for example.

The definitive nature of these expectations (as well as the resultant sentiment of disappointment from the thwarting of those expectations) are symptoms of postcolonial historicism that pervade much of the literature and perpetuated criticisms of contemporary art: specifically, the essentialism of exoticized culture. By essentialism, I refer to the convention of automatically exhibiting and understanding the work of non-Western contemporary artists as representations of the “essence” of the artist’s cultural background or heritage. It is the mechanism by which the canon of Western consumerism wants to bottle the consumption of non-Western contemporary art into a knowable and homogenized representation of a nation’s social identity. It therefore prohibits the artwork from being an autonomous, phenomenological experience; it disallows and demeans the poetic experience; it marginalizes those who are already marginalized.

It is thus self-evident why the theorists and scholars most skeptical of the Western notions imposed into historical discourse might themselves be cultural products of those very impositions’ resultant inequities. Take for example Sarat Maharaj: a preeminent scholar and curator who obtained his primary and secondary education in Apartheid South Africa (undoubtedly among the most extreme and catastrophic cases of systematized inequality within our recent history). While Maharaj seems to be hyperaware of the incongruities of the familiar Eurocentric lineage of art historical criticism he also seems to be unabashedly optimistic. “The archaeology of the word ‘art’ as understood within the Western system is an extensive subject, but look how dramatically we are leaving that system!” Maharaj exclaims, referring to the active radicalization of interdisciplinary practice in regions historically marginalized by the art world such as India, China, and Africa. He expands:

“[This global activity] deterritorializes received concepts of art. Groups working on the Internet or with film, video, performance, and other practices are involved in modes of knowledge production that often have oblique relations to the visual. They amount to spasmodic events that are rather different from what passes as visual art in the museum-gallery system. Are such practices more like research machines through which social, political, visual, statistical, epidemiological data are telescoped? These are visual-intellectual evolutions that cannot be reduced to constructions of the art system. What we call art activity is expanding, extending, transmogrifying in the global contemporary setting.”[9]

What Maharaj begins to unravel here is what Claire Bishop characterizes as the condition of the dialectical contemporary—a proposal for the paradigm shift of artistic scholarship to accommodate for what is evidently a new and radicalized landscape of art-making. Bishop explains how the classification of an artistic genre by its temporality—as in, the phrase “contemporary art” itself—is clearly paradoxical: it is indicative of the extremity of our engrained impulse to historicize anything of discursive value. How do you historicize what is by definition a condition of our present? How can we encapsulate the exponentially expansive activity that Maharaj observes as the contemporaneous circumstances of artistic practice? The dialectical contemporary addresses this by essentially embodying dynamic and planetary discourse as the ruling authority of criticism. It is therefore a form of defiance against the current methodologies of critical discourse: it disallows the conventions chronology, historicism, and essentialism, and instead proposes a discursive model that readjusts to new understandings of geography and temporality. Essentially, it recognizes the arbitrariness of the systems of classification with which we have been piloting art historical research and reconstructs them to treat the study of contemporary art not as a historical temporality, but as a module for understanding and accepting presentism in all its spastic, multidisciplinary, and ephemeral mystery. It is thus the ideal educational apparatus for the pluralistic world.

In deconstructing the fundamental conventions upon which the education of our future generations is contingent, this is not to say that educational curricula is optimized for learning when it is completely liberated of any imposed structure. What is certainly evident, however, is that the principal assumptions upon which these existing structures are provsional truly implore a methodical reassessment, and eventually a fundamental overhaul.

I deliberately target the educational system as a potential medium for the critical repair of our Western value systems for several reasons: certainly for the clichéd but valid truism that younger generations are indeed the leaders of our future societies, but also for the relatively cloudless tabula rasa that young minds are sensibly apt to retain. (Indeed, I anticipate that a radical reconstruction of traditionalized pedagogies—especially as a deliberate means of undermining the capitalistic values upon which the entirety of our populous has adaptively invested so much—would invoke indignant defensiveness and cognitive dissonance at a critical mass. Revolution, it seems, is a young person’s game.) However, the most critical role that institutionalized education plays within the theatrics of revolution is that in its ideological inception, it represents the romantic universal desire to “seek truth” among the chaos of existence, such that it might inform our constructive decision-making. (So ironically, the idealistic educational system is actually directly opposed to the existing educational system that obscures “truth” through a political lens, as I have thus thoroughly discussed.) So if the problem of our civil society lies within its barriers to free thought and proprietary consciousness, what better system to reimagine than that whose teleogical purpose is to foster an expanded awareness—a “higher education”?

So via what channels of outreach can we begin to mobilize a true critical dialogue? How can we engage a nervous public in the unfamiliar territory of the dialectical contemporary? How can we disengage the Western world from its post-colonial lens? How can we take advantage of the tendencies of civil behavior in order to optimize a system of social engagement and criticality—one that breeds freethinking as a civic duty?

These questions are quite obviously utopian in nature, but the one solution I can intuitively propose in order to begin to invite answers to them is exactly what this autobiography-turned-diatribe-turned-personal statement has thus far meant to assert: that the bounty of an individual’s egalitarian thought can be excavated by a practice in poeisis—which, as the foundation for art-making, I consider as the practice being a vessel for the creation of phenomenological experiences that transcend the material comforts of our constructed society, of spatial and temporal rationalizations, and of historicism: an experience of the aesthetic sublime. The aspect of removal from societal obligations is key, as Paul Chan emphasizes: “By not obeying the law of any system or authority external to the process of its own making, a work emphatically expresses its own right to exist for itself and in itself, and questions—by merely existing—the rule of law that works to bind all to a semblance of the common good,” he writes. “Art is a lawless proposition.”[10]

What the practice of poiesis teaches us is exactly this resistance that Chan describes: a resistance to reductionism in all its ease of articulation and self-justification; a resistance which engenders the straightforward unknowingness of our perceptual experiences, rather than fears it. As the social beings that our current state of civic engagements have bred, we are immensely fearful of confessing our inabilities to understand and articulate, to which our instinctive reaction is to over-articulate—either with semantic emphasis, repetition, or intellectualization—as a means of demonstrating the impression of understanding. We thus encounter a paradox: over-articulation as a medium for reductionism. But the institutionalized application of this paradox is the very phenomenon of cognitive dissonance that spawns historicism, essentialism, and my own inability to dissociate premeditated meaning from the creation of an art experience—it classifies threats of the unknown into categorical systems of the known.

Artistic practice—in all its creativity, relativity, and constant elusiveness from institutional definition (especially in the context of the dialectical contemporary)—resists such categorization. It epitomizes the practice of experiential learning in the mere fact that when implemented properly, the experience of engaging with art is exactly the experience of learning how to be free. In creating art, we release ourselves from the assumptions of value that are in actuality merely reflections of a post-colonial social order, and instead bravely attributing value to the intangible experience of the poetic form. And evidently, in our contemporary state of affairs, we crave this renewal of consciousness: as Bishop observes, “The idea that artists might help us glimpse the contours of a project for rethinking our world is surely one of the reasons why contemporary art, despite its near total imbrication in the market, continues to rouse such passionate interest and concern.”[11]

As a theoretical practice, artistic engagement exists in opposition to the constructs of our societal biases. But much more importantly, in engendering a sustainable model for freethinking, it actively resists acquiescence to the current state of affairs, elucidating a higher-order understanding of the systematic inequality and indifference that has been erected by those very constructs. In other words, freethinking enlightens the oppressed of the nature of their oppression. It is therefore a prerequisite for revolution, since ultimately, what will hopefully ensue from this critical understanding via poiesis is the mobilization of poiesis’ Aristotelian cousin praxis—the compulsion for social engagement, critical dialogue, and an honest form of freedom.

So where am I currently situated within this master plan? As with any radical deconstruction of established social orders, professional opportunities to engage with revolutionary ideals are not made easily accessible while also allowing navigation and survival in the capitalistic landscape in which we exist. Furthermore, it is only retrospectively that I realize that the pragmatic ideals that I have been progressively cultivating since my foray into critical artistic theory and practice have been aligned with Marxist ideals—given the taboo prescribed upon Marxism itself, the potential that these ideals might spontaneously be invoked amongst a critical mass of Americans is quite slim.

In the a Marxist account of my ideological saga, I might illustrate my present condition as a loyal and patient consumer of Cornell as a “higher education” institution: a centuries-old service-based establishment that apprehensively teeters between functioning to its societal expectations (as a productive asset to what is presently the accepted model of epistemology) and functioning as a nucleus for the very dialectical engagement that could begin to collapse those expectations. And in the most practical account, I still cling to idealism: I am simply a student whose accidentally auspicious academic path has engendered a faith in art—a vessel for the constructed experience of experience itself—as a force of educational reform. Above all, I am an individual (of hopefully many) who is patiently exploring opportunities to crack at the threshold of an intellectual revolution.

[1] Bachelard, Gaston, M. Jolas, and John R. Stilgoe. The Poetics of Space. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts noted significantly higher rates of prosocial behaviors such as civic engagement, academic performance, and career goals among students that were engaged heavily in arts curricula. See “New NEA Research Report Shows Potential Benefits of Arts Education for At-Risk Youth.” National Endowment for the Arts. National Endowment for the Arts, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://arts.gov/news/2012/new-nea-research-report-shows-potential-benefits-arts-education-risk-youth>.

[4] At this point, I feel obligated to interject with the disclaimer that from now on (unless otherwise indicated) I will be referring only to the Western canons of societal and educational order ( even more specifically, to those of America); although I have been educated in other international school systems, I regretfully admit that I do not feel as though I have sufficient insight nor criticisms towards those systems to formulate a substantial argument for reformation. Presently, the term “we” will refer to the proverbial “we” synonymous with the current American populace.

[5] Behavioral research in the field soundly indicates “a synergistic interaction of prosocial and intrinsic motivations in predicting higher levels of persistence, performance, and productivity”; see Grant, Adam M. “Does Intrinsic Motivation Fuel the Prosocial Fire? Motivational Synergy in Predicting Persistence, Performance, and Productivity.” Journal of Applied Psychology 93.1 (2008): 48-58. Web.

[6] In situating the issue of self-actualization within this argument, I refer specifically to the provocative psychologizings of Abraham Maslow in which he describes self-actualization as the ultimate “need” of the human psyche within his famous Hierarchy of Needs. Although the legitimacy of the hierarchical model has since been widely agreed upon as heavily reductive (and perhaps even a case of pseudoscience), I believe his theories maintain sociological significance in that they provide a rough skeleton for a global reconsideration of our motivations: atop which self-actualization humbly resides, encompassing . See Maslow, Abraham H. On Dominance, Self Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Ed. Richard J. Lowry. Boston: Thomson Brooks/Cole, 1974. Print.

[7] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space.

[8] Meier, Allison. “Overlooked African-American Explorer at Center of Bahamian Venice Pavilion.” Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic, 12 June 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <https://hyperallergic.com/73215/overlooked-african-american-explorer-at-center-of-bahamian-venice-pavilion/>.

[9] Birnbaum, Daniel. “Temporal Spasms, Or, See You Tomorrow in Kiribati!” E-flux (2007). Print.

[10] Chan, Paul. “A Lawless Proposition.” E-flux. E-flux, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-lawless-proposition/>.

[11] Bishop, Claire, and Dan Perjovschi. Radical Museology: Or, What’s ‘contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art? London: Koenig, 2014. Print.

IN MEMORY OF JANE FARVER

Jane exemplified everything that a professor should be. She was dedicated, personable, and genuine. She embodied the good of the art world, and she loved it for the right reasons. She had an immensely astute critical mind, yet remained incredibly accepting, encouraging, and openminded in a competitive field where these values can often be lacking. She was selfless with her time, accepting every opportunity to help fulfill projects and ideas she really believed in. She readily and excitedly shared her wealth of knowledge and experience to as many people as she could, far beyond her professional duties.

She truly loved to be a generative force of change in students’ and artists’ lives—not for recognition, not for thanks, but for the simple and beautiful reason that she wanted to live in a world enriched with art, and to cultivate the young and diverse minds who were to create that world.

The art world truly would not be what it is today without her contributions, nor would I. I feel truly blessed to have shared these past several months under her guidance and mentorship, and I hope we can honor her by perpetuating her positivity and humble generosity throughout our work and our lives.

WALTER DE MARIA’S “NEW YORK EARTH ROOM”

The New York Earth Room installation at the DIA site in SoHo is a breathtaking piece, for reasons that exist only in the ephemera of experiential perception itself. Aligned with the immensity of introspection and ambition that the legendary artist Walter de Maria has been known for, Earth Room is so preposterously simplistic yet vast in both its physical form and its conceptual impact.

De Maria’s artistic legacy of large-scale Earth Art pieces has afforded him public acknowledgement as “Artist at a Grand Scale.” But his work transcends concerns of scale to the extent that it refers to the size of the installation: the “Grand Scale” that de Maria contends with is cosmological, dealing with actual astronomical scales. Having just recently seen his indoor sculptural installations at the Dia:Beacon site in Beacon, New York—which was my first introduction to the artist’s work—I had the realization that somehow I was experiencing the same sense of awe, hyperactive “presentness” (for lack of a better word), and sanctuary from the constructions of the civilized city. As William Powers of the Washington Post writes, “Perhaps that is how De Maria seeks to change the world: by clearing out unexpected spaces where our imagination might grow.”

Much of this can be attributed to the site specificity of both pieces, yet the strategies employed are almost antithetical. At the Beacon location, de Maria’s pieces—particularly the Silver Meters and Gold Meters series—interact tangentially with the rigid structuralism of the building’s industrial form, creating a sense of absoluteness and certainty derived from the impeccable, seemingly manufactured formality of the pieces themselves. Conversely, the New York Earth Room is formless: its sheer beauty lies in its absolute entropy, to borrow a phrase from de Maria’s fellow Earth Art colleague Robert Smithson. The sensation of viewing the formless piece, breathing in the stench of its soil, and generally disembodying oneself from the built environments that can be perceived just beyond the work itself are experiential elements that combine to create a sensory understanding of the natural world as it really is: the distinctions between nature and human civilization are truly arbitrary and artificial, and have contributed to a perpetuating ambition for “controlling” the entropy that truly does not even belong to the human race.

PIOTR UKLANKSI: FATAL ATTRACTION

The solo show Fatal Attraction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features the works of Polish multimedia artist Piotr Uklański. The show functions partially as an exhibition of Uklański’s prolific series of images, The Joy of Photography (1997-2007), from which over half of the works in the exhibition are derived; this self-reference serve as a precedent to the irony and aesthetic of the artist’s shown works.

To me, the enigmatic appeal of Uklanski’s work is its deliberate yet restrained humor—which, in its restraint, becomes a vessel for subversion of the conventions of aestheticization in our popular visual culture. The viewing experience of Uklanski’s work is an experience of vertigo; he utilizes the tropes of photographic imaging and visual storyboarding such that viewers cannot help but fall into the “uncanny valley” of the image’s common knowability.

In the accompanying artist-curated exhibition Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection, this uncanniness is taken a step further yet in a more obvious direction. The theme of the show, which featured works from the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection selected for exhibition by Uklański himself, focused on “complicating Freud’s dichotomy of life force (Eros) and death drive (Thanatos) by locating deathliness in the beautiful; and the perverse pull of the repellent.” In laymen’s terms, Uklański is referring to the paradox of human instincts embedded in the psychoanalytical model of the “self” that seem to conflict internally and thus manifest as an endemic in the human psyche of Western civilization.

In a perfectly relevant and thoughtful effort, Uklański’s multimedia choices of pieces to thematically illustrate this were aesthetically and referentially provocative. Featuring an array of works that approach the interweaving of life and death forces—from artists ranging from Sally Mann to Weegee to Salvador Dalí to pieces by Uklański himself—the exhibition itself presented an aestheticization of violent, masochistic, or generally destructive images made paranormal by their visual sumptuousness or blatantly sexual seduction.

However, the artist-curated show did not present like an exhibition, but rather a scrapbooked collection of works that Uklański found intriguing as narrative landmarks or indicators of the problematic theme itself. One wall in particular was completely crowded in a salon-style display with dozens of photographic masters’ works, whose vastness trumped the accessibility of individual works’ careful inspection and reflection. Perhaps this display was simply a curatorial decision to effectively illustrate the pervasiveness of Eros/Thanatos representations in Western visualization; or perhaps this “scrapbooking” style of curation is simply a product of the practicing artist’s (versus curator’s) organizational reflection.

HITO STEYERL AT ARTISTS SPACE

The exhibition of German artist, filmmaker, and theorist Hito Steyerl’s work at the Artists Space in Soho was unlike any I had ever seen before. One of the dominating reasons for the undeniable efficacy of the exhibition was the clear subjectivity with which the artist was allowed creative freedom to enhance the spaces the was offered by the organization: its gallery location on Greene Street as well as its bookstore and artist talk and lecture location of Walker Street. In both locations, the curatorial nature of the shows effectively and brazenly embodied what I imagine to be the artist’s ideal vision for the presentation of her works—perhaps an infrastructural remnant from the organization’s history of being a purely artist-run space upon its founding in 1972.

Given the conceptual nature of the works of Steyerl’s repertoire that were shown in this exhibition, Artists Space was the perfect venue for creating a space that somehow subverted viewers’ comfort in the expectations of the traditional gallery or art-viewing experience yet simultaneously created an extremely welcoming and unintimidating atmosphere—both attractively intimate yet also unambiguously public. In both the gallery location as well as the bookstore and talk location, the deliberately curated spaces invited viewers to engage with the pieces in ways that tempted the viewer’s private thoughts into a greater discursive consciousness (which I can only imagine echoed brilliantly in the discourse of the public programming surrounding her exhibition held by the organization earlier this month).

The most arresting of the pieces I viewed in the exhibition from either location was the screening of Liquidity Inc., a 2014 film created on the basis of “research conducted through interviews and the accumulation of found visual material, and move between forensic documentary and dream-like montage,” as the press release articulates. Given such a methodology of research that is fundamentally relatable—not only among the millennial generation that lives within the invisible infrastructure of the networked internet but within the context of integrating rich biographical histories within the same vein—the viewers cannot help but be completely entranced by the hypnotic visual and acoustic rhythms that embody Steyerl’s obsession (articulated in the film as a “nervous breakdown”) with this concept of liquidity, in all its physical, immaterial, and capitalistic forms.

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Of course, credit for such an other-wordly experience is due at least in part to the unabashed installation of this piece: taking full advantage of the generous spaciousness of the main exhibition space of the Greene Street gallery location, the installation involved the construction of an eight-foot-tall pavilion structure covered in blue padding, shaped with an aesthetically graceful curvature that quite literally resembled the form of a liquid wave. Beneath this pavilion, large pillows—conveniently sized perfectly for two audience members (or one larger one) to settle beneath the wave and comfortably engross themselves in the hypnosis of the film. And to further embrace the audience in the magnetism of the piece, removing them from the spatial and psychosocial context of the outside world, a harsh blue light is cast throughout the entire room, effectively denying any comprehension of the time of day outside of the gallery and literally submerging viewers into the world of the artwork.

WAEL SHAWKY’S CABARET CRUSADES AND ZERO TOLERANCE AT MOMA PS1

As the architecture of the former public school might portend (consciously or not), MoMA PS1 offers a unique space for the exhibition of contemporary art with a particular flair for the didactic. This may certainly be said of two of the current exhibitions on view: Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades and Klaus Biesenbach’s curatorial show Zero Tolerance. Viewed in tandem, the pair of exhibitions provides a dialogue of viewing that contemplates a broad spectrum of histories and media, together conveying narratives of power and violence that are all too relevant to contemporaneous society.

What is interesting about the Zero Tolerance show that outwardly appeared defiant and courageous in its confrontation of controversial protesting against superficially productive state interventions was its deliberate evasion of works directly referring to what might be the hottest topic in New York City: the NYPD’s (and other national police departments’) brutality cases — a phenomenon quite obviously relevant to the general theme of the entire exhibition. Despite the vast majority of works in the show that tackled international protest events — both past and current — Biesenbach would appear to make a direct reference to the site of the exhibition being a characteristically New York City show through the careful titling, deliberately referencing recent history with the “zero tolerance” policing strategies enacted in the 1990’s that are predominantly cited as the origin of the recent brutality cases.

However, none of the literature surrounding the exhibition mentions the police controversies, and Biesenbach publicly shies from direct reference: “I felt it was very important to not be finger pointing but to start with the here and now and look at New York City,” he claims, regarding his choice for the exhibition title. “The choice for Zero Tolerance was not inspired by the city’s recent mayoral elections, but I did remember the times of zero-tolerance policies in the city and how it was ‘cleaning it up.’”

In the viewer experience, after theoretically having digested the images of protest and urban activism dominant in the Zero Tolerance exhibition, the viewer might see Shawky’s works as a more removed, aetheticized, and poeticized détournement against the notion of political control. One might read the mere act of recounting the tale of The Crusades from an Arab perspective in such a theatrical context to be an act of protest within itself — that is, sedition against Western narrations of history. One might further read the theatrical productions of The Crusades, which emphasize the secular motives of the Christian crusaders, to be a painfully poignant parallel to ISIS terrorism, similarly employing religious fervor as a mechanism for domination. The transparency of the puppetry in these productions — made even more apparent by the deliberate inclusion of the original puppets within the exhibition — underscores the transparency of complete control within such situations of conflict and aggression.

Read together, the two exhibitions inform each other on notions of historicism and social responsibility, thus bearing more poetic weight. Whether Biesenbach did fully intend Zero Tolerance to be an illustration of police brutality as a danger to democracy or not, perhaps the subversion of the topic through the air of neutrality was a political move meant to avoid pure didactics within the educational institution. (Nonprofit spaces such as Smack Mellon may have more freedom assuming moral implications in their exhibitions, directly tackling the issue of police violence in their most recent exhibition, Respond.) But perhaps, like Shawky’s show upstairs, the plea for the active viewer to deduce the contemporaneous implications of the work on view fosters an even more critical learning space that characterizes the institution of MoMA PS1 as a whole.

B. INGRID OLSON: DOUBLE-ENDED ARROW

B. Ingrid Olson’s current show entitled double-ended arrow at the Simon Subal Gallery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan seemingly reflects a surveyed yet philosophically directed body of work from the 29 year old artist from Colorado. Her work resists being tethered to any particular medium, presenting itself as a collage of sculptural and photographic elements but push the boundaries of visual accessibility and understanding. Blake Gopnik of Artnet News even likened her work to that of master painter Cézanne, seemingly for their sensitivity to the instabilities and idiosyncrasies of real, perceptual vision and perspective. Gopnik also associate the voyeuristic self-portraiture to the work of Francesca Woodman: an American photographer who used experimental film photography techniques to manipulate visual effects, often obscuring the clarity of her own figure.

It is perhaps impossible to dissociate the nature of the obscured female self-portrait from a reference to Woodman’s work, but the images presented in Olson’s show are certainly distinct in their aesthetic of perplexing perspective: through her almost neurotically deliberate utilization of perceptual framing and perspective, her work incites a emotional tension between inviting and resisting the viewer’s gaze.

As a psychology major, what captured me the most about Olson’s photographic collages layer images is their allusion to Freudian psychoanalytical concepts as described in Laura Mulvey’s seminal writings on the art historical “male gaze,” deconstructing the role of the viewer’s scopophilia in moving image art but harkening back to painterly traditions as well. Utilizing visual symbols such as frames, artificial and real shadows (created by lighting the sculptural elements of the pieces), and mirrors or mirrored representations, Olson’s work references psychoanalytical mechanisms to achieve self-knowledge and uncover the visceral nature of consciousnesses submerged beneath the visible, or the “ego” in Freudian terms. Ultimately, Olson’s sensibilities for framing the female body as her own manifest images that are characteristically feminine in their reflections of female self perception. Olson’s show presents powerful images that, by way of spatial and temporal confusion and anonymity, effectively resist narrative, visual accessibility, and thus objectification; images that simply could not have been concocted by a male artist.

JUDITH SCOTT: BOUND AND UNBOUND

Discerningly scheduled amidst the buzz of New York’s Outsider Art Fair, the Judith Scott’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum entitled Bound and Unbound — curated by Catherine Morris of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Matthew Higgs of White Columns, New York — has made waves within the New York art community and generated discourse about the nature of “Outsider Art” as a label, given the late artist’s biography of being institutionalized for Downs Syndrome and undiagnosed deafness.

In my experience of the show, the pieces that Scott created were not only relatable in their familiarity of materials and implicated form, but playfully eerie in their obscurity, creating an inscrutable quality that fall deep into the Uncanny Valley. Perhaps the most dominant sensation I derived from viewing the works was an impression of process — the neuroticism, experimentation, yet sheer confidence in the physicality of the object-making process that is utterly relatable to all artists, no matter their psychological condition or health.

As I was leaving the exhibition space, I overheard many conversations revolving around a singular question: would the works be as powerfully enigmatic and poignant as they were without the prerequisite knowledge of the artist’s condition? For me, it is impossible to say given that I could not have approached the show with a tabula rasa; I had specifically come to the Brooklyn Museum with interest in seeing works created by an artist with Downs Syndrome — an intention I am sure many visitors shared. However, what is certain is that the paradigm shift in societal expectations of the artist persona that this exhibition has induced is a ripple in institutionalized art-making and viewing practices that is long overdue.

The condition of “Outsider Art” within the contemporary art scene is still subject to an extent of exoticism, in a similar way that non-Western works are treated with such fragility and xenophilia in the Western art market. Besides the obviously problematic Other-ing of institutionalized artists, even in reference to Roger Cardinal’s art brut definition of the genre as rooted in “impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization,” “Outsider Art” has subversive implications of being borne of an uneducated, unrefined taste.

For these reasons, I firmly approve of the curators’ deliberate evasion of the term in any literature surrounding the exhibition. The lack of explicative wall text — contrasting the disproportionate amount of wall text in Kehinde Wiley’s seemingly more popular show, A New Republic, just one floor above — allowed the work to speak for itself in all its viscerally unapologetic form and materiality. In the limited text that provided, they admitted their own hesitations in an eloquent summary of their stance against the stigma: “The desire to search for the biography in the work — to hunt for it, expand upon it, and analyze its implications — can limit our seeing what the artist actually created.”