There are only eight artists in “9 Artists,” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Who is the ninth? Is it the viewer, or the curator? Or is it an absence, like the ninth tile in a sliding puzzle — a space that offers a chance to reorganize, reassess?
Put together by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this is a substantial, sometimes frustrating, occasionally quite moving exhibit. It features work by an international array of artists who apply such critical awareness to their art and their place in society that they keep stepping away, to reappraise and to escape labels and easy reads.
Many of them are not in the art business to create compelling objects; they’re in it to rattle cages and disrupt norms. Not painters or sculptors, they work largely with ideas and expectations. They’re citizen-artists, calling attention to value systems — artistic, political, social, economic — that elevate some and ignore others.
Much of the work is intangible. This is a conundrum for exhibition spaces, which must rely on relics and documentation of projects that can’t be seen in the flesh. The Walker’s assistant curator, Bartholomew Ryan, who put together this show, has not solved the puzzle.
Filmmaker Renzo Martens’s ambitious project, the Institute for Human Activities, which supports artists in the Democratic Republic of Congo to make art they can live on, is principally represented by a static video of a lecture he gave at the Walker. Others utilize a leaden interview format in their videos. Artists such as Bjarne Melgaard and Nástio Mosquito, who shape their lives and language into performance, are hard to get a bead on in this mode. Melgaard comes across as deliberately inflammatory — the Don Rickles of gay conceptual artists.
Then there’s the tricky Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who critiques the value put on objects and display — to “defrock” the “rules of representation,” as she puts it in wall text.
Her video “present, but not yet active” documents her attempt to participate in Manifesta, a European contemporary art biennial, without displaying anything, but to create a shared experience with her curatorial team at the Frankfurt Zoo. It’s not much to watch.
More compelling is Haghighian’s prickly wall sculpture, which she reluctantly agreed to create for an art fair. Text appears in the spaces between hammered, bent nails: “I can’t work like this.”
Then, many pieces dazzle. Hito Steyerl’s brilliant video, “How Not to Be Seen. A [expletive] Didactic Educational.Mov File,” both romanticizes and dreads invisibility.
In an age of increasingly common surveillance, it’s a comically helpful guide to disappearing. Steyerl deploys a green screen, an old tarmac patterned with giant pixels to measure the acuity of cameras in the sky, and a video of Three Degrees singing “When Will I See You Again.”
We learn, by means of British-accented computerized narrators, that in 1996, a satellite camera had a resolution of 12 meters per pixel, and today it’s one foot. “To become invisible,” the video instructs, “become smaller or equal to one pixel.” On screen, people scurry about with square-foot masks over their heads. Steyerl masterfully conflates our fleshly existence with that of our selfies, avatars, and other personal digital files. It’s as chilling as it is funny.
Another sly comment on surveillance comes from Liam Gillick, whose “Via Del Charro” recreates the supplies J. Edgar Hoover requested for his hotel room. It’s a peek into the private life of the king of surveillance: a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of bourbon (one for him, one for his lover), fruit, light bulbs. Light bulbs?
Yael Bartana’s rousing three-part film, “and Europe will be stunned,” follows the fictional ascent of an actual group the artist founded, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. It’s a heroic, tragic tale, in which a young Pole calls for Jews to return to Poland. The movement extends to anyone who has been cast out. After the young leader is assassinated, his wife proclaims at a memorial rally, “There are no chosen people.” Everyone deserves a chance.
It’s a utopian vision, daringly stirred up with echoes of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” but Bartana tempers her optimism. She lets cautionary voices in. At the rally, other speakers invoke the Holocaust. “And Europe will be stunned” is infused with passion, but balanced by an almost academic circumspection.
Danh Vo’s “Tombstone for Phùng Vo,” a grave marker for his father, who is still living, is in the Walker’s collection. When Vo’s father dies, it will be shipped to the site of his grave in Copenhagen. The object is a byproduct of the art, which is really a performance of documents — a will (on view), a contract with the Walker. At a time when truth is getting truthier, we consider documents to be reliable facts. Are they?
The most tangible work in “9 Artists” comes in a sprawling, quirky installation by Vo, “IMUUR2,” featuring thousands of objects collected and made by painter Martin Wong, who was active in New York’s East Village in the 1980s and died in 1999. (Maybe Wong is the ninth artist. In a show so fraught with redirection, could it be as simple as that?)
Poppy and eclectic, it accumulates into a cultural and aesthetic biography, with its little ceramic figurines, Encyclopedia Britannica, bevy of Donald Ducks, and old, racist ads for Aunt Jemima and Cream of Wheat products. The sheer materiality of it grounds the whole heady, annoying, deep, provocative show.