Artforum / May 2008

"Worldy Concerns": "Life on Mars"

“ONE READING OF DAVID BOWIE’S song ‘Life on Mars’ would be that he’s talking about escaping a world that’s spinning out of control and falling apart,” explains curator Douglas Fogle in reference to his appropriation of the musician’s title for the Fifty-fifth Carnegie International, which opens this month at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. “But another interpretation—and this is the way I like to think about it—is that it’s to do with the human desire to connect. After all, if you think about Hegel’s formulation of the master and the slave, to say nothing of other central theories of European philosophy and psychoanalysis, it’s all about the idea that we’re always trying to connect.”

Using the song as a jumping-off point but giving Bowie’s “sailors fighting in the dance hall” a wide berth, Fogle has focused on quieter, more intimate moments of everyday life and a sense of being part of a larger universe. A small acrylic painting by Paul Thek—one of forty artists included in the exhibition—made around 1974 would seem a literal emblem of this idea: The work features an image of the earth as seen from space, rendered on the pages of the International Herald Tribune. As Fogle puts it, “Thek began painting on newsprint in part because he was sick of art-world conventions and wanted to use something immediate. And yet one cannot ignore that the image, which is unfinished, is rendered against a background of current events from around the time of the Pioneer 10 space probe.”

The International’s overarching theme is also approached through work that employs fragility or the ephemeral as a strategy for reflecting on the humbler and more vulnerable aspects of human society. Fogle first explored these ideas in an essay—titled “Is There Life on Mars?”—for the catalogue to “The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop,” a 2007 exhibition of recent Japanese art curated by critic Midori Matsui. Although those artists are not featured in Pittsburgh, the ethos of modest worldliness is similar. For example, arte povera artists Mario and Marisa Merz are both included, is young Korean artist Haegue Yang. Fogle visited a project by Yang in an obscure industrial district in Seoul: “There was this
abandoned house that she had filled with origami and strings of lights, a dilapidated little place that turned out to have been her grandmother’sand was heartbreakingly falling apart. It was anamazing moment.” This sensibility is also seen in the work of Sharon Lockhart, another foundational artist for the exhibition. On view is her film Pine Flat, 2005, a study of kids living in a small town in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. While heavily influenced by structuralist filmmaking, the piece has a palpable humanity.

Empathy for the unassuming and obscure notwithstanding, Fogle’s project is aimed squarely at building on the International’s status as the oldest—and arguably grandest—exhibition of international contemporary art in North America. The show’s artists represent seventeen countries among them, and the list contains a high proportion of names approaching ubiquity in recent biennials and other large-scale shows—Doug Aitken, Kai Althoff, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others.  But it also reveals an awareness of emerging practitioners, as seen by the inclusion of Ryan Gander, Susan Philipsz, Ranjani Shettar, and Andro Wekua. Giving “Life on Mars” an intergenerational spin, eighty-nine-year-old Maria Lassnig and septuagenarian Vija Celmins will show alongside artists in their twenties and thirties.

Since joining the Carnegie Museum in 2005, Fogle has primarily concentrated on solo presentations—two of these artists, Phil Collins and Rivane Neuenschwander, have work in the International—but in his previous position as a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he organized international group exhibitions such as “Painting at the Edge of the World,” in 2001, and “The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–1982,” in 2003. Thus, the global reach of “Life on Mars” is nothing new for Fogle, although it promises to be more elusive in tone and metaphoric in approach than his projects to date.

The architecture of the Carnegie Museum itself—actually two interconnected buildings, one constructed in 1895 and the other in 1974—presents installation challenges, with multiple entrances and exits to be considered. But for a design solution, Los Angeles–based architects Escher GuneWardena (designers of Blum & Poe gallery in Los Angeles and consultants on Mike Kelley’s installation at 2007’s Skulptur Projekte Münster) took inspiration from one of the show’s artists for their design of the interior: They used the Fibonacci series—a longtime fascination and oft-repeated motif of Mario Merz’s, for whom it represented the underlying structure of creation and growth—to determine the proportions of the galleries. 

Just as this aspect of the International’s design is hidden in plain sight, so its audience is also more multilayered than it might at first appear, consisting—as the micro- and macrocosmic concerns of Fogle’s show might suggest—of global art travelers on the one hand and a broad local contingent on the other. While the survey certainly reflects an awareness of the former, the curator emphasizes the show’s regional importance. “Hundreds of thousands of people from Pittsburgh and the surrounding area will come,” Fogle states. “They are really looking forward to seeing some of these artists—most of them, in fact—in their hometown for the very first time.”

Image: Paul Thek, Untitled (Earth Drawing I), ca. 1974