Welcome to this situation

Arthur Lubow profiles Tino Sehgal, zero-impact conceptual artist/sculptor/choreographer.

Unlike so much of contemporary art, Sehgal’s art evokes passionate reactions among the unschooled as well as the cognoscenti. Anyone who has seen the onlookers trudging passively through an art museum (all too often the Guggenheim ramp resembles the humane cattle slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin) can appreciate the achievement. What fascinates me about Sehgal is that working only with human clay, he can call forth thoughtful and visceral responses from people who remain unmoved by more conventional paintings and sculptures. When I expressed this to him, he laughed at me. “I’m more ambitious than that,” he said. “That’s too little of a game.”

Nature is never finished

Randy Kennedy visits Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty with conservators from the Dia Art Foundation, who have devised a low-tech way to document the structure’s changing condition year to year.

…the institute, which often works in countries where conservation projects are carried out on shoestring budgets, came up with a remarkably simple solution: a $50 disposable latex weather balloon, easily bought online.

Along with a little helium, some fishing line, a slightly hacked Canon PowerShot G9 point-and-shoot digital camera, an improvised plywood and metal cradle for the camera and some plastic zip ties (to keep the cradle attached and the neck of the balloon cinched), a floating land-art documentation machine was improvised, MacGyver-like.

Submerged by the rising waters of Great Salt Lake in the 1970s, the piece is now exposed to the air, covered with a layer of salt, and subject to alteration by human visitors.

On the Green Line

Artomatic 2009 once again takes place in an unbuilt-out office building, this time a new structure atop the enlarged Navy Yard Metro station. There’s a certain regularity to the eight-floor exhibition space, and we miss the rough-and-tumble of some of the funkier spaces in years gone by.

But the art keeps getting better, year over year. Representation by artists outside the immediate metro area continues to grow, especially artists from Sunderland in the U.K. There are many good photographers working with D.C. as their subject, coming from just as many perspectives. A standout is Angela Kleis, who showed “…There’s been a terrible accident,” high-angle images of a dead body lying artfully posed in the setting of various local landmarks.

Yes, there are a number of immature pieces in the show, some of them rather naively priced. But then there is a set of three accomplished abstractions on canvas by Jacqui Crocetta; or consider the lightly textured sculptures of heads by Anthony J. Ouellette. I generally don’t pause for video work, but Tracey Salaway’s “Seed Heads” caught me up short. It’s a long tracking shot through a patch of weeds, a beetle’s-eye-view of a dandelion in which its globe of seeds fills the screen.

Context and perspective

From Rebecca Mead’s profile of Christian Scheidemann, conservator of contemporary art and specialist in non-traditional materials, in the 11 May 2009 New Yorker. Scheidemann is in the process of replacing one of the tree stumps that are part of the late Ree Morton’s Sister Perpetua’s Lie (one had succumbed to rot) in preparation for a gallery showing. Unfortunately the replacement stump of White Oak (Quercus alba) turned out to be infested with beetles, so the conservator called on an exterminator, Jimmy Tallman.

The remaining question was whether the stump needed to be shipped to the shop, which would take up precious time, or whether Tallman could transport it himself, in his van. “What’s the value?” Tallman asked, with a note of uncertainty in his voice.

“Ten dollars,” Scheidemann said.

Tallman looked relieved. “That’s good,” he said. “Because I had one lady, a customer, and I took her antique table out with me, and it turned out to be worth twenty thousand dollars.”

“This will eventually be part of an invaluble installation,” Scheidemann said. “But I think we gave ten dollars for the cutting. So right now it’s worth ten dollars.”

Form vs. content

You can always analyze visual art in terms of content or appearance, its formal qualities. I would argue that it’s a game to separate them: they’re indissoluably linked. Everything in the material world around us has a narrative.

So to… classify visual art alone as the one medium that shouldn’t require any effort on behalf of anybody to ever understand it—you should just be able to look at it and walk away—as a pure sensation: that relegates it the level of… a roller coaster ride….Just shut your eyes and enjoy the ride.

I’m more in mind of saying, Open your eyes and enjoy the ride. Because it’s much more exciting if you are thinking and questioning, and you don’t know what it is, and it is full of questions and statements that you can’t possibly [grasp]. Because that is a truer reflection of just how extraordinary reality is than something that’s… neatly tied up in a bow… There, Look at that, Be at peace, Go home.

I’m more interested in something that leaves you asking all those questions like What is that? I don’t know what that is.

—Matthew Ritchie, Art:21 Structures

Art:21

The last time I was in a museum bookstore, I noticed a DVD series called Art:21. This turned out to be a suite of documentaries on practitioners active in the first decade of this century, some of them mature artists like Richard Serra and James Turrell, others in mid-career like Sally Mann, still others that are rising talents and less well-known. It’s been running on PBS stations for a while, but I flat missed it, since I rarely watch broadcast. So I took a break from the line of Perry Mason episodes I’ve been going through and added the discs to my Netflix queue.

The films are selective and to the point. Each hour-long episode deals with four artists, about ten to fifteen minutes apiece. With a few exceptions, there are no voiceovers or interviewer questions: the films (carefully edited) allow the artists to tell their stories in their own words. Title cards superimposed on images of the work provide dates and a bit of context. Each episode carries a thematic title (“place,” “spirituality,” “identity, “consumption” from the first season), but the connection of each artist’s work to the theme is sometimes tenuous. Each episode is introduced by a framing segment, of highly variable quality; Laurie Anderson does a fine job introducing the series premiere, but a collaboration between Steve Martin and William Wegman is fluff.

What I find especially encouraging about the project is its selectivity—the refusal by the producers (Executive Director Susan Sollins and her staff) to pump out material just for the sake of making product. Each season consists of only four hours of programming, and the seasons are produced every other year. So, after eight years, we have sixteen hours of film covering 60-odd artists. I’m looking forward to watching it all.

More to see

Artomatic 2008 is more spacious and generally comfortable than its predecessor events, spanning nine floors of Capital Plaza I, none of them built out. It was quite pleasant to use the office tower to get a 360° look at the burgeoning neighborhood around the New York Avenue Metro station. The entire block between the station and the tower is a hole in the ground right now.

Added corporate sponsorship provided for waystations on most of the floors—a needed rest for most of us, because there is a lot to see. A surprising amount of photography (well, maybe not, digital imaging is inexpensive), almost all of it worth a look.

There were several opportunities to step into a booth for a special experience: a camera obscura, a panorama of a Norway mountaintop, a documentary video installation from Galicia in western Ukraine, a nature-themed corner from Joanna Cornell promoting the Neighborhood Ecological Stewardship Training program.

I stopped the longest for a suite of introspective, biomorphic abstractions by Gail Vollrath. I also enjoyed a flock of crows well-observed and sculpted by Janet Gohres.