construction in process V by own drolet

Construction in Process V Mitzpe Ramon, Israel

Construction in Process is the ongoing title series of exhibitions organized by the Artists’ Museum, a loose coalition of artists from around the world who have put together five international exhibitions to date since the group’s founding in 1981. Ryszard Wasco, an artist and curator from Lodz, Poland, organized the first C.I.P. exhibition in 1981 in his home city during the birth of the Solidarity movement. His strategy was to write to many of the most prominent artists in the western art world at that time (most of whose work he had seen only in reproduction), and try to convince them to come to Lodz, at their own expense, to create a work of art to be donated to Solidarity. Surprisingly, almost everyone invited chose to attend, including such major figures as Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Dennis Oppenheim, and Richard Serra. Two months after the exhibition was mounted martial law was declared, work was confiscated, and Ryszard Wasco was forced to relocate from Poland to Berlin. In 1985 the second C.I.P. took place in Munich, with the hope of forming a cultural bridge between east and west that would span the Berlin Wall, with the collections formed by the two exhibitions as symbolic endpoints. By 1989, with the collapse of the Wall, it was possible to return to Lodz for what was then the largest C.I.P. to date (over 100 artists attended), a celebration of the decade’s achievements that included a visit by Allen Ginsberg who had long been a hero to many of C.I.P.’s founders. The fifth C.I.P. which took place this past April in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel (the fourth C.I.P was a modest and more intimate gathering in Cardiff) was subtitled Dukium, or Co-Existence, and was meant to coincide with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Of the work that was ultimately completed in the two weeks spent in Mitzpe Ramon, there were few bright spots among mostly bland and/or derivative works. This is not an entirely fair judgement considering many of the artists were unable to get the supplies they were promised by the exhibition organizers, and were thus forced to improvise with new material that also often never got to them. The artists approached this exhibition in three ways (with many obviously crossing categories): (1) create signature work that had little to do with local surroundings other than in choice of materials or literal location (hence a profusion of art made from boulders and rocks) (2) construct work designed to engage the idea of Israel, the peace process, and co-existence, in the abstract (3) make work–or more often, conceive of an activity–related specifically to the immediate location. In category one the standout was the Dutch artist Vulto who is known for smoking everything he gets his on (as in the smoking of meat or salmon, not inhalation). In Mitzpe, Vulto smoked an entire small building, creating an intriguing and desultory work that, incidentally, had nothing to do with Dukium.

Category two attracted, with few exceptions, the hyperbolists; a group overcome by the beauty of the desert, the significance of holy land, and the ideal of peace. This led to many sloppy metaphors, unrealistic politics, and more large rock piles. Also in this category was Haim Steinbach, who proposed to build 200 meters of train track, in the middle of the desert, on which one empty passenger car would sit. The project was ultimately never realized and Steinbach was reduced to presenting his mock-up for the project, a toy train and track, which proved surprisingly effective. The piece functioned as an open-ended screen, onto which the viewer could project his or her likely conflicted attitudes about the Middle East. Movement, isolation, possibility, and stagnation all functioned as equally present dynamics within the work, creating an engaging mirror to the viewer’s ambivalence. The third mode of operation included projects like that by Marsha Hafif, who simply spent each day by studying the Arabic language. By struggling to comprehend another culture’s mechanisms of expression and meaning, Hafif acted out rather than merely illustrated, a meaningful exchange between cultures. This kind of humble, local interaction could also be found in Alan Wexler’s project, which involved the construction of rain-collecting devices made from inverted umbrellas and rubber tubing that he then gave to a local Bedouin tribe. By making use of the least needed device in the desert, simply reversing its function by inverting it physically, Wexler showed an ingenuity that could be matched only by the Bedouins themselves (who have long been known for converting detritus into useful or ornamental objects), and found a peculiarly pragmatic way to transform material into a new kind of cultural object. Glenn Seator and I chose to collaborate on a photo project documenting a local, rather Spartan housing project that looked like a Peter Halley fantasy land of banal geometry. Consisting of identical two-family cube houses differentiated only by their color coded water tank covers, this housing for new immigrants stole the show as cultural artifacts pregnant with all this troubling about their origin. Simply documenting their starkly factual existence seemed enough. Ryszard Wasco contributed a large sand painting (depicting a loaf of bread) which was created through the night in the middle of a canyon with the help of many of the artists and writers invited. While suggestive of 1970’s earth works, its simple and open-ended imagery, coupled with its participatory realization, resulted in a successful, if highly contingent, work.

This series of exhibitions has mutated from a group of artists mobilizing colleagues from around the world to affect the political situation of their immediate surroundings, to an ever growing, independent body that addresses events and themes beyond, and in this case quite alien to, its founders’ local circumstance. Growing pains usually accompany such rapid expansion, and C.I.P. was no exception. From logistics, to over-all conception, C.I.P.V was plagued by various confusions, and proved to be the most useful, perhaps, as an opportunity to question the reason for continuing this sort of gathering, now that the Solidarity/ east/ west dynamic no longer animates it. Two major points of contention among the participants were the quality of C.I.P.’s ultimate exhibition, and the Artists’ Museum’s selection process, in which artists choose artists. The final exhibition at C.I.P.V, if it can be called that, was difficult to see and impossible to cohere in any proper fashion. This situation obviously must be rectified by better organization the next time around, especially with regard to the artists’ receiving the required equipment needed to finish their projects. But focusing on the exhibition rather than the two weeks that preceded it, is to deny C.I.P.’s most radical feature. A gathering of this sort (without its past historical framework to guide it) proposes no specific function, but as a contingent and mobile interactive event, it provides a corrective to the many pedagogical international exhibitions seen each season. Artists choosing artists, while resulting in occasional nepotistic embarrassments, also holds out the possibility of a truly radical alternative. True, demographic accuracy may not be maintained, but an undisclaimable subjectivity, at an administrative level, may be. While momentarily lost in the desert, after years of historically determined, dramatic “successes,” C.I.P. and the Artists’ Museum are still radical concepts. What made C.I.P.V significant is difficult to describe to those who did not experience it, and this is perhaps the greatest hallmark of its conditional achievement.

Owen Drolet

New York