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dedsde foundation

chris ofili, PIMPIN' A'INT EASY collage and elaphant dung on linen

global vision: new art from the 90’s; the DESTE foundation:

centre for contemporary • art athens, greece

“Global Vision: New Art From the 90’s,” the inaugural show of Athens’ DESTE Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Art, was both a declaration of purpose for the Foundation and a demonstration of the curatorial enterprise of its Director, Katerina Gregos. Culled from recent acquisitions in the Dakis Joannou Collection, the three-part, six-month-long show also redefined the Collection’s direction away from the western-dominated archness that mirrored the ’80s towards a pluralism reflecting a spectrum of individual and universal experience.

“Part I” was the most “traditional,” with painting, sculpture and video that plumb affinities in personal and cultural history. Kara Walker’s black paper silhouettes and sepia washes summon vintage storybook imagery to reconstruct a history possibly even more monstrous than that recorded. Antebellum life is depicted in sadomasochistic vignettes where the distinctions of slave and master, revelry and revenge, history and memory are lost in the monochrome and enigmatic outline.

Less vitriolic, Yinka Shonibare focuses on the incongruities and hybridizations created by colonialism. He drapes African wax printed fabrics, adopted by the Black Power Movement to confirm ethnic purity and solidarity, into a Victorian gown. A further paradox: these fabrics are not truly African, but European imports of Indonesian designs. Chris Ofili, another British born Nigerian, voices the identity conflicts common to all first-generation immigrants by mixing folk art, African “products” (elephant dung!), and cultural and racial stereotypes in richly textured, often hilarious paintings. By fusing traditional and technological means, Greek-Cypriot artist Nikos Charalambidis explores the ethnic schizophrenia that comes of a marriage between a romanticized Orientalism (manipulated and exploited both locally and from abroad) and an imported Western materialism.

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Cuban artist KCHO’s “La Columna Infinita II,” a tower of wood strips held together by c-clamps in the form of boats and flotation devices, references Brancusi’s “Endless Column” and memorializes the endless stream of illegal immigrants – specifically Cuban boat people. In KCHO’s fragile construct, human fate literally rests on the turn of a screw.

The Centre’s video room contained Jocelyn Taylor’s “Alien At Rest,” a three-screen projection that juxtaposes sequences of the artist walking naked through New York City streets with those of her body submerged under water. Her unabashed presentation of the black female self is powerful, without dogma or threat.

Installation dominated the more adventurous “Part II,” with most of the artwork invoking ritual and engaging a variety of senses. Like an initiation, the visitor first passed through Montien Boonma’s “House of Hope,” the heady scent of whose spice coated walls and hanging strands of medicinal herbs acted as a therapeutic, cleansing transition from the material to the spiritual world.

Cai Guo Qiang integrates the philosophical principles of feng shui and c’hi into explosive, apocalyptic actions and installations, in which the provenance and order of things is paramount. In “The Dragon Has Arrived,” a pagoda becomes a rocket ship blasting an exhaust trail of red People’s Republic flags as it hurtles from tradition and constraint towards an uncertain future. Chen Zhen’s “Daily Incantations” also deals with temporal dichotomies in contemporary China. Wooden chamber pots hang from joists like spectators around a globe of obsolete electronic equipment: waste products of human consumption, one organic, the other synthetic. Sounds of sloshing and scrubbing layered with incantations of Maoist doctrine further invoke rituals of cleansing and purification.

Despite two such imposing neighbors, Shahzia Sikander’s remarkable paintings manage to hold their own – the two “miniatures” faring, surprisingly, better than the monumental “Veil ’n Trail.” Sikander weaves an highly personal narrative of female figuration and empowerment in a pictorial space that layers Eastern myth and religion with the Western fairy tale.

The visitor then negotiated the highly charged space of Nari Ward’s “Hunger Cradle,” a vast web/net in which are caught a plethora of disparate objects: another manifestation of Ward’s particular knack of endowing things and places with an uncanny spirit life, summoning almost primal needs and emotions.

The segues from tragic to comic in “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y,” Johan Grimonprez’ film tracing the phenomenon of skyjacking since the 60s, rhyme uncomfortably with what we see on the evening news. Grimonprez implicates the media for its manipulation of events and obsession with catastrophe, while exploring how the terrorist has been perceived and presented over four decades. That this is “art” rather than “documentary” is a moot point; the difference may lie only in the editing. Like much of the work in “Global Vision,” this film reproposes art’s role in affecting political and social consciousness.

Issues of identity and the body still prevailed in “Part III,” but seen now primarily through the lens, with craft exchanged for technology. In the place of Boonma’s “temple” was a room painted the deep rose of sex: the site of Pipilotti Rist’s video installation “Blauer Leibesbrief.” The previous spiritual journey becomes a sensual watery voyage down the length of a gem-studded female body, viewed though a cervical aperture.

In Mariko Mori’s “Pure Land,” the familiar binary of tradition and technology work their effects on Oriental female identity: a Zen-Buddhist goddess and toy-like cybercreatures cohabit the same virtual transcendental cosmos. Dimitrios Antonitsis manipulates and decontextualizes found imagery in his “Asian Sleaze” series, which probe cultural confusion and the Oriental fascination with Western beauty and sexuality.

Words chosen by the viewer activate images chosen by Alexandros Psychoulis for his interactive “Black Box.” The viewer is alternately delighted, surprised or baffled when confronted with his/her preconceptions of supposedly objective, universal notions.

Matthew Barney’s mesmerizing film “Cremaster I” was shown surrounded by its sculptural accouterments. One occasionally recalls Lewis Carroll in Barney’s abrupt shifts in scale and place, and bizarre formalistic and conceptual juxtapositions of things, beings, and circumstances that create a thoroughly perplexing but oddly convincing alternative reality. Anna Gaskell’s tales of the dark side of childhood allude directly to Lewis Carroll. Her enigmatic dramas are implied rather than narrated, with the viewer left to fill in the blanks with a subjective fantasy of his or her own.

Finally, perhaps the premise of “Global Vision” was best summed up in Rineke Dijkstra’s unmediated photographs of adolescents on beaches in different countries. Classical in their approach, they crystallize all the conundrums, anxieties and ambiguities of sexual and cultural identity on the verge of a new age. A parallel may be drawn to a “New York Times Magazine” article of a year or so ago featuring portraits of extraordinary looking children slightly younger than Dijkstra’s subjects – the issue of racial admixtures such as Korean/Russian-Jewish/African-American. The point is that, rather than the mongrel homogeneity once fearfully predicted, such blends in fact produce individuals—and by extension artwork—of unique yet universal beauty.

Andrea Gilbert
London, England
1998


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