By Daniel Lovering
Associated Press Writer
June 3, 2008
It’s a contemporary art exhibition uniquely rooted in the past, with a history that stretches back more than a century and a tradition fostered by a Gilded Age industrialist.
But the latest incarnation of the Carnegie International, the oldest exhibition of its kind in North America, remains firmly focused on the complexities of today’s world and grapples with existential questions about life beyond our realm.
In more than 200 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, multimedia installations and other works, 40 artists from 17 countries ponder what it means to be human in a world where global events challenge or threaten our daily existence, organizers say.
The 2008 Carnegie International, which runs through Jan. 11, 2009 at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, is the 55th in the series and the first to have a title, “Life on Mars.”
The show’s name was taken from a song by British rocker David Bowie. The song alludes to a world spinning out of control and longingly asks, ‘Is there life on Mars?’ according to the exhibition’s curator, Douglas Fogle. With that rhetorical question, he says, the song’s narrator could be thinking, “Is there a better place than this? Or, are we in a strange world ourselves already?”
With those thoughts in mind, Fogle traveled the world, visiting artists’ studios over a two-year period to select works for the exhibition. He assembled an initial list of 150 artists before paring it down to 40, with the help of other curators.
Some of the artists, such as Austrian painter Maria Lassnig or Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, may be largely unknown in the United States, despite having gained recognition in their home countries and elsewhere, he said.
Others, such as Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford, are better known among stateside art enthusiasts.
More than half the pieces in the show are new to Pittsburgh and the United States, and slightly less than half are “straight out of the artist’s studio,” said Fogle, who was previously a curator for 11 years at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The artists – all but two of whom are living – range in age from 29 to 89, but Fogle insists the quality of their artwork is not a function of age. “Sometimes the oldest artist in the room can be the youngest artist in the room,” he said.
At the show’s start is a wall-covering work by Bradford that entails advertising posters from the streets of Los Angeles that carry a melancholy-tinged appeal from a law firm to fathers seeking child custody, divorce or visitation rights.
On the roof of the museum, Bradford has spray-painted what Fogle calls an “invisible” piece: a large-scale homage to victims of Hurricane Katrina that reads, “HELP US.”
“It’s supposed to be invisible until maybe Google Maps goes over and takes a picture of it,” Fogle said.
Among the other works in the exhibition are sculptures made in the 1970s by the Italian artist Mario Merz, who died in 2003, that incorporate stacks of newspapers, neon lights, wire and fabric.
One untitled work by Merz illustrates the Fibonacci sequence – a mathematical progression that involves adding a number to the two numbers before it, a pattern found in nature and referenced in the novel “The Da Vinci Code.” The numbers appear in a column of neon lights topped by a stuffed lizard that’s apparently crawling away, as if trying to escape. Another piece, “Cavemanman,” by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, invites visitors into a large cave fashioned from packing tape, cardboard and other ordinary materials. Its recesses are littered with aluminum cans, and copies of pages from books by radical philosophers and novelists line the walls, attached to fake sticks of dynamite shaped from tin foil.
But the show’s signature work is something more modest – an image of the globe viewed from space, painted by the late American artist Paul Thek on the yellowed newsprint of a 1970s edition of the International Herald Tribune.
“He’s painting the world on top of the world,” said Fogle, noting the ephemeral nature of the paper. “The medium … which is the newspaper, is also the events of the world that you’re seeing him paint.”
Bringing the world of art to Pittsburgh was one of Andrew Carnegie’s objectives when he founded the exhibition in 1896, just months after the start of the world’s oldest contemporary art exhibition, the Venice Biennale.
Through the shows, currently held every three or four years, the industrialist sought to build a collection by purchasing works by the “Old Masters of tomorrow,” while educating and inspiring audiences, according to the museum’s Web site.
The museum’s permanent collection is sprinkled with works acquired through past exhibitions, such as Winslow Homer’s “The Wreck,” from the inaugural Carnegie International, and Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “Sorrow,” which appeared in the 1920 show.
While initially devoted to painting, the exhibition later grew to encompass works in other media.
The current show brings art from around the world to Pittsburgh, and it also attempts to show visitors that the world may not be as it seems. Says Fogle: “If you think about Mars as a metaphor, each artists’ space that you go into in the exhibition shows you your world reflected in a very different way.”