July 11, 2013
For her newest piece, Indian-born artist Rina Banerjee’s site-specific installation, which opens July 13 at the Sackler Gallery, depicts the river as a site of cultural exchange and communication. The sculpture incorporates ostrich eggs, shells and other natural and synthetic materials. Work on the project began Tuesday and visitors were invited to witness the progress Wednesday before the grand opening. Curator Carol Huh says, “Banerjee weaves a fairytale encounter with a place at once playful, dangerous, and endangered—like the river itself.”
The full title of the piece hints at some of these elements: “A world Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this.”
June 19, 2013
Photography is said to be the truest representation of reality. The ability to capture still and moving image inspired artists to document life, rather than embellish it. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov inspired the genre cinéma vérité or truthful cinema. Today, photography maintains a special claim to objective truth alongside news stories. Rarely is the hand of the artist acknowledged in the making of a photograph.
But it’s everywhere in the work of New York-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen. A new exhibit at the African Art Museum, curated by fellow artist Craig Allen Subler, takes 55 works from Ballen’s nearly half-decade career shooting in black and white to illustrate the ways in which the artist has utilized the tools of drawing, namely mark-making and line, to create his unique aesthetic world.
Spanning from his early portraits to later, denser works that reference theater as much as photography, the exhibit, “Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen,” shows just how thoroughly the concept of line infiltrates and structures his work across his entire career. Mangled hangers, clotheslines, stick figures drawn directly on the walls–the lines of Ballen’s photographs exist like totems, complete with their own psychic drama similar to Jackson Pollock’s early experiments with Jungian archetypes, or Pablo Picasso’s exploration of mythic figures like the minotaur. The exhibit moves roughly from portraiture to theater to a collaborative image-making that fuses the subject with line so completely that all that’s left is a peek of an arm or a disembodied head.
The artist, who spent nearly a year hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town as a young man, is also a geologist who claims citizenship in what he sees as the last generation of photographers working with black and white film. Though he has lived in South Africa for more than 30 years, his work maintains an outsider art aesthetic. Interior shots in the homes of rural South Africans, from his Platteland series, seem to exist at the precise moment chaos turns to order and vice versa: live animals exist alongside their more domesticated toy counterparts, white walls that are otherwise unadorned have smeared handprints or childish doodles scrawled right on the surface and people are typically in some state of undress.
In South Africa, the aesthetic has reached a certain counter culture cache embodied in the idea of Zef. Taken from the Afrikaans word for “common,” zef’s unofficial ambassador is the band Die Antwoord, which collaborated with Ballen on its video “I Fink U Freeky,” also included in the museum’s exhibit.
“They told me when they first saw [my] work that they stopped what they were doing for a year and went in a different direction,” says Ballen of the hip-hop-rave group who reached out to him to work on the video. He says their two styles organically fused and the whole video took only four and a half days to shoot.
When Ballen first saw the exhibit, he says it felt instantly right. “The exhibition is quite silent,” he says, pleased with the outcome. In fact, it’s almost eerily so. The aesthetic still hits just as hard when combined with the rambunctious music of Die Antwoord. Standing in the middle of the gallery space, surrounded by work from his entire career, Ballen says it’s exhilarating to confront himself, to look at what exactly has been guiding his work for so long. “It’s very gratifying,” he says. “Looking back at the work, you feel, well, at least I’ve preserved something through all those years. . .there is a line that runs through.”
“Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen” is on view at the African Art Museum through February 9, 2014. Ballen will be at the museum Thursday, June 20, for an artist talk.
June 13, 2013
In the shadow of the Blue Mountain foothills on the Umatilla Reservation in Orgeon, Crow’s Shadow Institute of Art has been nurturing and cultivating American Indian artists from across the country. The works of seven of those artists are now on display at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City.
“Making Marks: Prints from Crow’s Shadow” will feature pieces from Rick Bartow (Wiyot), Phillip John Charette (Yup’ik), Joe Fedderson (Colville Confederated Tribes [Okanagan/Lakes]), Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho), James Lavadour (Walla Walla), Wendy Red Star (Crow) and Marie Watt (Seneca).
Check out a preview of some of the work from the show:
“Making Marks: Prints from Crow’s Shadow” is on view through January 5, 2014 at the American Indian Museum Gustav Heye Center in New York.
May 23, 2013
Friday, May 24: Gallery Talk on Jeff Koons’ Kiepenkerl
What is about pop artist Jeff Koons that draws equal parts scorn and admiration? The art world, argues a recent article in New York Magazine, remains skeptical even despite his commercial success. “Koons is,” writes Carl Swanson, “by the measure of sales of new work, which is the money-mad art world’s only objective measure, the most successful living American artist, but he has never before had a museum retrospective in New York, his home base for 36 years.” His reputation, says Swanson, is built on creating toys for rich old boys. The Hirshhorn’s own Koons, Kiepenkerl, is a strange mix of old meets new, with a candy-coating of silver. The statue of a traveling peddler plays on nostalgia while selling an exciting spirit of exploration: poised with walking stick and a bag full of mysteries, where is this man headed? Today’s gallery talk will examine this 1987 stainless steel sculpture and look at how it fits into the artist’s larger oeuvre. Free. 12:30 p.m. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Saturday, May 25: Celebrate Hawai’i Festival
Even though the Washington Post reports that fewer folks will be traveling this Memorial Day weekend, you can still get that tropical vacation you were hoping for right on the Mall. Head to the American Indian Museum for a full day of events celebrating Hawai’i. The annual celebration is part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and includes cooking and hula demonstrations as well as films and performances from popular acts like the Aloha Boys. And if one day isn’t enough, Sunday features another full day of programs. Free. 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. American Indian Museum.
Sunday, May 26: Music at the Museum: Summer Band Concert
Salute the troops this weekend with a performance by the U.S. Navy jazz band, the Commodores. The show is outdoors, so bring the blanket, the family and some sunglasses. The band has been entertaining and educating since 1969 and features a mix of big band tunes and vocal arrangements. The concert series continues each fourth Sunday through August. Free. 6 p.m. Air and Space Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
May 1, 2013
When you go to the museum for a show, what you see is the final product: a painting, a photograph, an installation. But now at the Sackler, you can see the process behind the product in the new exhibit “Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project.” The exhibit explores the two-year effort to complete Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing’s “Phoenix Project” and offers a look into the ways both creation and destruction can be part of the artistic process.
Now on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the final product, two giant phoenix sculptures, were originally commissioned in 2008 and intended for a building in the heart of Beijing’s central business district. But after delays for the Olympics, a global financial crisis and funding issues, the installation found different sponsors and a new home. At 12 tons and nearly 100 feet in length, the sculptures need lots of space. Mass MoCA had the room and desire to display it and the Sackler decided to offer its companion exhibit having worked with Xu in 2001 for his show “Word Play,” when it also acquired the iconic ”Monkeys Grasping For the Moon” sculpture.
The phoenixes reference the traditional Chinese motif but rendered from construction site materials, take on a new and modern meaning in the saga of China’s economic development. “My two phoenixes are quite different,” says Xu. While traditional lacquers, paintings and even hair ornaments from China (some of which are on view as part of the exhibition) draw on the mythical bird as a symbol of wealth, nobility and peace, Xu’s industrial installation is in tension with these qualities.
When Xu went to the site where his sculptures were originally going to be and saw the construction of the new building in Beijing, he says he came in contact with the conditions of the workers there. He saw before him the face of Chinese development–its soaring architectural business buildings–and the hands–the laborers who did not seem to reap the benefits of the country’s boom. “The contrast was the inspiration,” he says.
Because of the scale of his project, he had to rely on the same labor. He relied on their know-how and expertise when designing and modifying his work. He also spoke with engineers and architects to help design the massive birds.
But, in the lead up the Olympics, he, along with everyone else engaged in construction, was ordered to stop. The government wanted to ensure pristine air quality for the international games so as not to draw any criticism. It’s an irony not lost on Xu, who included official government notices in the exhibit at the Sackler. After the financial crisis, he then had to find alternative funding and ended up turning to Taiwanese-based businessman, Barry Lam, founder of Quanta Computer.
Citing the many ups and downs of the artistic process, curator Carol Huh says, “What we’ve tried to do here for the first time is really show the process.” Sketches, clay models, computer-generated renderings as well as a special documentary about the works comprise the exhibit. The title, nine deaths and two births, refers to the many challenges he faced and the two children born to his staff during the process, a symbol of the phoenix-like quality of artistic creation.
On view at Mass MoCA until November, the phoenixes will head next to New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project” is on view through September 1, 2013.