by
Jane Freeley

The 57th edition of the Carnegie International emphasizes the voyage. Curated by Ingrid Schaffner with just that right touch of sassiness and confidence, this unique display of contemporary art is the oldest recurring exhibition in the world. What makes the Carnegie International unique is not only its history.

With today’s proliferation of art fairs making art tourism a newly global phenomenon, the spectre of money and wealth are never far behind. With the International one can still maintain the illusion of art for art’s sake, removed from the trends and demands of the art market and the vainglorious purchases of the hyper-rich. This is an illusion worth fighting for and a necessary aspect of the phenomenon with which one safeguards one’s relationship to creativity and making. It doesn’t matter if you are a casual observer, a dedicated artist, a curator or a critic, the central importance of the Carnegie International is the illusion of critical distance from the nefarious and cynical aura of the art market.

The list of artists and participants to this edition of the esteemed exhibition is as eclectic as ever. Here is the official list and verbiage from the International:

  • Yuji Agematsu
  • El Anatsui
  • Art Labor with Joan Jonas
  • Huma Bhabha
  • Mel Bochner
  • Mimi Cherono Ng’ok
  • Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin
  • Sarah Crowner
  • Alex Da Corte
  • Tacita Dean
  • Jeremy Deller
  • Kevin Jerome Everson
  • Han Kang and IM Heung–soon
  • Leslie Hewitt
  • Saba Innab
  • Karen Kilimnik
  • Zoe Leonard
  • Kerry James Marshall
  • Park McArthur
  • Josiah McElheny with John Corbett and Jim Dempsey
  • Ulrike Müller
  • Thaddeus Mosley
  • The Otolith Group
  • Postcommodity
  • Jessi Reaves
  • Abel Rodríguez
  • Rachel Rose
  • Beverly Semmes
  • Dayanita Singh
  • Lucy Skaer
  • Tavares Strachan
  • Lynette Yiadom–Boakye
  • Dig Where You Stand by independent exhibition maker Koyo Kouoh

The official verbiage of participating artists also includes this:

  • 1 independent exhibition maker
  • 6 art collectives and collaborations
  • 13 individual artists who use the pronoun “he”
  • 17 individual artists who use the pronoun “she”
  • 20 artists who live in the US
  • 3 artists who live in Asia
  • 5 artists who live in Europe
  • 2 artists who live in Africa
  • 1 artist who lives in South America
  • 1 artist who lives in the Middle East

National affiliations by residence and birth for participants includes Austria, Bahamas, Cameroon, Cherokee Nation, Colombia, England, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Navajo Nation, Nigeria, Nonuya Nation, Pakistan, Palestine, Scotland, Senegal, Switzerland, United States of America, and Vietnam.

Regardless the so-called “international” scope of the exhibition’s history and the 57th editions attempts to honor this, make no mistake, this show is a contemporary art exhibition. I use the term “contemporary” not as a marker of time or temporality to denote the present but rather as an ideological trope. For contemporary art is as much an accumulated system of values and signifiers as it is about art of the current day. Indeed, one may make the case that regardless of an artist’s national or ethnic identity and origins, once he/she chooses to make work for an American or European audience, art market and its resident gatekeepers (critics, curators, other artists) then one abdicates the identity of ethnic independence in favor of the ideology surrounding contemporary art: extreme wealth, the prevalence of ideas over images, the erasure of national identity and cultural heritage, irony, cynicism; and the forfeiture of aspirations toward beauty, truth, and wisdom. It is paramount upon us that we understand and problematize the notion of the “contemporary” to safeguard the sanctity of criticality when coming upon phenomena like the Carnegie International or the Venice Bienale so we can pierce the hallowed myths that ground such displays of art and their ties to capitalism.

It matters little that El Anatsui’s sculptures exude much of the Ghanaian heritage in which the artist operates as a maker with his recycled bottle caps and metal components once a gallery in New York sells them and once the work is made for the consumers known as art collectors. Such a phenomenon is wholly alien and inconceivable to the creative psychodynamics and ethos of people and makers outside of the European and North American cultural spheres. What matters is the matter of placement and context, of appropriation for contemporary art’s money class and intellectual guardians who render such work “saleable” and “exhibitable” in galleries because of, in the case of El Anatsui and many artists from Africa and Asia, the inherent exoticism and neo-colonialism involved in the dynamic of their placement within contemporary galleries and exhibitions like the International in the first place. For the contemporary art world such artists are simply new markets/products to channel and distribute to the tired and weary buyers of North America and Europe who have grown fatigued and bored with the same cynical approach to making things that passes for art since 1945.

The irony of this version of the International and other shows that attempt to broaden dialogues, erase their American hegemonic perspectives, and “diversify” their holdings is that there is no real diversity once a work enters the bloodstream of the contemporary art aesthetic complex, which is by its very nature totalitarian from both an ideological and financial perspective. Work from Chinese, Brazilian, Ghanaian and other artists from faraway exotic lands is forever tainted, devoid of its aesthetic and cultural purity by necessity, in the eyes of the contemporary art market. This is the lie, the dirty little secret of identity nobody dare acknowledge.

El Anatsui is no more a Ghanaian artist than Chris Burden is a real outlaw. Once we understand this lie and the myths of inclusion and diversification in contemporary art then we can begin to critique the conceptual and aesthetic underpinnings of exhibitions like the Carnegie International. The same applies to questions of gender, sexuality and other distinctions that attempt to enrich and fetishize the question of identity. How very ironic that those most obsessed with the question of identity are themselves utterly blind to their very own identities and its ties to the war machine, capitalist hegemony, the politics of fear and the fabrication of hate.

With regards to this edition there was a good deal of work to redeem the experience of visiting the show and to counterbalance the cynicism and pseudo-intellectualism of most of what passes for painting, sculpture, and creative gestures on view at the venerable Carnegie Museum of Art.

To add to the neo-colonial aspect of this exhibition, the concept of travel appears to be a trope that envelopes the show in a somewhat nineteenth century way, replete with tongue in cheek pseudo-innocence, a travel guide for purchase at the bookshop and a “Travelogues” title for a series of lectures about the exhibition.

Here is the list from the official website:

THE TRAVELOGUE SERIES

Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018, discusses the origins and intent of the Travelogue Series.

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THE SUM OF ENCOUNTERS

Emmanuel Iduma’s Travelogue is based on the 14-day research trip Curator Ingrid Schaffner conducted with Companion Carin Kuoni to Morocco for the closing of the Marrakesh Biennial, Senegal for the opening of the Dakar Biennial, and Lagos, Nigeria in May 2016.

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INGRID AND RUBA: MAIRA KALMAN’S ILLUSTRATED VOYAGE TO THE BLACK AND CASPIAN SEAS

(Link opens on an external site)

Maira Kalman’s contribution to the Travelogue series shows an essay can take many forms. Eight paintings and a short text illuminate two weeks of travel and research for the Carnegie International.

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WHY WE TRAVEL: MY LATEST PASSAGE TO INDIA

Pico Iyer takes an imaginative journey to India with curators Ingrid Schaffner and Doryun Chong.

The irony here is a double notion: are the curators aware of their mimicry of the European-centric perspective inherent in the notion of travel in the nineteenth century, the advent of modernism and the very manifestation of colonial exoticism?

It remains to be seen and it is certainly a question to examine. Whether or not the travel theme is meant as a form of critically distant irony is really irrelevant in the larger scheme of contemporary art’s fetishism of the other and identity. What matters to me most is whether or not any of the actual work on view is worthy of thought and reflection.