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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Site Santa Fe

Of course, we did one or two things in New Mexico that had nothing to do with opera. On a Sunday afternoon, I took a walk through Site Santa Fe, the New Mexico biennial held in a large exhibition space down by the old railyards. Santa Fe, and New Mexico in general, is a Mecca for artists, but much of the art sold there tends toward predictable kitsch bought up by tourists. Nothing wrong with art being a commodity: artists have always known their buyers and catered to them.

The idea behind this year's biennial is to divorce art from its price tag, something that flies in the face of the rampant commercialism that pervades art galleries at the highest levels. Site Santa Fe yields control of the biennial to a guest curator, and for the seventh edition this year, that duty fell to Lance Fung. He asked a host of galleries around the world to give him the names of their best emerging artists, from which he selected his roster of twenty-two. They were invited to Santa Fe, given a strict budget of $7,500, and told to create something specific to the exhibition space or to another site around the city. Finally, forget the red dots: all of the artwork had to disintegrate or otherwise be destroyed or unmade -- not sold -- at the end of the show.

Someone taking the plunge, Manifest Destiny by Piero Golia

Fung had the exhibition space redesigned by New York architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, who cut up the warehouse-like building into sections by installing a set of ramps that meander obliquely through it (watch these videos to get a better picture). Most of that upper space was not utilized by the artists, many of whom preferred to take their work to other sites, and it was left somewhat gloomy and unlit. The ultimate rebellion against the straitjacket of the building design was expressed by Piero Golia, an Italian who now lives in Los Angeles. For Manifest Destiny, he sawed off the end of one of the ramps, daring visitors to jump from it onto a large set of foam mattresses below. I did not try it myself, but I saw other people do it -- someone even put a video of himself jumping on YouTube (see above).

In fact, subversion became the unintended theme of the biennial, as the artists found ways to play with the imposed strictures, sometimes riffing on the local art and sense of history. Australian Nick Mangan took over an old building, A1 Southwest Stone, to create a false archeological dig, an ironic and spot-on bit of mimicry. We had to make special arrangements to see the installation (inside and to the side of the building), as it is in a neighborhood a short drive from the exhibition space and the building is kept locked. Mangan even ran an article in a local newspaper accusing vandals of stealing artifacts from his dig, things that were never there, of course. Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni convinced a local art dealer to give them a kitschy bronze statue, which they partially melted down and subverted into The Abduction, which shows the original composition refashioned into a post-UFO encounter. Martí Anson went to Museum Hill, where the collections are focused largely on folk and Native American art, and built a large replica of a flour mill that is about to be torn down in his hometown in Catalonia. The piece plays with the idea of destruction and entropy at the heart of the biennial.

The best use of space was by Italy's Studio Azzurro, who installed an interactive video, The Fourth Ladder, on an inclined wall in the center of the exhibition space. Local New Mexican characters stroll up the incline, but if a viewer reaches out and touches one of the images, the figure will turn and speak or sing. Were the artists reaching out to the viewer? the local community? other artists? The Bulgarian Luchezar Boyadjiev used his $7,500 to attach several $10 bills to the wall, with names drawn at random from the Santa Fe phonebook. If you go into the exhibit and see your name on Off-SITE(s), you can take the $10, thereby revealing something written underneath. The whole concept is explained by a trained guide, who stands by the work faithfully. Santa Fe residents should note that several $10 bills remain on the wall, waiting to be claimed. Of course, that amount is exactly what it will cost you to enter the biennial.

The theme of the violation of space is the most compelling, and several pieces wound through the building in one way or another. Story Line is a mud sculpture by Eliza Naranjo More, Nora Naranjo Morse, and Rose B. Simpson. Made of clay, willows, waddle, linseed oil, etc., it has a disturbing organic look to it, as if an immense brown worm or a turd has fallen from the sky and exploded. From its site of entry it twists and loops through the opening hall. Mandla Reuter's Fourth Wall is an electric cable that is supposedly actually carrying a very powerful live current. From its entry point near the start of the exhibit it winds through the space above the viewer, ending up at a large fusebox at the back of the warehouse. Viewers are invited to throw the tantalizing red switch, but nothing happens. At first, it seemed that the live current must be controlling Nadine Robinson's Tri-Christus, three large Xs, covered with light fixtures, installed on the building's roof. Now, if you could have actually turned those lights on and off with that switch, we would have had a winner.

Other Reviews:

Zane Fischer, The SITE Stuff (Santa Fe Reporter, July 23)

Blake Gopnik, A Site for Thinking Outside the Box (Washington Post, July 6)

Peter Goddard, Artists make their mark, then erase it (Toronto Star, June 22)

Jori Finkel, Welcome to New Mexico. Now Create. (New York Times, January 27)
Some of the pieces in the show seemed unimaginative -- too confrontational, too political, too much like art school theorizing. Shi Qing's food art piece Mongolian Messenger involved a Mongolian chef brought to Santa Fe to fuse his own cooking tradition with local cuisine. Hiroshi Fuji's sculptures, made of discarded plastic bottles or recycled children's toys, are fanciful but ultimately a little fluffy. (Mockups are shown at the main site, but the bottle sculptures have been hanging from the lamps in the parking lot of the Santa Fe Opera, leading many an opera visitor to ask why there is garbage hanging from the lights by their car.) The excitement and the disappointment are both the result of the curator's approach: by chance, some of the works were entwined by similarities that were probably random, and others struck me as desperate grasps to deal with the themeless demand of the show. In any case, each artist had the freedom to think only about what interested him or her, within the budget limitation: no one will ever have to think about how to sell these works. Probably just as well.

Site Santa Fe remains open to the public until January 4, 2009.

1 comment:

bruitus said...

I was just in Santa Fe the week before you and also enjoyed Ssite Santa Fe. I met the woman whose students made the documentary shorts about each artist that were near the entrance and she had one of the red shopping bags that warned the user to stay away from the orchestra. Apparently they gave out 10,000 of the bags at the gallery's opening. I really want one.