Category Archives: Siqiao Lu

No job no home no peace no rest

“No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy”, currently on view at the Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side, exhibits Will Steacy’s collage the Beast, along with thirty-two individual photographs from earlier and ongoing projects–Down These Mean Streets, All My Life I Have Had The Same Dream, and We Are All In This Together. The exhibition takes its title from Bruce Springsteen’s song The Ghost of Tom Joad, and shares its view that Americans have grown adept at ignoring the increasingly sharp divide between the rich and the poor. Steacy, who has been creating photographic work dealing with contemporary social and economic issues for over a decade, presents the story of the American Dream told through the eyes of those who been left behind in the ashes of the Great Recession, peeling back the scab of America against the backdrop of the 2012 electoral season.

 

The Beast, if only because of its enormous size, emerges as the focal point of the show. No less than 170 feet long, the wall of material it presents consists in thousands of clippings from newspapers and magazines, journal entries, as well as photographs from Steacy’s own Down These Mean Streets series.  Steacy’s own photographs in the work examine the neighborhoods of America’s inner cities, where people from the outside rarely go, leaving it in a state of abandonment and loneliness. Steacy aims to reveal problems of the American urban world, such as the decline of the local economy, lack of proper nutrition and healthcare, and the prevalence of violence and drugs.  He blends his own voice–in the form of hand written journal entries and photographs–into found images and texts, the products of years of accumulation. His voice becomes indistinguishable when interweaved with other media presentations, none of which swings too far away from Steacy’s opinion on the issues. The collage begins by laying out a history of twentieth-century America, one that runs from the post-war promise of prosperity, to the Reagan administration’s deregulation of the economy, to the 9/11 attacks, to the financial crisis and the Great Recession–a downfall of American society unfolding in slow motion.

 

The form of collage made from photographs and newspapers has particular importance to Steacy. This fact is perhaps unsurprising, given he comes from five generations of newspapermen. For him, the newspaper is not only a mirror of the society, but ultimately the best history book for the future. His pessimistic view on America has a lot to do with his personal life in the past few years, a set of experiences he characterized as “devastating.” In such a condition, Steacy made The Beast a personal story, too. For this project, he worked 16 to 18 hours a day, and at the time he was finishing the piece, he felt physically exhausted, as well as mentally drained. What we are looking at in the gallery are sheets of paper that have been soaked by blood, sweat, and tears. It amounts to a real search for resilience during hard times, for Steacy himself, but also for the whole nation.

The city & the city

The “city” is a geographical concept as well as a psychological one, the meaning of which oscillates between reality and imagination. London, a place of complex urban landscapes and dynamic cultural interactions, a place imbued with psychological associations made by modern writers, continues to sustain creative interests. The city & the city, currently on view at the Wood Street Gallery, features five installations and new-media artworks by eight UK-based artists, who are influenced by the Psychogeographic movement—a literary movement focusing on the specific effect of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviors of individuals. In the exhibit, the artists explore how the seen and the unseen, the real and the fictional aspects of the city, interweave and complicate the urban experience. Best known as writers of nonfiction, novels, and poetry, the artists employ language, images, sounds, and material objects to create innovative forms of conceptual art that rely heavily on text.

One way to interpret the duality of the city implied in the title of the exhibit, is to focus on the real and the fictitious elements that the artists deploy. In their joint project, Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy worked from extensive research into historical events and created scenarios that subtly diverged from the historical record. Dickinson and McCarthy’s Greenwich Degree Zero is an installation of recreated 19th century media, one that creates a fictionalized version of a real attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The whole installation is silent, and designed to resemble an archive or reading room. The exhibited newspapers, journals, and ball tickets, which possess the aura of authentic objects, easily trick the viewer into believing that the bombing attempt—in reality a spectacular failure —actually succeeded, as the fake reports on display say it did.  The installation questions the ways in which the media constructs events, and the degree to which one can trust the knowledge it claims to supply. Rachael Lichtenstien’s Sight Unseen also blends fiction and reality, re-imagining the materials and artifacts in Hatton Garden, a London street that hosts a secretive world of family businesses in the jewelry trade. The installation resembles a jewelry store with display counters wrapped in ultramarine velvet cloth. The counters are, however, material representations of Lichtenstien’s own written work, Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden.

Strolling around these reconstructions of specific events and districts in London’s history, viewers will feel plunged into temporally remote places. They will not retrieve their consciousness of the contemporary until  experiencing work such as Sukhdev Sandu’s Night Hunt.

Sandhu’s Night Hunt deploys the new technology of electronic reading to create a journal about London’s contemporary nightlife, a journal that imitates the Victorian genre of the midnight traipse through the metropolis. Reading Sandhu’s account of London nightlife on the big screen, one encounters marginal characters such as mini cab drivers, street cleaners, and samaritans who live like ghosts in the nasty, depressing capitalist city. While Sandu reconstructed the events in a journalistic manner, the visual and sound effects that accompany the text cause the real to appear fictitious.

Unblurred

Unblurred: First Friday on Penn is a monthly gathering for Pittsburgh art enthusiasts. The event spreads out in the Penn Avenue Art District, where a flourishing community of artists shares spaces for working, living, and exhibiting.  In the process of transforming a once declining neighborhood into a distinctive cohabitation of artists and indigenous residents, Friendship Development Associates has played a vital role since the 1990s. Together with the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation,  the FDA developed the Penn Avenue Art Initiatives, a program that sponsors the Unblurred event. Unblurred presents itself as an independent, alternative cultural festivity meant to offer new experiences, although many visitors will find themselves encountering more convenient and familiar images—above all, that of the starving artist and the bohemian lifestyle. While the title Unblurred suggests clarity brought to confusion, many of the artworks displayed at the event are far from illuminating. Instead, I found most of them only absurd.

The typical gallery experience Unblurred offers consists in work of uneven quality, in exhibitions that lack clear focus. One of the most popular galleries, Modern Formations, shows Christian Wolfgang Breitkreutz’s new painting series The Good Fight. While the space itself is interesting, with a front room representing a minimalist gallery and a back room imitating the backstage of a night club, the artworks on view seem less attractive than their surroundings. Breitkreutz painted the canvas with multiplications of war symbols, such as cannons, giant heads behind barricades, and military flags; in doing so, he called for fighting against the “trumpets of evil sounding off in our brains.” Yet, his works remind me more of a lighthearted comic-strip in a newspaper than a “visual exploration of war,” as he intended.

Another popular site to visit is the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, where the group-exhibit Pittsburgh by Pittsburgh Artists II had its closing reception. The gallery is packed with works by fifty local artists, including Andy Warhol and the center’s benefactress, Irma Freeman. The gallery welcomes its visitors with a folk music performance, and small children spontaneously dancing and crawling on the floor. This atmosphere of a warm party at home fits the center’s mission statement, according to which it aims to create a place where people can gain a sense of environmental and human responsibility.

While some venues resemble commercial art galleries, several spaces demonstrate alternative models. Assemble: A Community Space for Arts + Technology, is primitive in its setting and the works it shows, both of which call to mind the art classroom of a kindergarten. The International Children’s Art Gallery, however, in spite of its name, shows nothing remotely related to children’s art. When I visited, I saw only large-scale abstract nudes, displayed in a warehouse-like interior stripped down to its minimum.

As absurd or unsatisfying as my gallery experience on Penn Avenue may have been, I came to see that it was inappropriate to evaluate such an event as any kind of “gallery experience” at all, according to the tradition that professional display spaces have established. Above all, Unblurred establishes a framework that artists can more democratically enter, one that solicits involvement from members of the local community.

Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

As I slipped into the second floor of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, straightaway I was confronted with the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project exhibition—an unexpected encounter that filled me with a sinking feeling. Led by Brian Cohen, the one-year collaboration of five experienced photographers chronicles the complex story of the energy rush in Pennsylvania. Photographs taken from diverse aesthetic and narrative angles explore the environmental, social, and economic impact of natural gas drilling upon the shale region. In attempting to present an honest appraisal of the process known as fracking, the photographic narratives examine invisible, unspeakable dimensions to both the apparent economic boom, as well as the environmental hazards that accompany it.

Outside of the main gallery, the prime mood of the exhibition reveals itself through Nina Berman’s works displayed in the dimly lit corridor. In her works, one experiences the mixed attitudes of those communities in which natural gas drilling has recently been introduced. There is hope, since the energy boom has given a jolt to the economic growth of languishing towns, and promised new lives for those on the edge of despair. In a photograph of a scene behind a windshield, a woman attentively listens to an instructor. According to the accompanying text, the woman is being trained as a truck driver for a drilling company that needs employees to fill these jobs. There is also fear—stories of homeowners who haven’t drunk water from their wells since the start of drilling, and stories of children who have had severe skin rashes as a result of drinking contaminated water—these stories equally represent the consternation that pervades the shale region.

Amid the hope and fear depicted throughout the exhibition we encounter the invisible chasm among the people, communicated by the juxtaposition of photographs that record the population’s split views towards drilling. Farmers, landowners, businessmen, job seekers, environmentalists, and activists are all represented.  Lynn Johnson, one of the photographers participating in the project, stated that the acrimony drilling created made it toxic not only to the land, but also to personal relationships.

Corresponding to the diverse views on the issue, the six photographers employ varied aesthetic approaches. Brian Cohen presents breathtaking panoramic views of an idyllic countryside, where natural gas pipelines have crept in quietly, laying down a sense of promise, as well as of threat. Noah Addis also notes how the pipelines have transformed the landscape, capturing them in large-format photographs as they cut a swath through the land. The exhibit juxtaposes the landscape with oversized portraits of local residents who claim that the contaminated water created by fracking has endangered their health. This group of work treats such complex issues with simply composed, sensitive pictures that powerfully demonstrate the insidious effects of natural gas drilling.

While stating its reluctance to advocate on behalf of any particular stakeholders, the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project unavoidably expresses a critical view on industry’s failure to take up its social and environmental responsibilities. By the end of the show, the viewer can only sympathize with those whose land, social relations, and lives overall have been contaminated by fracking.

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscape

Facing persistent debates on the future of art museums, Raymund Ryan, curator of architecture, gives us a progressive suggestion on how museums should physically appear. His recently curated exhibit in the Heinz Architecture Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscape explores the global trend of dissolving the physical—as well as ideological—opacity of art museums.  Above all, the development Ryan subjects to scrutiny centers on ways of bringing Nature into the interior of the museum and inviting Art into the open air, which innovative practices in Architecture have recently sought to make possible. While the idea of making a transition from the “white cube” to the “green maze” sounds farfetched, the exhibition showed viewers specifically how this transition unfolds, with six examples that had implemented the idea successfully.  Among them are Olympic Sculpture Park, Stiftung Insel Hombroich, Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Instituto Inhotim, Jardin Botanico de Culiacan, and Grand Traiano Art Complex.

For the exhibition, the Heinz Architecture Center—itself a rather traditional “white cube”—had a quick make over, adapting the look of a “green maze”. The show transforms the exhibition space, and makes it a parallel to the exhibited sites. Rather than displaying art in minimalist environs, the exhibited sites break apart the experience into multiple pavilions, highlighting the role of landscape, as well as enticing the visitor to circulate between and within the pavilions. Visitors to White Cube, Green Maze are encouraged to roam and explore as if they were at the exhibited sites. At the entryway of the Heinz Architecture Center, temporary walls covered with photographs of green plants divided the central axis into several blocks.  Together with a beige colored, thinly woven screen made of silkworm cocoons hovering overhead, they create an enclosed space that invokes the feeling of navigating through a piece of wild land.

Each site occupies a tight exhibition space, in which the show explores the site through multiple means; these include models, videos, interactive devices, text panels, drawings, blue prints, and photographs. In the exhibit of Benesse Art Site Naoshima, shown in the right wing of the Architecture Center, the waterdrop-shaped model of the Teshima Art Museum, replicated four times in different materials, powerfully represents the structure and its emphasis on free curves. Accompanying the models are quotes from the Architect Ryue Nishizawa, and panoramic photographs taken by Iwan Bann of the “water drop” in harmony with the undulating landform.

At the end of the exploration, regardless of how they may habitually imagine museums, visitors will realize that certain of the six sites had not simply been “white cubes,” but had rather been transformed from “brown fields.” The Olympic Sculpture Park (USA) was occupied by the oil and gas corporation Unocal until the 1970s and subsequently became a contaminated brown field, before the Seattle Art Museum transformed the area into one of the only green spaces in Downtown Seattle. Stiftung Insel Hombroich (Germany) incorporated into the domain of the museum in 1994 a former missile base right next to Hombroich island. For this reason, these are not only architectural projects, but also ecological projects that base themselves on the coexistence of nature, art, and architecture.

Feminist and…

If you consider Feminist Art an outdated movement that is confined to the shrine of a museum, you are mixing up two distinct developments: Feminist Art, and Feminist Art of the 60s and the 70s. While the art movement of forty years ago marks a historical high point in the development and acknowledgement of art that advocated for women’s rights and recognized their involvement in society, Feminist Art goes beyond this historical moment. Today, it continues to address in its practice urgent socio-political issues. The exhibition “Feminist and…,” curated by Hilary Robinson and currently on display at the Mattress Factory, demonstrates how contemporary feminist artists keenly engage with varied social problems that intersect with and affect the lives of every woman, as well as every human being.

For the six participating artists—Ayanah Moor, Julia Cahill, Parastou Forouhar, Carrie Mae Weems, Loraine Leeson, and Betsy Damon, Feminism is an integral part of their identity, as well as their approach to their work.

In Writing Room, Persian calligraphy covers the entire surface of the space. Billowing strokes of black ink roar up against the grey wall, and extend down to the floor where hundreds of ping-pong balls are inscribed with similar patterns, interfering with the movement of visitors. At the same moment, visitors come to confront the bewilderment engineered by the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar. While visitors attempt to assign it meaning, the script remains locked within its irreducible pictorial graphicness and indissoluble representation.

Forouhar started the Writing Room project in 1999, a year after her parents’ death in a chain of political assassinations in Iran. She continued showing the work in Germany, Turkey, South Korea, and Italy in the following decade. Working as a political fighter who feels exiled from her native country, Forouhar’s installations and graphic works express a critical attitude toward Iranian politics. Her background and the Writing Room project are extremely relevant to the Pittsburgh Northside neighborhood where the Mattress Factory stands. The Northside is home to the City of Asylum, one of Mattress Factory’s partner organizations, which provides sanctuary to writers under immediate threat of extreme persecution or death in their home countries.

Equally relevant to local politics, Betsy Damon’s sculptural landscape installed in the basement “Water Rules—Life” shows an underground water pathway simulating the topological formation of the three rivers of Pittsburgh, which highlights the significance of water in the heavily polluted city. The ecologist-artist Betsy Damon created large-scale projects to help clean urban waterways and raise awareness around the globe about water; “Water Rules” is her response to the environmental situation of this city. The installation opens with a narrow, dimly lighted entrance, from which the visitor gets a view of a misty world. Walking on the rocks raised up from a shallow river to reach the opposite end of the installation, one tends to meditate on the texture, the form, and the energy of water, and perhaps to start visualizing the connection between water and one’s own life.

Elegant and provocative, “Feminist and…” presents us with a trajectory of diverse feminist works engaging in international and local politics that most viewers should find compelling.

Gallery Crawl

The Gallery Crawl in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District offers a unique opportunity to experience art in a relaxing setting, where alcohol, live music, and conversations among viewers intermingle. During the night of the Gallery Crawl, art is not so much of a sacred subject but an element of cultural experience in downtown Pittsburgh. To explore more than thirty venues scattered within the five blocks, one has to mobilize oneself, and repeat the action of entering a gallery, getting back onto the street, and looking for the next one to enter. In such a fashion, the cultural experience extends to the open space of the neighborhood, instead of being confined within the interior, where the atmosphere is more artificially constructed.

For the Gallery Crawl, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust presents a broad range of art-encounters based on each venue’s distinctive curatorial view: from works by 6th graders at CAPA to cutting-edge digital art at the SPACE gallery, from a celebration of architecture and design at the Trust Arts Education Center to poetic reflections on the city London in Wood Street Gallery. The experience each gallery aims to bring out is unrelated to that of the others; the visitor, however, can create his own connections. Despite the entertaining nature of the overall experience, a curious visitor would not leave the Cultural District without having certain moments of realization and inspiration.

Path: An installation by Elin Hansdottir at 943 Liberty Avenue, and Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses at the SPACE gallery parallel one another in containing a physical path for visitors to walk through, but contradict one another in the ways in which they frame the walking experience. Path is a site-specific labyrinthine structure that weaves through each space it inhabits, filling the physical area with its winding course. The only light source emanates from vertical and horizontal slits throughout the construction. Owing to the structure’s sharp edges, the light is dispersed in such a way that one mistakes shadows for walls, walls for space, and light for walls. Since only one guest is allowed to walk in each time, the space is a solitary site for tranquility, self-reflection, and confrontation with the structure.  Walking through Path, one leaves no trace, and interferes with no one else’s experience. Circles of Commotion and Moving Pauses is “a system of interacting, fundamentally digital elements that create and display dynamic perceptual architectures.” In contrast with Path, its pathway is a site for public migration with dense interactions and distractions. Within Abby Donovan’s construction, a close-up image of wild mushrooms is transferred from a camera to a laptop connected to a projector overhead, and finally  appears on the wall where the silhouette of the visitors interfere with the image. In this way, each person makes a mark that integrates itself into the piece, becoming spectacle for visitors right behind. One changes roles from observer to observed as one moves forward to the wall. Within the path, three semi-circular stainless steel balls and a large rectangular mirror unexpectedly reflect every passerby, thus reinforcing the idea that when observing one is also being observed.