Art Lies, Issue 66, September 2010

The Dissolve, SITE Santa Fe Eighth International Biennial 2010
by Nancy Zastudil

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The Dissolve, SITE Santa Fe Eighth International Biennial, installation view, L-R: Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926; 35mm film, black and white/tinted, transferred to DVD; 65 minutes; courtesy of Milestone Films, Harrington Park, NJ; Oscar Muñoz, Re/trato, 2003; video; 28 minutes; courtesy of the artist and Sicardi Gallery, Houston, TX; Robin Rhode, Kid Candle from “Memories of Childhood,” 2009; Super 8mm transferred to DVD; 1 minute 3 seconds; courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York

For The Dissolve, SITE Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial, curators Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco cast a wide conceptual net, claiming in their curatorial statement to recognize “a paradigm shift in contemporary art” and to present “a new sensibility in the art of our time.” According to the biennial’s press release, this development features artists mixing high technology and traditional artistic forms to engage “historical models of moving-picture practices.” The Dissolve “shows the full extent” of artistic practices that use early animation techniques and moving-image technologies. To these ends, Lewis and Belasco present an exhibition of thirty artworks from the early twentieth to early twenty-first centuries, including four select historical animations. Add to this an exhibition design by Adjaye Associates surveying an array of “viewing environments,” plus an extensive “Art & Culture” series that includes lectures, panel discussions, writing workshops, a one-night screening of film and video heavy-hitters titled The Abstract Dissolve, cocktail parties and pseudo-folk/western music concerts and visitors are bound to feel overwhelmed—if not a bit dissatisfied.

The Dissolve can be more accurately categorized as a sampling, a partial representation of a trend. Lewis and Belasco’s selection focuses on animation’s relationship to the contemporary imagination, whether whimsical or memorial. Though the curators present some curious and entertaining, straightforward cartoon-style animations—specifically, Joshua Mosley’s A Vue (2004) and Christine Rebet’s The Black Cabinet (2007)—the more compelling works in The Dissolve utilize animation as a means rather than an end in itself, with the majority of the works combining image and movement in emotive rather than technical ways.

Oscar Muñoz’ video Re/trato (2003), for example, shows a hand brushing water onto a concrete surface to create the outline of a face. Before the portrait is finished the likeness begins to evaporate. Artist, image and viewer are caught in a mnemonic cycle as the depicted image continually moves through states of appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Thomas Demand’s Rain (2008) utilizes cut paper, stop-motion techniques and a rain shower soundtrack to depict a mesmerizing downpour, which appears to fall gently onto the surface of the viewing screen. In Berni Searle’s About to Forget (2005), cutouts of figures bleed red dye into moving water, illustrating the artist’s wish to reunite her estranged family members. Furthermore, for each video frame of Ezra Johnson’s painted animation narrative, What Visions Burn (2006), he repaints his canvas to depict the story of a high stakes art heist.

Interspersed among these works are the historical offerings: Edison Manufacturing Company’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900), Fleischer Studios’ “Big Chief” Ko-Ko (1924), Dziga Vertov’s Soviet Toys (1924) and Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). The relationship of these films to the contemporary works is never quite clear. Are they influential to the artists or merely formally similar? An exception is Robin Rhode’s Kid Candle (2009), which one can easily relate to the Edison Co.’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900). In Rhode’s video, a cool-looking, live-action kid casually walks up to “light” a drawing of a candle; the subsequent flicker of candlelight is actually achieved by Rhodes manipulating the exposure of Super 8 film. The Edison work uses early film techniques to similarly combine live action and animation: a sketch artist (portrayed by filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton) draws a caricature only to have it come alive and jump off the page. While the history of animation informs Rhode’s work, one cannot pin the Edison film as a specific inspiration—arguably, hip-hop, street and DJ culture are his more generative sources, as directly referenced in the title Kid Candle.

High society, “low brow” art, street culture and mainstream media—from art dealers to graphic novels, music videos to adult cartoons—also play significant roles in other of the biennial contributions. Raymond Pettibon’s mixture of collaged graphic illustrations and abrupt, sampled narrations in Sunday Night and Saturday Morning (2005) references intimate conversations and public declarations. In Traffic #1: Our Second Date (2004), Jennifer and Kevin McCoy reimagine a traffic-jam scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967), a cultural and societal critique of French bourgeois values, by feeding a live image from a miniature moving diorama of the scene to a large projection screen. Less successful are other moments when the choice of image-motion technology is jarring. The secluded dark room, required 3-D viewing glasses and vector forms of Bill T. Jones and OpenEnded Group’s virtual dance work After Ghostcatching (2010) only creates an ache for fleshy human movement.

On the opposite end of the rendering technology spectrum, William Kentridge’s hand-drawn and hand-erased History of the Main Complaint (1996) presents a brief yet claustrophobic narrative of South Africa’s complex Apartheid system, wrought with humanity almost too heavy to bear. Additional works use figurative reenactments and images to tackle personal histories and cultural memories with courageous self-awareness. Brent Green’s Paulina Hollers (2006), Rob Pruitt’s Black Stuntman (Volumes I and 2) (2004), Kara Walker’s National Archives Microfilm Publications M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: 1) Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road (2009) and 2) Lucy of Pulaski (2009) and Mary Reid Kelley’s You Make Me Iliad (2010) are each exemplary in this regard.

Seemingly, the “urge to animate”—the desire for a truly dynamic image rather than a technical understanding of animation as the rapid display of a sequence of 2-D images or 3-D positions to create the illusion of movement—connects the artists and artworks of The Dissolve. Even with this in mind, the biennial feels deficient as it often incorrectly employs the technical language of film, video and animation, and generally fails to acknowledge the vital roles of sound and camera. The exhibition presents a palpable ambivalence toward time-based image-making, resulting in an experiential viscosity for both artist and viewer. Throughout, one feels a slight resistance to fluid transition from static representation to liberated animation. It’s the stopping and starting of suspended disbelief and illusion. This stuttering is seen quite literally with stop-motion and Flash-animated collage, and more figuratively in performance through intentionally awkward, hesitant and forced character adaptations; it is made audible through narration, voiceovers and soundtracks.

However, a notably effective aspect of the exhibition is that many of the works are on view at http://thedissolve.net. The online exhibition format offers an engaging example of a culturally relevant relationship between technology and art, and certainly puts The Dissolve into contemporary hands.

Nancy Zastudil is an itinerant curator and freelance writer who focuses on collective art practices that operate in the service of revolution and social progress.

This exhibition will be on view through January 2, 2011.