The Brooklyn Rail, September 3, 2010

SITE Santa Fe Eight International Biennial The Dissolve
by Phong Bui

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Before I entered the first gallery, Hiraki Sawa’s hypnotic “Airliner” (2003)—a video structured as a flipbook with digitized images of airplanes gliding across the page, threatening to congest the friendly sky—gave a strong initial impression: that of the magic touch of the hand. The same can be said of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s handmade recreation of the traffic jam scene from the 1967 Jean-Luc Godard film Week End, which includes a miniature diorama on a rotating tabletop, with a camera projecting the changing scene. The word that resonates here is “alchemy,” or the non-declarative term “in betweenness”—both apply to the theme and the selection of works in the exhibit, where motion picture technology blends with visual art to create hybrid forms.

SITE Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial, titled The Dissolve, does not attempt to tackle an exhaustive chronology of the history of moving pictures, or a comprehensive inquiry into how they fit into contemporary art-making. Curators Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco have instead chosen to materialize their vision of how specific “in betweenness” can be demonstrated. This vision is realized in large part thanks to an excellent supporting cast. Notable among this cast is Nancy Mowll Mathews, who contributes a timeline that runs from 1833, when William Horner invented the zoetrope (a device that creates the illusion of movement by spinning a succession of static images), to Sol LeWitt’s serial sculpture “Muybridge,” 10 apertures that reveal an increasingly larger view of the same photographic nude. I would be remiss not to also mention architect David Adjaye, whose elegantly designed scrim is the best possible solution for dividing an exhibition space that required a cinematic fluidity.

The selection includes works by 26 international contemporary artists intermingled with four historical animations from the turn of 20th century. J. Stuart Blackton’s “The Enchanted Drawing” (1900), which brings to life a man’s face interacting with various objects he draws on a sketchpad, is followed by Oscar Munoz’s “Re/trato” (2003). While both share the urgency of performative nature against time, the latter is weighted with anxiety in contrast to the former’s charming gaiety. George Griffin’s “View Master” (1976-2007) is made with 35mm film originals excerpted from Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century motion studies, with eight drawn images running on a loop whose speed is determined by the viewer. It is a classic example of the artist’s desire to synthesize drawing and painting, and in this case, even sculpture and avant-garde film; this has been Griffin’s uncompromised goal since the 1970s.

When viewing Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventure of Prince Achmed” (1926) and Kara Walker’s “National Archives Microfilm Publications M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands” (2009), two shorts with disparate subject matter screened on either side of the same wall, the handmade presence of silhouetted puppetry and animation is so convincing that the historical and contextual conditions seem irrelevant. Similarly, in Robin Rhode’s “Kid Candle from Memory of Childhood” (2003), Paul Chan’s “4th Light” (2006), and Thomas Demand’s “Rain” (2008), the way images are depicted according to movement, pace, and depth of field seems to evoke memory, reverie, and contemplation.

The self-taught Brent Green, however, with his “Paulina Hollers” (2006), based on his upbringing in Appalachia, creates a world that is as real as Martha Colburn’s apocalyptic vision in “Myth Labs.” Their imaginative realms are clearly borne from a similar milieu.

In the second gallery, the drawing/painterly language extends from the pronounced expressionist pathos of Jacco Olivier’s “Almost” (2009) and Ezra Johnson’s “What Vision Burns” (2006) to the surrealist, dreamlike sequences that persist, despite the work’s political content, in Berni Searle’s “About to Forget” (2005) and Lalel Khorramian’s cosmological landscape “Water Panics in the Sea” (2010). But it lends itself just as effectively to Maria Lassnig’s semi-autobiographical, overtly emotional yet humorous “Kantate” (1992), as well as the work of that master of improvisation, Robert Breer, in his packed and intense “Bang” (1986), not to mention the dark and cryptic world of Raymond Pettibon’s “Sunday Night and Saturday Morning” (2005).

I must admit, though, that Bill T. Jones’s “Ghost Catching” (2010), the only commissioned piece, and William Kentridge’s “History of the Main Complaint” (1996), which are prominently installed next to one another in two large, built spaces which emphasize their hi-tech/low-tech disparity, do not seem to harmonize with the rest of the exhibit. (Perhaps “Ghost Catching” is too new to appreciate and “History of the Main of Complaint” is too familiar to demand a fresh response.)

However, one is revived by Avish Khebrehzadeh’s dreamlike sequence of three vignettes shown on a graphically flat screen against the haunting depth of an empty theater in “Theater III” (2010), and by Joshua Mosley’s beautifully hand-painted environment with ink-wash, infused with digitally photographed stop-motion puppets and a 24-inch bronze monument in “A Vue” (2004), a piece loaded with psychological gravity behind the characters’ casual interactions. And while viewing “Douche Bag City” (2010), Federico Solmi’s terrifying vision of violence, I think of video games, the most ultraviolent of which are never censored by the U.S. government.

Martha Colburn, whose “Myth Labs” I mentioned above, conflates her view of America past and present with anarchistic energy. The same is true of the equally explicit political works of Christine Rebet, “The Black Cabinet” (2007); Robert Pruitt, “Black Stuntman (Volumes, 1 and 2)” (2004); Fleisher Studios, “Big Chief Ko-Ko” (1924); and Mary Reid Kelly, who contributed the brilliant “You Make Me Iliad” (2010). I was a bit perplexed about why Cindy Sherman’s “Doll Clothes” (1975) was in the mix, although I admire it.

As a whole, The Dissolve is a thoughtful and memorable biennial. I was ecstatic to see older artists, notably Robert Breer, George Griffin, and Maria Lassnig, included along with a well-balanced group of exciting younger artists such as Joshua Mosley, Avish Khebrehzadeh, Ezra Johnson, Martha Colburn, Laleh Khorramian, and Mary Reid Kelly. One comes away with endless ways to define the word “alchemy,” just as one would have similar difficulty summing up why human hands and their movements are still undeniably instrumental to the inexplicable beauty of human experience. It reaches back to William Blake’s powerful belief that “art is the tree of life; science is the tree of death.” Blake declared war against Locke, Newton, and the rest of the 18th century rationalists for their unbearable ambition to overanalyze reality through science and reason. One also notices in this biennial that the two curators have an unusual rapport with the artists, as revealed in their selection of works, the sensitivity of the installation, and the liveliness of the artists’ roundtable, which is included in the catalog. Both seem to understand that their function is to serve the artists—not the other way around, as has often been the case in recent years.