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    What I’m Looking at: Michael Rakowitz Makes a Meta-Monument, the Debate Over ‘Art Without Men,’ and Other Things at the Edge of Art

    “What I’m Looking at” is a monthly column where I digest art worth seeing, writings worth reading, and other tidbits. Below, thoughts from the end of August and the beginning of September.
    Tower of Power
    The favorite thing I’ve seen recently is this sculpture by Matjames Metson, shown solo in a back room at George Adams Gallery in New York (on view through October 28). A Tower (2023) is a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall garage-art labor of love, made over the course of 14 years. It has a funk-and-junk aesthetic, but with a flair all its own, bringing a Joseph Cornell-esque interest in antique photographs and psychically charged bric-a-brac to the alter-like object.
    It’s full of scrappy flourishes: little pocket knives displayed in tiny windows, details made of pearl buttons, rows of sharpened pencils that resemble Gothic ornament, collaged bits of old love letters salvaged from estate sales. A Tower seems to be a structure almost literally built out of memories of a world of tactile creativity. It’s just very fun to spend time circling it, looking for all the little secrets Metson has nested within all its crannies and compartments.
    Matjames Metson, A Tower (2023) at George Adams Gallery. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Matjames Metson, A Tower [detail] (2023) at George Adams Gallery. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Catching up to Kené
    I only know about Sara Flores’s abstractions what I read in the gallery material for her show, “Soi Biri,” at Clearing (on view through October 22): that the artist hails from the Shipibo-Conibo people of the Peruvian Amazon; that the artworks draw on kené, a visual language of intricate, all-over, maze-like designs; that the vibrating patterns connect symbolically to the characteristic hallucinations seen in an ayahuasca ceremony; that the finished paintings are meant to have healing properties; that their medium, “vegetal pigments on wild cotton,” also suggests a closeness to nature.
    The backstory is important, though I think that if you look at Flores’s artworks, you do feel immediately that they are more than just patterns. The works I like best at Clearing are those like Untitled (Shao Maya Punté Tañan Kené 1, 2023) (2023), where the individual areas have the most differentiation, while still maintaining the impression of a total repeating whole. In general, their effect lies in a first perception of a rigorously harmonious overall order that, upon closer examination, reveals itself to be constructed using a grammar of individual marks that do not repeat. That particular balance does feel like it naturally reflects a particular intuition about the cosmic order.
    Sara Flores, Untitled (Shao Maya Punté Tañan Kené 1, 2023 (2023) at Clearing. Photo by Ben Davis.

    A Monument to the “Monument Conversation”
    At Jane Lombard, Michael Rakowitz’s Frankenstein’s Monster of a sculpture, American Golem, is a gawky anthropomorphic assemblage formed of fragments of other sculptures, models, maquettes, and artifacts all related to public artworks. On each element, Rakowitz has scrawled some graffiti, noting facts about the various public artworks, their materials’ origins, and the debates they are caught up in. As a whole, it’s a memorial of the heated debates over what gets celebrated in public, turbo-charged by the big protests of 2020.
    You might do a reading of American Golem where the didactic, late-conceptual graffiti elements aren’t just commentary on the past but also one more layer in a critical history of how monuments express power in the United States. The “monument conversation,” after all, has been both a needed reckoning with history and a way for liberal metropolises to deflect attention away from more intractable issues and into conciliatory public art commissions.
    Maybe that’s me reading against the grain of Rakowitz’s interests—although the accompanying sculpture Behemoth, a black tarp that ceaselessly inflates into a monument-sized mass and then deflates, does convey a low-key ominous sense of a conversation stuck in a loop.
    Michael Rakowitz, American Golem (2023) at Jane Lombard. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Michael Rakowitz, American Golem (2023) at Jane Lombard. Photo by Ben Davis.

    Cinema of Forgetting
    I just missed writing about Let’s Talk at Brooklyn’s experimental art hangout Kaje before it closed—but it’s still worth remarking on because Simon Liu is one to watch.
    His fragmentary images may feel a bit hard to orient yourself within. It helps to know the project Liu has been working on in previous works: to capture, via a kind of memory-collage effect, how images of Hong Kong are remembered, forgotten, and change meaning as the actual texture of the city itself shifts in the wake of the recent political crackdown. If you keep that framework in mind, the unmoored quality of Let’s Talk‘s floating fragments becomes more and more poignant.
    One thing about Liu’s work that rewards your attention is how the multiple video channels of his installations repeat the same images across different surfaces—but also diverge at moments. Suddenly, if you’re paying attention, one channel seems to be leading the other, or an alternative version of a scene starts playing out, sometimes almost without you realizing it. That’s another way that Let’s Talk feels like being inside the mental process of trying to reconcile multiple images from the past into one thought, even as its meaning slips away.
    Simon Liu, Let’s Talk (2023) at Kaje. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Simon Liu, Let’s Talk (2023) at Kaje. Photo by Ben Davis.

    Peak Pike
    I can’t get these raw wooden sculptures by Shana Hoehn at Jack Barrett Gallery out of my head (they are on view in a two-person show called “To Look is to Eat,” alongside Yan Xinyue, through October 21). Honestly, how great is Pike II (2023), this image of a folded woman’s body draped impossibly across a swan’s neck like a scarf? This kind of folk-surrealist carpentry vibe is just very fun to watch an artist play around with.
    Shana Hoehn, Pike II (2023) at Jack Barrett. Photo by Ben Davis.

    The Story of Art Without Men Lacks More Than Just Men
    Worth clicking into: critic Jillian Steinhauer’s balanced but sharply deflating review of Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men from The New Republic. Steinhauer finds a certain impressionistic quality to the facts within Hessel’s much-touted counter-history. She also points out that the origin story for Hessel’s entire Instagram-account-turned-podcast-turned-book—a visit to a 2015 Frieze Masters where Hessel says she was stunned to realize that “not a single [artwork] was by a woman” turns out to have a certain exaggerated-for-effect, Hassan Minhaj quality to it (Louise Bourgeois, Carmen Herrera, and Bridget Riley were all big sellers that year).
    But really, Steinhauer is using the reception of The Story of Art Without Men to get at something bigger: the relationship—or non-relationship—of pop feminist art history to the robust, complex, critical, decades-long legacy of serious feminist art history, and the question of how much is being lost in the meme-ificiation of its insights. (Who can forget the high-end “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” fashion line of a few years ago?) Steinhauer argues that the way that Hessel treats artists’ stories, through a lens “tinged with the boosterism of girlboss feminism,” means that they all start to sound the same, even as consequential differences among women go untalked-about. And basically, she just thinks we should demand more, after a half century of feminist scholarship, than this.
    Katy Hessel attends the Mango Loves London celebration of the new London flagship store on November 11, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Mango)

    The “Painting, Painting, Painting” Moment
    If I told you I went to the Armory Show earlier this month, looked around, and mainly thought “wow, that’s a lot of painting!”… well, I would only be repeating exactly what Jerry Saltz said earlier this year about Frieze New York. The fact that we’re stuck with this thought is part of this problem, but it’s true. If you walk around all the galleries right now, what you will see overwhelmingly is painting, painting, and more painting—and mainly mid-sized, colorful paintings.
    You can say that there’s always been lots of painting. Painting is the ur-gallery art. True—but the present state of affairs is kind of analogous to how, for a long period, people were complaining about how Hollywood was putting out so many sequels and superhero films—and then suddenly there was a moment where it really was like, wow, everything really is a sequel or a superhero movie, and anything riskier than that does feel like it’s shriveling away.
    Don’t get me wrong, I like painting. Painters are cool. Every time I go out, I see painting I like. But art’s an ecosystem, and ecosystems need species diversity.
    What does it mean? My guess is that it represents a flight to the safety of the easiest sales pitch: art as investment-grade décor. Given the deep economic queasiness behind the scenes in the art world right now, that is how I am interpreting the “painting, painting, painting” moment, rather than as a real renaissance of contemporary painting. It’s an odd effect—all this genial, colorful painting expressing all that nervousness underneath.
    Luce Gallery at the 2023 Armory Show VIP Preview at Javits Center on September 07, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

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    The 1930s Have Been Viewed as a Time of Simple-Minded Art. ‘Art for the Millions’ Shows Just How Dazzlingly Complex It Was

    Does it sound weird to say that “Art for the Millions: American Art in the 1930s” at the Metropolitan Museum is a delightful show? The 1930s are synonymous with hardship. Its art, until quite recently, was generally considered dowdy, unsophisticated.
    But this exhibition, curated by Allison Rudnick, is artfully assembled and thought-provoking. It’s a useful new chapter in the wider revaluation of the ‘30s in art in the United States.
    The good and the bad of what the 1930s represent is right there in the title of the show: “Art for the Millions.” Artistic populism is the thousand-foot-up view of what the ‘30s stood for in culture. Several generations of post-war U.S. taste-makers defined themselves against this heritage of the 1930s, as they tried to make room within the U.S.’s typically utilitarian and mass-oriented culture for more intellectual and experimental art. On the flip side, when art does look to the ’30s for inspiration, it is exactly because the era provides models of how it might put itself at the service of “the people,” via agitprop, public works, and documentary.
    Installation view of “Art for the Millions” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Both takes, however, may yield a somewhat flattened image of the 1930s. As cultural historian Michael Denning writes in The Cultural Front, his classic volume about this period:
    Nothing is more firmly established than the perception that the “thirties” was a time of social realism… Social realism in this sense has come to mean three things: the documentary aesthetic, a rearguard opposition to modernism, and a relatively straightforward representationalism in the arts. In fact, all three aspects are misunderstood: the documentary aesthetic was actually a central modernist innovation; the cultural front was not characterized by an opposition to modernism; and the crucial aesthetic forms and ideologies of the cultural front were not simple representationalism.
    So, what I like most about “Art for the Millions” is pretty simple: Rudnick’s show brings out how much lively formal experiment and aesthetic diversity existed within the 1930s art scrum—not as a dissident impulse, but as integrally connected to attempts to create a popular audience and to convey the realities of social life through art.
    The sobriety of The Soup Kitchen (ca. 1937) by the painter Norman Lewis (who would go on to greater fame as an abstract artist) certainly fits intuitively with an image of ’30s art. It is a clearly legible statement in support of government poverty relief.
    Norman Lewis, The Soup Kitchen (ca. 1937) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    But it’s also elegantly stylized, and Lewis’s design is working with its message: The underlying X-shape conveys the sense of a Works Progress Administration kitchen bringing some order to the chaos of the era. Read left to right, your eye is led upwards, from the sadness of the man hunched over his bowl to the helpful chef serving up a hot meal at the top right; from the need that justifies government action to the reality of that action.
    Elizabeth Olds’s Burlesque (1936) more clearly fuses social commentary with a demotic expressionism. The variegated cartoon grimaces of the dancers’ faces, and the repeating, mechanical formation of the chorus line, convey the exhausting work of selling sex appeal. The artist’s idea is immediately clear; her means veer from plain-spoken realism.
    Elizabeth Olds, Burlesque (1936) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of artworks here that fit the typical image of social realism, from Harry Gottleib’s lithograph Three Lane Traffic, showing a turbulent picket line outside of a posh restaurant on a rainswept night, to Riva Helfond’s Curtain Factory (ca. 1936-39), showing women bowed over their labors in a textile workshop. Even these have a lot of flair.
    At the same time, as Denning argues, a lesser-remembered “Proletarian Surrealism” was also a major current of the 1930s. It echoes in Alice Neel’s 1939 portrait of her friend, the poet (and future pulp crime novelest) Kenneth Fearing, who is shown as literally haunted by the demons of the Depression, a skeleton wringing blood out of his heart perched in his open chest. You see it also in Hugo Gellert’s lithographs, made for a 1934 edition of Marx’s Capital, where humans are crucified on the gears of an immense machine. You can even sense this impulse in Dox Thrash’s watercolor Untitled (Strike), where a Black union organizer appears transformed into a giant by the force of his rhetoric.
    Dox Thrash, Untitled (Strike) (ca. 1940) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Photography came into its own as a medium in the 1930s, and it is naturally in the crusading photojournalism of the day that you come closest to a “realist” documentary aesthetic. But obviously the genius of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans was not just to document protest and poverty. A mythologizing energy charged the facts with symbolism and made them arresting.
    This is radiantly self-evident in Lange’s Demonstration, San Francisco (1933), where a sharp low-angle image of a May Day protester turns him into a rock-jawed colossus gazing to the future. It’s more subtle in Lange’s Mexican Migrant Family with Tire Trouble, California (1936). There, a group of travelers fret over their stranded jalopy—but the detail that stops you is the small girl who stares plaintively out at you, as if asking silently for the viewer’s help.
    Huge Gellert, The Communist Party poster (ca. 1935) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    “Art for the Millions” does contain repeating and repetitive scenes of toiling white industrial workers—probably the subject matter that comes closest to evoking the cornier cliches of “social realism.” Even here, I think there’s something touching in how aestheticized these proletarian beefcakes are. We are obviously much closer to fantasy than to reality.
    Whether we are talking about the brawny industrial Spartacus rallying the workers from the cover of the Communist Party USA’s Daily Worker or the supernaturally assured construction workers of James Edmund Allen’s etching The Builders (1932), these are not real workers. They represent the promise of bodies transformed by dignified work and industrial renewal into stylized superhero versions of the working class—in a way, they are the negative images of the desperation and depletion brought by mass unemployment.
    James Edmund Allen, The Builders (1932) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    “Art for the Millions” contains many more great details and minor discoveries, but let me just skip to the third gallery, where the topic shifts to industrial design. Here, you see one of the ambiguities of how New Deal-era political discourse cyphered into culture.
    In 1929, Wall Street led the nation into calamity. For huge sections of the population, U.S. capitalism was discredited. Edmund Wilson recalled:
    The stock market crash was to count for us almost like a rending of the earth in preparation for the Day of Judgment… Yet to the writers and artists of my generation who had grown up in the Big Business era and had always resented its barbarism, its crowding out of everything they cared about, these years were not depressing but stimulating. One couldn’t help being exhilarated at the sudden and unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom, and it gave us a new sense of power to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers, for a change, were taking a beating.
    Millions upon millions of people were out of work, suffering, betrayed, and angry. In that space, there was bitter, back-against-the-wall protest, but also a lot of dreaming about what a better system might look like. The two fused in powerful ways. One consequential example: In 1934, The Jungle author Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement came within striking distance of taking the governorship, based on the promise to transform the Golden State into a cooperative economy.
    The captains of industry responded to 1930s with bitter resistance—but they also pivoted to adapt some of the crusading popular rhetoric about the promise of a transformed future to their own ends. In fact, this was true of Roosevelt’s New Deal itself, explicitly an attempt to save capitalism by stabilizing society, and to head off the more radical protest movements (though the business bloc that united to try to sink the New Deal in the 1936 elections refused to see this).
    Gellert’s illustrations for Das Kapital and Charlie Chaplin’s all-time masterpiece Modern Times—a clip of the 1936 film is shown in the first gallery—form one pole of the era’s ideas of what the machine age represented: workers brutalized by ravening factories. But the other pole was modernisation-as-deliverance, the promise of a progressive and hygienic new world based on technological advance.
    Lester Beall, Rural Electrification Administration posters (1937) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    At the Met, the latter is encapsulated by Lester Beall’s 1937 posters for FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration: clean and geometric primary-color graphics promising running water, radio, electricity, and more. (Even card-carrying Communists were open to the romance of the machine, enchanted by fantastical tales of Stalin’s success at vaulting an impoverished rural Russia into a workers’ utopia via heavy industry.)
    Streamlining was the design gospel of the 1930s. Everyday appliances were kissed with machine-age magic, given the connotation of forward-driving speed. I mentioned that all those heroic images of workers’ bodies purified and made powerful radiated hopes of a possible better world. I think the act of reimagining everyday goods, giving them this kind of futuristic dazzle, tried to tap some of that same energy, making consumerism over as progressive.
    “Patriot” radio (ca. 1940) designed by Norman Bel Geddes, Electric Clock (ca. 1933) designed by Gilbert Rohde, and Desk lamp, model no. 114 (1939) designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and Frank Del Guidice, in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    “Art for the Millions” ends with artifacts and images related to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, maybe the ultimate example of how Depression-era utopian foment became recoded into marketing. The slogan of that event was “Dawn of a New Day;” it promised to show its millions of visitors a glimpse of the “World of Tomorrow.”
    Joseph Binder’s 1939 World’s Fair poster shows the Fair’s twin symbols, a spire and sphere—the so-called Trylon and Perisphere structures. They hearken to back to landmarks of visionary architecture like Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton (1784), which sought to convey the grandeur of the Enlightenment, or even the symbolic geometry of Vladimir Tatlin’s homage to the Bolshevik experiment, Monument to the Third International (1919)—though unlike either of these, the Trylon and Perisphere were actually built in Queens (temporarily).
    They are depicted in Binder’s poster graphic towering over the earth, dwarfing a tiny modern Manhattan skyline at bottom left. It is as if the promises of a luminous future had already applied a rear-view mirror to the dark realities of the preceding decade.
    Joseph Binder, New York World’s Fair, The World of Tomorrow poster (1939) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    On the actual fair grounds, within the 180-foot-diameter Perisphere, the Fair’s central attraction was an immense diorama of something called “Democracity,” a vision of a vastly ambitious urban development formed of a network of interlinked “Centertons” (government centers), “Pleasantvilles” (residential spaces), and “Milltowns” (factory districts). For Depression-wearied audiences, Democracity was a promise of a near-future U.S. society that had solved crime, class struggle, poverty, and pollution through ambitious real estate development. Insisting that it was “not a utopia,” its brochure spelled out how such a plan could practically work in detail. “The City of Tomorrow which lies below you is as harmonious as the stars in their courses overhead—No anarchy—destroying the freedom of others—can exist here.”
    It was quite a pitch—and of course the technocratic renaissance it advertised remained principally in the realm of fantasy. Mostly, the 1939 World’s Fair was a glammed-up product expo for mammoth corporations like GM and Westinghouse; as one account laconically put it, the fair would embody a “general corporate understanding of progress.”
    Ruth Reeves, Scarves (1938) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Meanwhile, the Trylon and Perisphere became useful logos to print on merchandise for those looking to take home a memory of the promised “World of Tomorrow.” At the Met, Ruth Reeves’s silk scarves are shown as an example. Their pattern mingles the futuristic profiles of the Trylon and Perisphere with images of the Founding Fathers—sci-fi spectacle helpfully harmonized with cheerful patriotism; a better future advertised at a price that was not too unreasonable, either in terms of money or in terms of social strife.
    The scarves are lovely. They are also a perfect note to end this show on. They nicely point to how ‘30s aspirations for a more just economic order were spun into promises of ever-“new and improved” stuff, post-World War II—essentially, how the U.S. went from embracing one meaning of the slogan “Art for the Millions” to another, very different and more familiar one.
    “Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s”  is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through December 10, 2023.

    For more images of the show, see below.
    Entrance to “Art for the Millions: American Art in the 1930s” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring a film of Martha Graham performing Frontier (1935) and a Dress by Ruth Reeves (ca. 1930). Photo by Ben Davis.
    The first gallery of “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Harry Gottlieb, Three Lane Traffic (1937) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Alice Neel, Kenneth Fearing (1935) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Dorothea Lange, Demonstration, San Francisco (1933) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Screenprints and lithographs by Harry Gottloeb, Louis Lozowick, James Lesesne Wells, David P. Chun, and Harry Sternberg. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Riva Helfond, Curtain Factory (ca. 1936-39) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Robert Blackburn, People in a Boat (1938) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Hugo Gellert, Machinery and Large Scale Industry 44 and 46 (1933) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Ben Shahn, Resettlement Administration poster (1937) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Thomas Hart Benton, Approaching Storm (1940), Seymour Lipton, Flood (1937), and Marsden Hartley, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1939) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Dorothea Lange, Mexican Migrant Family with Tire Trouble, California (1936) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    José Dolores López, Adam and Eve and the Serpent (ca. 1930) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Dress (1929) manufactured by H.R. Mallinson and Company, and Charles Sheeler, Americana (1931) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Visitors contemplate examples of ’30s industrial design in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Isamu Noguchi, ‘Radio Nurse’ monitor (1937), Norman Bell Geddes, ‘Manhattan’ cocktail set (1936-40), and Gilberd Rohde, Desk lamp (1933) in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Covers from Fortune magazine, 1937, in “Art for the Millions.” Photo by Ben Davis.
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    The Nasher Museum’s New Art Show Was Curated by ChatGPT. We Asked ChatGPT to Review It 

    “In an unprecedented fusion of technology and art, the Nasher Museum of Art has boldly ventured into uncharted territory with their latest exhibition, ‘Act as if you are a curator: an A.I.-generated exhibition.’ This ambitious undertaking harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to curate an immersive journey through the digital realm. While not without its challenges, the exhibit offers a unique and thought-provoking experience that pushes the boundaries of traditional curation.”
    This was the first paragraph produced by ChatGPT when we asked it to review the new ChatGPT-organized exhibition at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.
    For the show, on view through January, Nasher’s curators turned over some of their usual duties to the A.I. tool. The experiment began with a joke: Marshall Price, the museum’s chief curator, offhandedly suggested the idea during a meeting this spring. Recent departures in the department had left him short-staffed at the time, and there was a hole in the fall programming schedule that needed to be filled. Why not outsource the gig? 
    To his surprise, his colleagues, Julia McHugh and Julianne Miao, jumped at the idea. They convinced Price, too. “We thought, what a great opportunity to see what this technology could bring to the curatorial process,” he recalled. “It was an opportunity for us to push the boundaries of curatorial practice.” 
    Installation view of “Act as if you are a curator: an A.I.-generated exhibition,” 2023 at the Nasher Museum of Art. Photo: Cornell Watson. Courtesy of the Nasher.
    After feeding it datasets and a series of iterative prompts, ChatGPT eventually suggested themes—“utopia, dystopia, the subconscious, and dreams”—and a title—“Dreams of Tomorrow”—for the show. It also spat out an attendant list of artworks culled from some 14,000 objects in the institution’s holdings. The selection is wildly diverse, with pieces ranging in date from 2000 B.C.E. to 2021. Some bear only the thinnest of connections to the exhibition’s themes. 
    On this point, our critic agreed. “This diversity raised questions about curation,” ChatGPT wrote in one of several automated reviews. “While the A.I. had undoubtedly produced many captivating pieces, there were moments when it felt disjointed. This lack of curation left the exhibition feeling somewhat fragmented and overwhelming.” 
    The program’s preferred artworks were pieces it invented. For example, the Nasher’s show includes prints by Salvador Dalí, Nicholas Monro, and Juliana Seraphim, but our reviewer was more interested in Ava the A.I. Painter’s Mosaic of Emotions and RoboCraftsman’s Sentient Sculptures. The latter body of work, per the program, “takes the concept of three-dimensional art to a new level,” with sculptures “that seem to breathe and transform before our eyes.” 
    “Act as if you are a curator” is not the first exhibition to be shaped by artificial intelligence. The 2022 Bucharest Biennial was led by an A.I. named Jarvis, while earlier this year the Whitney Museum teamed up with the Liverpool Biennial to launch a project that generates fake artists and curatorial statements. These efforts, like the Nasher’s own, leaned into a sense of playfulness designed to assuage anxieties around what this emergent technology might mean for jobs in the art world and beyond. They were crafted by humans to make A.I. look dumb, not the other way around.   
    But the stakes of this technology remain high, even if it’s far from being able to compete with real, human curators.  
    Nicholas Monro, Cosmic Consciousness (1970). Courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art.
    In 2021, the Istituzione Bologna Musei in Italy began using A.I.-controlled cameras to monitor visitors’ interactions. The goal, according to researchers on the project, was to determine “attraction values” for individual works of art, which the institution could later use in planning layouts and future exhibitions.  
    In a moment where museums the world over are struggling to remain relevant—and solvent—this is a unsettling proposition. Why would the Istituzione Bologna Musei or any other art organization need curators to organize good, thoughtful exhibitions when a computer could design bad ones that keep people coming back? 
    Eerily, our own A.I. experiments hinted at a similar feedback loop. In its reviews, ChatGPT’s favorite part of “Act as if you are a curator” was… that it was curated by ChatGPT.  
    One review called it a “thought-provoking dialogue about the future of art and its place in our increasingly digital and automated world.” Another dubbed it a “innovative showcase” that “offers a multifaceted glimpse into the evolving relationship between human creativity and machine intelligence, sparking profound questions about authorship, curation, and the very essence of art itself.” 
    Both pieces of criticism arrived at the same grade: four out of five stars.
    “Act as if you are a curator: an A.I.-generated exhibition” is on view at the Nasher Museum of Art, 2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina, through January 14, 2024.
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    A Major Isa Genzken Retrospective in Berlin Brings a Rare Clarity to What Makes Her Ingenious, Risk-Taking Art So Vital

    It starts with a pink rose, astounding in its towering scale and vaguely threatening—each thorn on the stem is about the size of a butcher’s knife. This monumental steel flower seems as if it is finally at home in the surreal and weird context around the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where everything is a bit idiosyncratic. The iconic museum is where Isa Genzken is subject of a smartly styled exhibition to mark her 75th birthday called “75/75,” on view until the date of her birthday, November 27.
    An unbridled beauty and a sense of precarity radiate from the German artist’s sculptures once you get past Pink Rose and inside the Mies van der Rohe-designed museum. Like Pink Rose, the Berlin-based artist, who by now one has attained cult status as one of the most important voices in her cohort, works with contradictions. Materials and forms clash and bang together. But the brilliance of Genkzen is the confidence and sensitivity of the medley—it all just works.
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe. Courtesy Buchholz Gallery. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Lisa Botti, the show, as its title suggests, consists of 75 works on loan from private and public collections, including from the collections of friends of the artist including artists Wolfgang Tillmans and Katharina Grosse, who are also both based in Berlin. “75/75” touches on every key chapter of Genzken’s career, which has been long, multifaceted, and as of late rockier as she has opened up about struggles with alcohol and bipolar disorder. The artist has been unwell lately, too; Given this, she was unable to participate personally in the exhibition, which Biesenbach and Botti framed instead as a gift to her.
    A few days after the opening, Biesenbach posted on Instagram that Genzken did, in the end, make it to see the show. In either case, the show is also a gift to whomever comes to see it in Berlin and wants to understand exactly what makes Genzken essential to contemporary art. The fact that one can simply turn their head left to right and survey the breadth of her career is a unique benefit of this building’s main floor, which is without walls or blind spots.
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe. Courtesy Buchholz Gallery. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    The transparent building also involves the city beyond it, which is chaotically postmodern—not unlike Genzken’s sculptures. The works here echo a city, arranged in a grid plan that you can walk through as if strolling the avenues of Genzken’s psyche. In one sculpture there is a picture of the artist and Gerhard Richter, to whom she was married for many years. One floor below, just by chance it seems, is a landmark show of Richter—a very different kind of artist bent around measured perfection, unlike Genzken—who just permanently loaned 100 works to the museum.
    The modernity of the Neue Nationalgalerie’s jewel-box architecture is a perfect place for the studied chaos of Genzken because it represents her artistic foil—the strictures of modernism. The show also plots out just how Genkzen arrived at this pursuit. It begins with her minimal “ellipsoids” and “hyperbolos,” long and elegant structures that lie on the floor. Then, Genzken’s works jump into the vertical space, into tall standing responses to them in works like Diana. Then, her work begins to spread outwards with works like X from 1992, a see-through box made of epoxy resin that glistens in the afternoon light.
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75,” New National Gallery, 2023. Pictured: NOFRETETE – THE ORIGINAL, (2012). (Private collection Rhineland). Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe. Courtesy Buchholz Gallery. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    From there it spirals in fits of genius, into works that are like sieves for the by-products of consumerism and western society. Mies, from 2008, is one such work. It seems like it was made to be where it is right now, dangling from the ceiling with a Barcelona chair and pink hula hoops in the suspension scheme—the very same types of Mies van der Rohe-designed seats on which tourists sit on at the other side of the museum looking at their Google Maps. New Buildings for Berlin from 2005, speaks to the random postmodern nature of Berlin, post-war, poking reference to German modernists like van der Rohe. Then, nearby, Genzken’s disturbingly to-the-point disembodied airplane windows leave you with a lurking sense of death.   
    For Genzken, as for many Berlin artists, this prime spot in the Neue Nationalgalerie is the stuff of dreams. But a show on this level for such an icon is also something special to the public. Laid out chronologically, “75/75” gives you a gorgeously clear way to enter into Genzken’s work, a practice the artist said herself can be hard to understand. And, despite the incredible value of some of these pieces, nothing here is cordoned off behind insurance ropes or motion-sensitive alarms, or constrained to the taming backdrop of a white cube, like zoo animals. At Neue Nationalgalerie, they run free.
    ‘75/75’ is on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin until November 27, 2023. See more images of the show below.
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe. Courtesy Buchholz Gallery. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Isa Genzken, Schauspieler (Actor), (2013). Private collection Rhineland. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023 pictured: DER JUNGE GEWICHTHEBER, (2004) Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Pictured: UNTITLED, (2015); SCHAUSPIELER II, 6, (2014) (Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner); LEONARDO, (2017) (Private collection); NOFRETETE, (2015). (Collection su.benz, Stuttgart). Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe Courtesy Buchholz Gallery © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe Courtesy Buchholz Gallery © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
    Exhibition view “Isa Genzken. 75/75”, New National Gallery, 2023. Photo: National Gallery – National Museums in Berlin / Jens Ziehe Courtesy Buchholz Gallery © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

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    What I’m Looking at: Odd Apparitions at White Columns, Google’s Art Market Hallucination, and Other Things at the Edge of Art

    “What I’m Looking at” is a monthly column where I digest art worth seeing, writings worth consuming, and other tidbits. Below, thoughts from the first weeks of July 2023.

    Unplaceable Goodness
    This one-gallery White Columns survey of the recent output of the well-regarded Brooklyn-based sculptor Carol Bruns (b. 1943) makes me think of ghosts. Not just because these sculptures are mainly all in ghostly white, but because ghosts are border characters, between alive and dead. And I take the attempt to achieve a kind of eerie, resonant in-between-ness to be where Bruns’s head is at.
    Bruns’s sculptures are in-between in at least three ways. First, in that they are made with found materials, and both show it and don’t show it—you can sense the underlying forms of Styrofoam pieces or pipes found on the street, but Bruns has semi-finished them in white plaster and paint so that they hold together into one, gawky form. Second, they are in-between in that they conjure faces and figures, but always in a not-quite-there way, the final form being half-creaturely, half-object-like. And, finally and most subtly, they are in-between in emotional tone: Are these mask-like reliefs and sculptures spooky or lovable? They exist just at the point where you have to project into them, and they shift states if you stay with them.
    There’s a lot of control in holding all these levels of irresolution together at once in an artwork. And if you let yourself steep in Bruns’s show, it’s mind-expanding. (On view through August 26.)
    Carol Bruns, Archaic Man, New Man (2021), Fox Totem (2022), Techno Man II (2022), and Techno Man (2022). Photo by Ben Davis.
    Carol Bruns, Guardian (2022), The Afflicted Man (2023), and The Third Eye (2021). Photo by Ben Davis.
    Carol Bruns, Fringe Elements (2023). Photo by Ben Davis.

    SCRY Movie (and Paintings)
    There’s more unsettled-ness in Rachel Rossin’s “SCRY” (through August 11 at Magenta Plains)—it’s almost like we live in a time where things feel really uneasy and unresolved!
    The literal centerpiece of this show is The Maw of, a LED tondo (part of a project also seen at the Whitney last year and, to crowds, in Berlin). Hung on the ceiling, it radiates a digital glow over everything, playing out a broken, elliptical narrative featuring fragments of an anime girl, animated diagrams, landscapes, and data clusters. The uneasy sense Rossin creates is something like a kind of cyborg consciousness either on the cusp of being born or in the throes of dying.
    The suite of paintings hung around the gallery manifest shadowy figures that look alternatively like mechs and angels (or mecha-angels?), based, I gather, on Rossin’s childhood drawings. They capture a similar mood to the LED work, like some kind of sinister memory or liberating epiphany in formation. The miasmic quality of The Maw of is mirrored in the shifting layers of the marks in the paint, as if the canvas was some kind of visual receiver that was being tuned, and alien transmissions were veering into focus through the static.
    The painting-on-canvas and the digital-art parts of the show fit together a little unstably, but I realized that this is also part of the whole idea of “SCRY”: The space between the mediums was also the space between different forms of consciousness; it feels as if a new hybrid art is wrestling to be born, either drawing painting and digital-art together, or thwarted by the air-gap between them.
    “Rachel Rossin: SCRY” at Magenta Plains. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Rachel Rossin, The Maw of (2022) at Magenta Plains. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Rachel Rossin, haha. Regarding states of looking back (2023). Photo by Ben Davis.

    The Weed Pot Avant-Garde
    “No secret, just work.” So said the late art ceramicist Doyle Lane (1923–2002) when asked about the secret of his glazes, in an interview that was displayed in a vitrine near the entrance of David Kordansky for this show (which closed, lamentably, before I could get my act together to write this). His “Weed Pots” from the ’60 and ‘70s (no, not that kind of weed; it’s a term for a vessel meant to display a leaf of grass or a sprig of wheat or the like) are individually great. Each is a tiny, complete, confident thing, exploring color or texture.
    But—credit where credit is due—the display of 100 Lane-made weed pots at Kordansky (including one that came from the collection of the great painter Charles White) by artist-curator Ricky Swallow was greater than the sum of its parts. It gave a sense, via the clarity of its juxtapositions, of how much delightful variation Lane was able to create within a sober, gimmick-free commitment to craft fundamentals.
    Installation view of “Doyle Lane: Weed Pots” at David Kordansky Gallery. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Installation view of “Doyle Lane: Weed Pots.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Display of material relating to the life of Doyle Lane at David Kordansky. Photo by Ben Davis.

    The “Aesthetic Turn” Gathers Force…
    The best thing to read of the last few weeks is definitely “On the Aesthetic Turn” by Anastasia Berg, the scene-setter for The Point’s summer issue on the question “What Is Beauty For?” (the issue also has a bunch of good essays in it).
    “The critical tide is turning, once again,” she wrote. In my own review of the mess that is “It’s Pablo-matic” at the Brooklyn Museum, I talked about how we were at an inflection point, where the “moralism” that has been dominant for the better part of a decade in culture writing was increasingly uncool. Berg’s “On the Aesthetic Turn” surveys the different types of positions people are taking as they respond to this shift, while also noting that what this “aesthetic turn” means remains somewhat unsettled, more a negative rejection of a dominant style than a new consensus (for this reason, I would call the new style “anti-moralism” rather than an “aesthetic turn”).
    The cover of The Point, issue 30.

    Holographic Media and Target Modernism
    Two other things to read…
    It’s a couple of months old now already, but I just caught this banger of an essay by Caroline Busta and Lil Internet (of New Models fame) on Outland, “Holographic Media.” Looking at the evolution of media—art-based and otherwise—Busta/Internet offer a kind of combined manifesto and prophecy of what comes next, spinning out the implications of the increasing realization that authentic-feeling culture has to exist outside of the big tech platforms if it is to survive.
    There’s a lot in their analysis, from their prognosis that “community itself becomes a form of media” to their prediction of the great “Voiding of the Mid”: “Younger generations are already suffering from Mid-exhaustion as endless culture-warring and grandstanding didacticism have made “👏using 👏your👏voice” on social media seem extremely cringe.” It’s all worth chewing on.
    Warhol-inspired products on view inside a pop-up Target. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage)
    Finally, speaking of “the Mid”… check out Molly Osberg’s essay from July on art grads putting their skills to use in the alternate-universe art world dedicated to hotel and office art. Among other things, it teases out a telling turn towards “unique” experiences in mass-ified consumer design, and gives you the category of “Target modern” to think about. Above all, it’s a lot of fun:
    These jobs are often to graft together art-world concepts—”modern,” “impressionistic”—and the kinds of adjectives brand managers favor like “gritty” or “airy” or “classic.” In less ambitious settings, the goal is to create something that telegraphs the idea of art without the potentially alienating qualities of an actual piece. Abstract works are popular for this reason: They communicate a vague sense of design history without much in the way of a specific point. Also, the piece has to complement a particular shade of paint.

    La Grande Mistake
    Just to see how it works, I’ve enabled Google’s A.I.-enabled Search queries—the giant corporation’s latest endeavor to slurp all the value of the internet into its own gullet, and leave as little as possible for anyone else. I find these A.I.-enabled little summaries mainly annoying.
    But at least this query for Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte informs me of this huge piece of recent art-market news that I have somehow missed.
    Page of Google A.I.-enabled search results for “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
    A real loss for Chicago!
    And even so, it looks like the Art Institute of Chicago got really ripped off. Because if I try again with Google’s A.I., it tells me that Seurat’s painting has been valued at a whopping $650 million!
    Page of Google A.I.-enabled search results for “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
    The very-specific number for the almost-certainly-priceless painting comes from a light-hearted and unscientific thought experiment in a post by Evan Beard, speculating on what the uber-rich might pay for major masterpieces. It illustrates Google A.I.’s habit of yoinking sources and remixing them in its own language—in this case stealing Beard’s fun speculations while mangling the fact that they were either fun or speculative.
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    What I’m Looking at: Chryssa’s Sizzling Tribute to Times Square, the MyPillow Guy’s Office Paintings, and Other Things at the Edge of Art

    “What I’m Looking at” is a monthly column where I digest art worth seeing, writings worth consuming, and other tidbits. Below, thoughts from the first weeks of July 2023.

    Chryssa Gets Her Day
    I only really knew the name of Greek-born sculptor Chryssa (1933-2013) before this big show dedicated to her New York output, currently at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea (co-created with the Menil Collection in Houston, and on view through July 22, 2023). What fun to get a full sense of her! In the 1950s and ’60s, Chryssa breathed in New York’s energy, and breathed it out as art. She took inspiration from material that evoked the swirling, information-dense urban environment: newspapers, typography, neon signs. Then she stripped away their information-conveying function, distilling and abstracting their forms into reliefs and sculptures that become mysterious, austere, transfixing.
    Her act of going by the mononymn “Chryssa” itself mirrors her procedure of subtraction and abstraction: adding to a signifier’s evocative power by stripping it down and making it mysterious. It also suggests a certain swagger. The sculpture that probably best incarnates this appetite is her magnum opus, on tour here from the Buffalo AKG Art Museum collection: a 10-by-10 hulk called The Gates to Times Square (1964–66). It is a glorious abstracted “A,” in sizzling blue neon. It wants to stun you as a distilled version of the grandeur of New York’s commercial center, while also conveying the mystery of an altar of secret texts held just out of reach.
    Chryssa, Five Variations on the Ampersand (1966) in “Chryssa and New York” at Dia. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Chryssa, Classified (1960). Photo by Ben Davis.
    Chryssa, Cycladic Movement (n.d.) and Letter “T” (1959). Photo by Ben Davis.

    The Berlin Scene
    The tightly packed one-room show dedicated to Warhol superstar Brigid Berlin does contain things you’d call art, ranging from Berlin’s raucous “tit prints” (made by dipping her breasts in paint and smooshing them on paper) to the needlepoints of lurid New York Post covers from her latter days. But “The Heaviest” at Vito Schnabel (on view through August 18), organized by Alison M. Gingeras, is really more akin to immersing yourself in a full “Brigid Berlin” exhibit at a museum of Downtown history.
    Along with the art, you get letters and pictures from her childhood as a rebellious heiress (her dad was CEO of the Hearst Corp.); newspaper articles about her as the flamboyant character that she still was in her post-Factory life; a video made with Warhol and Larry Poons documenting her breast-based art-making practice accompanied by her own gregarious, self-mocking commentary.
    It’s actually fitting that the show runs together Berlin’s art and material about her as a character, in a way. Berlin didn’t really seem to distinguish art-making from living an interesting life. This is probably best represented by her copious Polaroids of characters who lurked around the Factory, and in her recordings—which you can listen to at the gallery—of her constant phone calls with intimates and associates.
    The show’s a fascinating look at a life. As to the art as art, I’m of two minds, I guess. On the one hand, it does feel to me that Berlin’s output mainly depends on your interest in a certain form of micro-celebrity. But then this kind of self-mythologizing persona does feel very contemporary, with its indulgent eclecticism, its defensive bravado, and its melancholy undertones.
    Brigid Berlin material in “The Heaviest.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Four of Brigid Berlin’s “Tit Prints” in “The Heaviest.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    A Brigid Berlin Polaroid of Dennis Hopper in “The Heaviest.” Photo by Ben Davis.
    Sampler by Brigid Berlin in “The Heaviest.” Photo by Ben Davis.

    Fun With Shirts
    I wandered, basically at random, into Fierman gallery to find a one-weekend-only display of Nora Griffin’s paint-on-vintage-tee-shirt art show. Griffin, a maker of wonky abstract paintings, deploys her groovy, whirling colors to various New York-themed vintage tees, all hailing from the pre-9/11 era, bringing a sense of a vanished era of the city into alignment with an approachable kind of thrift-shop creativity. The effect was to make you feel like you had time traveled momentarily to a simpler, sunnier, nicer scene, and one that you could walk away with a piece of.
    You missed the show, but the shirts have their own Instagram—so join the 1999 NYC Tee club while you can.
    Installation view of Nora Griffin’s “1999 NYC TEE” show at Fierman. Photo by Ben Davis.
    A Nora Griffin tee. Photo by Ben Davis.

    As to things to read… I guess the art world is embracing Threads, according to Annie Armstrong’s piece on the Whitney’s gushy foray into the new social media network. So we have to deal with Threads. And I’ll say that Kate Lindsay’s post about the Threads experiment for the Embedded newsletter about internet culture is the best thing I’ve read on it.
    Pungently titled “Threads Is a Mecca of Millennial Brain Rot,” it sums up my experience of Meta’s new social media platform, and of social media altogether right now—everything feels like different flavors of desperate:
    When I first opened the app, I expected to see an early-Twitter copycat. Instead, I was met with a feed of users parroting robotic and emoji-laden prompts, the same four jokes about being “unhinged,” and, of course, a car giveaway from Mr. Beast. Given the opportunity to build the social media culture we say we’ve been missing, we immediately resorted to posting the worst clichés from today’s internet. Is this post from a person, or a brand? Because they’re both employing the same hokey syntax to post empty engagement-bait. 
    This behavior says something about how we view social media now. It’s not for connection, but performance. It seems that many of the people who rushed to download this app did so to get in early on a rush for potential new followers, and in so doing, adopted digital personas that bear no resemblance to how a single human talks in real life. After years of being subliminally nudged towards this behavior through algorithm changes on other platforms, when given the opportunity to do something different on Threads, we came running back to the bland platitudes and low-hanging fruit we’ve been conditioned to rely on for engagement.
    I feel it would be better just to admit that this form of communication has failed than to try to get back to some imaginary “good” version of it. But that’s me, and that’s probably not going to happen.
    Screenshot of a Threads post from the Whitney Museum using Allen Frame, Cady Noland, phone booth, NYC (1981) as a meme.

    The MyPillow Guy’s Art
    Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, Inc.—known around the web as the “MyPillow Guy”—is selling off his company’s stuff on K-Bid Online Auctions to raise money, having wasted his empire’s actual and reputational capital on trying to overturn the 2020 election. So of course, I went to check if there was any art. And there is, sort of.
    It’s a lot of framed images of plants and green landscapes and such. If you have a suburban bathroom to decorate, you have a week to place your bids.
    I do love this still-life, below, presented with no info on what you are looking at but with the accompanying detail shot of the signature to show the authenticity of whatever that is. I’ve always wanted to own a… “ufiloojp[??]”
    It really is like owning a piece of history: Offering random, blurry details to prove something is real is kind of what Lindell is known for now.
    Screenshot of an artwork being sold in the “My Pillow Surplus Industrial Equipment” sale on K-Bid Online Auctions.
    Screenshot of an artwork being sold in the “My Pillow Surplus Industrial Equipment” sale on K-Bid Online Auctions.

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    With Ceremonies and Rituals, the Liverpool Biennial Takes an Unflinching Look at the City’s Participation in the Slave Trade

    Large identical steel structures, reminiscent of the bottom of a ship’s hull, tower over viewers in a dimly lit room at the Tate Liverpool. They are smooth at the bottom, with hollowed out centers, while their top halves are coarse, as if their maker had extracted these forms directly from the water.
    The trio of sculptures signify gateways, shelters, or sailing route between Europe, West Africa, and the Americas where up to 2.4 million enslaved Africans died. For many people visiting this year’s Liverpool Biennial, on view until September, this weighty artwork by artist Torkwase Dyson will be the first piece they encounter—and it sets the tone for the rest of the contemporary art festival.
    The 12th edition of Liverpool Biennial, titled “uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Thing,” explores the dark relationship between Liverpool, slavery, and colonialism. While the U.K.’s history in the slave trade is far from unknown, many may be unaware that much of the wealth of Liverpool during the 18th century stemmed from its involvement with slavery, surpassing Bristol and London as the slave-trading capital in Britain by the 1740s. 
    For “uMoya” (which means “spirit, breath, air, climate, and wind” in isiZulu), South African curator Khanyisile Mbongwa has invited 35 artists from across six continents whose work, as she described it in her opening remarks, encompasses “emancipation practices.” The curator noted that the biennial is an attempt to return “that which has been lost and taken from those who have been silenced or forgotten.”
    Torkwase Dyson, Liquid a Place (2021). Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty
    Part of this return is the meaningful renegotiation of spaces with colonial histories. There is the Cotton Exchange, which was the epicentre of the global cotton trade, and the Tobacco Warehouse, a 14-storey building where imported rum and tobacco were once stored.
    From its first installation to its last, the biennial does what it set out to do: it reminds Britain and the rest of the world of Liverpool’s colonial past. It does this by showing work by a set of vastly different artists. That said, there are rare moments that probe the city as it is today. Melanie Manchot’s film project is one of the few moments where the exhibition deals with Liverpool’s contemporary issues: Using professional actors and people in the local recovery community, Manchot’s work STEPHEN (2023) explores mental health and addiction in the city through a series of works, which culminate in an hour-long final piece. 
    Among those artists at the Tate, one of the exhibition’s most well-known locations, is the towering British painter Lubaina Himid. The wall reserved for Himid is one of the few instances throughout the biennial dedicated to paintings that engage with subversive notions of the sea. Between the Two my Heart is Balanced (1991) reimagines a 19th-century James Tissot painting—instead of a white British soldier and two white women on a boat, we find two Black women ripping up maps. In Act One, No Maps (1991), two Black women at the opera look out onto a seascape.
    Edgar Calel, Ru k’ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el (The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge) (2021). Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty
    Beyond this, much of the biennial is devoted to video and sculptural pieces that are often ceremonial in nature. In Guatemalan artist Edgar Calel’s installation, The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge (2021), various fruit and vegetables have been strategically placed atop stones as part of a private ritual that took place during installation.
    The public artwork at Liverpool’s historic Princes Dock, titled Ali sa be sa be (2023) (meaning “a large rock wall” in the Rukai language) by artist Eleng Luluan is inspired by the artist’s upbringing as part of the indigenous Rukai community in south Taiwan. The bulbous woven structure portrays the legend of the birth of the founder of Rukai, who is believed to have been born from a pottery jar protected by two snakes. 
    Before it was sent and after it arrived at its location in Liverpool, Luluan’s translator, Apple, says they performed a “ritual of incarnation” on the work. If you caught Luluan’s piece right after the U.K. side of said ritual, among other things, you’d find various grains, slightly singed cigarettes, and foliage in front of it.
    Eleng Luluan, Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth, (2023). Installation view at Princes Dock, Liverpool Biennial 2023. Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial
    Additionally, the British-Nigerian artist Ranti Bam’s sculptural series Ifa (2021-23) is soft in its expression but still powerful. The piece made for Our Lady and Saint Nicholas Church Garden—the burial location of Liverpool’s first Black resident, a former slave—uses abstract sculptures formed by hugging clay structures as they harden, a process which Bam told me began one morning when she fell onto her sculptures “in supplication.” 
    The name references two Yoruba words: ifá, a pre-colonial system of divination, and fa, which means “to draw” or “to pull” something. “These works conflate to mean drawing the divine close,” Bam said. Also subtle yet potent is Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński’s Respire (Liverpool) (2023) at FACT Liverpool, a multi-screen video work that commits itself to the idea of Black people breathing freely as a form of liberation by showcasing locals breathing through red balloons.
    In contrast, in the Tobacco Warehouse, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu (2022), a performance by Albert Ibokwe Khoza, slaps you in the face. In it, Khoza exposes the shameful legacy of Black human circuses by tying up audience members and dressing people up in monkey masks while forcing them to dance. 
    Albert Ibokwe Khoza, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tobacco Warehouse. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty
    Khoza’s show is unpredictable, absurd and at points darkly humorous, with its only downfall being that most exhibition-goers will not be able to experience the hauntingly magnificent performance live. Instead, they will find remnants of the event as an installation, including a shrine featuring cow bones, photography on the walls, and tutus hanging from the ceiling. After fully experiencing Khoza’s piece, it’s hard to imagine that these leftovers will provide the same effect, but that’s an inevitable byproduct of such a masterpiece.
    At the end of the biennial, there are two questions still left unanswered. After all that has happened, where are we now? And, consequently, where do we go from there? Maybe that’s intentional. Perhaps those are ones for us to think about, now aided with knowledge of the city’s sordid hiwstory.
    The Liverpool Biennial runs until September 17.
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    At the Sustainability-Focused Helsinki Biennial, Art, Tech, and the Environment Attempt to Coexist

    As the worldwide craze for biennials shows no signs of slowing down, for many the urgent issue of sustainability remains an awkward afterthought. Not so for the Helsinki Biennial in Finland, which was founded with the mission of pioneering a new model for ecologically-conscious arts programming. Returning this month for its second edition with 29 participating artists, it hopes to build on its past successes—and setbacks.
    The exhibition returns to the archipelago island of Vallisaari but has also expanded to the mainland, with five works in the centrally located Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) and a few more scattered by the city’s main harbor. The title “New Directions May Emerge” this year, is borrowed from a quote by the American anthropologist Anna Tsing who has been hugely influential in the art world: “As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds—and new directions—may emerge.”
    For curator Joasia Krysa, who is best known for her work on Documenta 13 and the 9th Liverpool Biennial, the idea of contamination felt particularly pertinent. The Baltic Sea that washes up on Helsinki’s shores is among the most polluted waters in the world while the biodiverse haven of Vallisaari has been repeatedly taken over by military operations until it was abandoned in the 1990s.
    Adrián Villar Rojas, from the series The End of Imagination (2023). Photo: © HAM/Helsinki Biennial/Viljami Annanolli.
    The overgrown island is occupied once again, this time by 17 artworks and a steady stream of tourists arriving by ferry. The majority of the land is still closed off for conservation and the necessary facilities have been kept relatively minimal, with cafes, bathrooms, and a shop concentrated around two harbors. The site-specific exhibits are scattered along a pre-existing trail that loops around the island and they respond well to their environment, but do they justify our intrusion?
    One installation by Helsinki-native Alma Heikkilä works hand-in-hand with nature by changing slowly over the course of the summer. Coadapted with (2023) contains of a sculpture that gains its color as rainwater mixes with natural plant dyes and drips over the plaster. The Materia Medica of Islands (2023) by Lotta Petronella, from the island of Ruissalo, reintroduces age-old ways of living with nature, including an apothecary for alternative herbal medicines and essences made with foraged local flora. Pieces from The End of Imagination (2023) series by Argentinian artist Adrián Villa Rojas blur the line between artificial and organic. Embedded in the landscape, they occasionally catch the eye of passersby, pulling our attention back to our surroundings.
    Elsewhere, the dank gunpowder cellars left over from the island’s military past have been repurposed as eerie but intimate gallery spaces. Sealed off from the bright sun and visual clutter of the outdoors, they make the video installations within feel otherworldly and oddly transfixing. Among the highlights are Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė’s Hypoxia (2023), a semi-mythical meditation on the after-shock of oxygen depletion in the Baltic Sea, and the Sámi artist Matti Aikio’s Oikos (2023), a dreamy evocation based on childhood memories of reindeer herding.
    Matti Aikio, Oikos (2023). Photo: © HAM/Helsinki Biennial/Kirsi Halkola.
    Everyone wants to drink the kool-aid when it comes to sustainability pledges, but there are moments when the ambition feels far off. At the press preview, plastic bottles and disposable food trays are passed around at lunch and not one but two tote bags are foisted on me. Now they lie in a dejected pile of accidentally single-use bags in a corner of my room, forgotten until the next big clear out. These quibbles are a drop in the ocean compared to our flights to Helsinki and back. This year, the biennia opted not to offset flights, but to focus on reduction.
    The Helsinki biennial can, however, boast a range of initiatives implemented to reduce its environmental impact, like opting for second-hand equipment where possible, reusing discarded materials and prudent waste management systems. All the sites where artworks have been installed are checked by a conservation biologist and a Finnish heritage agency, and the area is continually monitored for signs of erosion. For the time being, these imperfect attempts at reducing impact seem to be the best we can reasonably hope for.
    Perhaps more radical, are the ways in which the island’s natural features and crude infrastructure have necessitated curatorial and artistic innovation. It proposes ways to adapt to the world, rather than relentlessly contort and control our surroundings until they become blandly ideal conditions. In doing so, we are rewarded by the irresistibly wild and beautiful landscape that envelops the works rather than having to face yet another white wall.
    Keiken, Ángel Yōkai Atā (2023). Photo: © HAM/Helsinki Biennial/Kirsi Halkola.
    Counterintuitively, the integration of emerging technologies is what has allowed many works to feel endlessly expansive without overwhelming the local ecosystem. On a land bridge to one of Vallisaari’s neighboring islands sits Ángel Yōkai Atā (2023) by the artist collective Keiken. The work was inspired by a visit to a magical spirit house in Thailand and, peering through the windows, visitors can glimpse a fantastical post-capitalist future for humanity that extends, via QR code, into an online interactive experience. The London-based artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley has also imagined an alternative realm, creating a new mythology for Vallisaari in Thou Shall Not Assume (2023), which invites participants to meet characters whose stories are further elaborated online.
    In the case of Berlin-based Jenna Sutela’s Pond Brain (2023), however, the ecological-toll of technology feels harder to dismiss. The pleasingly peaceful work is housed within a dark, disused building and combines audio from an A.I. trained on the polyphonic sounds of nature in harmony with the deep reverberations of a water-filled bronze bowl that hums in response to human touch. “Obviously there’s an environmental impact to any sort of computing, especially large models, but it’s not a crazy impact in the scale of things,” Sutela told Artnet News. “I can’t give exact numbers but that would maybe be good. I should check it.”
    Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Thou Shall Not Assume (2023). Photo: © HAM/Helsinki Biennial/Sonja Hyytiäinen.
    It is hardly unusual for strident curatorial mission statements to put on a good show of highlighting the importance of nature or the urgency of the climate crisis, but anything more concrete is complicated to calculate and all too easy to ignore. For their part, the biennial’s organizers are serious about this less exciting side to environmental commitments. A report on the biennial’s inaugural edition considered its impact according to the categories of waste, material purchases, energy consumption, logistics, and mobility.
    In 2021, waste volumes were measured as 37 tonnes of mixed waste, 7.9 tons of bio-waste and 2.5 tons of cardboard waste (these figures don’t include dismantling the event). Over the exhibition’s run, 235 MwH of energy was consumed from renewable sources, which apparently corresponds to the annual electricity consumption of approximately 16 Finns. Unsurprisingly, flights were the biggest contributor to the event’s carbon emissions. The total footprint corresponded to the annual emissions of about 100 Finns.
    Have these experiences of quantifying impact offered any hope that a biennial on this scale could be sustainable? The biennial’s environmental coordinator Kiira Kivisaar thinks so. “These events will always have some sort of impact. Maybe it’s about balancing out the positive and negative impact, because otherwise we would all just sit at home,” said Kivisaari. “Being aware of the impact and finding ways to make it as small as possible is probably the best way to go.”
    “Helsinki Biennial: New Directions May Emerge” runs through September 17, 2023.
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