The 10th Northwest Biennial, on view at the Tacoma Art Museum through May 20, 2012, brings together works of art executed in a variety of mediums that aim to articulate what it means to be a Pacific Northwest resident.
Applicants to The Biennial were asked to reflect on Northwest regional identity in recognition of The Biennial’s two decades of existence and the 75th Anniversary of the Tacoma Art Museum.
Rock Hushka, Tacoma Art Museum’s Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, and Renato Rodrigues da Silva, an independent curator and art critic based in Vancouver, British Columbia, poured over 179 applications by artists from the Northwest (defined as Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, and British Columbia), before finally settling on 30 artists.
Challenges of a Theme
Choosing the broad theme of “Northwest Identity” is a risky move, especially for a juried exhibition because the curators are restricted to selecting from the submitted applications. Two key challenges of any exhibition about regional identity is the temptation to rely on stereotypes and cliches as well as the chance that you may alienate visitors who do not feel that their experience is represented. This is all the more difficult when trying to establish currents and patterns only from among the works of applicants.
To contend with these challenges, the co-curators broke protocol and invited specific artists to participate. As clarified on the Tacoma Art Museum website, this allowed the curators “to create the foundation of an exhibition that captures the richness and variety of artistic practice and accomplishment within the scope of The Biennial’s theme.”
The identity of these core artists is not shared, nor do the powers-that-be explain if these invited artists will be considered for the $1000 cash prize that will be awarded to one artist for “artistic excellence.” Although this practice remains a concern to me, I trust the Tacoma Art Museum to act fairly.
Further focusing the scope of the exhibition, Hushka and Rodrigues da Silva gave preference to artists who use new media and take an interdisciplinary approach. The featured Biennial artists purposefully incorporate the influence of disciplines other than the visual arts. As they do so, they express themselves through both traditional and non-traditional materials, from painting and video, to an arcade game console and “experiential moments” facilitated by the artist.
Four Exemplary Works
The strongest representations of interdisciplinary art in the exhibition emblematize the collaboration and engagement between the artist(s) and those interacting with the art/artist, from the public-at-large to special interest groups such as conservationists and those with specific political affiliations.
In Ariana Jacob’s The American Society for Personally Questioning Political Questions (2012), the artist, who describes herself as “an American with liberal, social-democratic tendencies,” invites Conservatives and Libertarians to meet with her in public places to tell her about what they believe. Jacob frames these conversations as an opportunity for her to learn, not incite a debate.
This project arose from Jacob’s observation that groups of people self-segregate, surrounding themselves by those who share their beliefs. Coming from the Northwest where the majority of her contemporaries are like-minded, Jacob will travel to the Southwest and Midwest over the course of The Biennial, providing new material to be added to the exhibition. Jacob also posts her progress through her website publicwondering.com.
The gallery installation for Jacob’s project consists of a star-spangled event tent, chairs, pedestals with informational booklets for the taking, and projected images of the artist in action at various locations. The resulting art object relies on intellectual stimulation rather than aesthetic appeal as it serves as a relic of the conversations themselves. Without videos or recordings, the remnants of Jacob’s interaction-based work leaves the visitor with the feeling that the only way to truly gain from her project is to participate, whether that be through direct engagement with Jacob or by listening to someone of opposing political views with the intent of trying to understand.
In contrast, Cynthia Camlin‘s Glacial Speed from 2008-2010 is immediately visually compelling. Thirty-five screen prints of a glacier map pigmented with watercolor are arranged in rows and columns like a grid. Collectively, they show the shrinking of a glacier, indicated in waning shades of blue and green, gradually exposing the pale pinkish tan of barren land beneath. In an accompanying video, the images are animated and paired with the sound of crushing ice and rocksprovided by Jason Amundson of the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska.
For Glacial Speed, Camlin created a total of eighty prints that appear simultaneously as topographic landscape maps and as scientific slides of diseased human tissue. It took Camlin two years to produce the prints and the result shows us the waning of a glacier at an alarming pace, when in actuality it can take centuries for a glacier to rise and decline. By speeding up the disappearance, she creates an image that resonates with our much shorter life spans, thus collapsing the distinction between the health of the earth and the health of the individual.
In the context of this exhibition, Jacob and Camlin’s works reinforce common characterizations of Northwesteners as liberal leaning and environmentally conscious. These sub-themes resurface throughout the exhibition, but with just enough nuance to avoid becoming an exaggerated stereotype.
In his installation Samovar (2011), Reza Michael Safavi transcends generalizations about identity by taking different approach. Rather than focusing on a single identifying aspect, Safavi balances both the individual and shared experience that contribute to how a person describes him or herself.
Samovar consists of a video projection of an ocean view typical of the Northwest coast and accoutrements that reference Safavi’s heritage. During the twelve-minute video, Safavi emerges from the ocean, sits on a Persian rug, drinks liquid from a samovar, and then returns to the ocean. A Persian rug from Safavi’s family home and a samovar– the Middle Eastern tea instrument that gives title to this work– are likewise situated in the gallery, along with pillows and a recording of beach sounds.
Invited to sit on the rug, I was welcomed into Safavi’s home, his cultural rituals, his life, his identity. Sitting in the installation, I was able to commune with the artist, and felt compelled to meditate on the landscape as he did. This called to mind any number of times I have sat with friends at the beach in contented silence as we were collectively mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the waves. It is in these moments that I have felt most attached to the geographic spot that I call home.
Safavi’s act of emerging and submerging in the ocean speaks to the process of becoming of this place. The cultural indicators in Samovar declare Safavi’s Persian identity, while his connection to the geography of this region secures his right to claim himself a Northwesterner. The people of the Northwest may be of diverse cultural backgrounds, but we can achieve a common identity through our shared investment in where we live, choosing to become absorbed and a part of it.
Though not articulated by the curators as particularly pertinent for conceptualizing Northwest identity, the sub-themes of loss, destruction, and memory are also firmly embedded in the exhibition. Allison Hyde‘s Mourning the Ephemeral from 2012 emphasizes this through its prominent placement in the central courtyard, essentially making it the first and final work that the visitor encounters in The Biennial. Piles of charred furniture reference a fire in a family member’s home. Each item has the look of an heirloom piece– traditional wood chairs, armoires, and tables that are passed from family member to family member, layering memories of family dinners, birthday parties, and school projects done on the dining room table.
Hyde’s installation interacts with the space, an untitled sculpture by Richard Rhodes referred to as the “stone wave,” with powerful results. Surrounded by mirrored-glass, a multiplication of burnt furniture piles sit on the surface of infinite concrete waves, resulting in a sea of destruction. This proliferation of tragedy calls to mind family groups made destitute on a large scale, evidenced by the flotsam of a community or nation besieged by natural or man-made disaster.
Though Hyde is a Tacoma native, Mourning the Ephemeral is surprisingly not a site-specific work; it’s so well attuned to the courtyard, I can’t help but feel that I would be disappointed if I saw this installation anywhere else.
The sub-themes featured in The Biennial are carefully connected throughout the exhibition to provoke conversation between works and to allow them to build on each other. This evidences the thoughtful curatorial choices I appreciate and have come to expect from TAM, though many of these sub-themes fail to manifest a specific regional identity. The prominent sub-themes tend to represent more universal themes instead– an observation also made by Rosemary Ponnekanti of The News Tribune.
The Northwest as Interpreted by Portland
A funny thing happens when you compare the location of The Biennial artists’ birth and where the artists’ currently live (both are available on the wall labels). Though only Anna Gray was actually born there, just over a third of the artists in The Biennial live in Portland.
I do not know the specific geographic distribution of the original submissions, but it is clearly not a coincidence that the distribution of exhibited artists is concentrated in the City of Roses. The Biennial implies that the artists and the curators see Portland the art capital of the Northwest.Two contributing factors are the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) and the Social Practice program at Portland State University. Both programs have fueled the revitalization of interdisciplinary art practice in the Northwest.
PICA is philosophically based in being cross disciplinary and annually produces the Time-Based Art Festival (TBA). This festival, which has been reviewed by the likes of Frieze Magazine, ArtForum and The Wall Street Journal, is going into its tenth year. This event has been embraced by Portlanders as it also provides a platform for local and international artists to come together to prove themselves, inspire, and collaborate.
The Social Practice Program at Portland State is one of only a handful like it in the nation. Social Practice art favors investigating ideas and issues through democratic collaboration between the artist(s) and the community, and through the cross-pollination of information from multiple disciplines.
The Social Practice program at Portland State has increased its influence by making itself known among international academics through their Open Engagement conference. To learn more about Social Practice as a medium and the art movements to which it is related, please follow this link.
According to the curators, “The Biennial will seek artworks that address the critical issues that underpin the larger issues of identity and community including the fluidity of regional identity in an age of global capitalism, increased urban migration, and the virtual diffusion of a discernible regional style.”
In this statement, the curators sidestep declaring regional identity in favor of highlighting identity’s “fluid” nature, specifically now, in a time when we traverse the country as easily and regularly as we once traveled from town to town.
For this exhibition, it seems that the curators began by seeking out works specifically of this time, addressing the effects of rampant information and image dissemination on Northwest identity, yet the result is instead a timeless showcase of universal means for establishing and identifying one’s self and community.
Consequently, it is not a fruitful exercise to try and compress The Biennial works into a neat and oversimplified “Northwest” package. Squeezed into the context of regional identity, The Biennial is unnecessarily provincialized. Perhaps The Biennial would have been better served if it had not borne the burden of this theme at all.
Ultimately, The Biennial does not add much in regards to deepening our understanding of what it means to be a resident of the Northwest. However, by highlighting new media and interdisciplinary art, The Biennial does make an important contribution in raising awareness of currents in contemporary art practice that are distinguishing Northwest artists on a national level.
In the spirit of the exhibition, I welcome an invitation to meet you at The Biennial to discuss the exhibition in person. I know it’s hard to believe, but I have much more to say than I could justify putting in this article! email@example.com
The 10th Northwest Biennial through May 20, 2012
Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Hours:10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays
Admission: $10/$8/free for those 5 and younger, and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays
I encourage you to buy a membership, so that you can take in this exhibition and Hide/Seek slowly, returning over the course of many days.