Group shows are a great way to learn about artists and different mediums of expression, so why do I avoid them? It must be the legacy of visiting a few overreaching and underwhelming shows in the past. Also, like many museum visitors, I tend to “go where I know,” typically visiting exhibitions about time periods or artists that are familiar in some way. The recent hullabaloo about experiential programming in museums reminded me to explore further, which brought me to the International Center for Photography’s Triennial Show.
I was concerned that with my negligible knowledge of photography and the contemporary art scene, the show would be over my head. I could bring no supplemental knowledge to what I would be seeing, so in this instance my visitor experience really did rely entirely on the curator’s interpretation of the show.
The show’s theme is “the ubiquitous presence of digital technology and networked systems in contemporary life.” This is explored by the 28 featured artists, who work in photography, film, video, and interactive media. I was intrigued by the claim that the artists, many of whom grew up in the digital age, are increasingly dissatisfied with the “slipperiness of ‘screen culture’ [which] has led [them] to a new interest in the material presence of the photographic image.” Instead the artists experiment with photo-collage and DIY books, pushing the boundaries of the medium. The show sounded promising, and it turned out to be truly interesting: intellectually, visually, and artistically. Some of my favorites included:
Henner’s Dutch Landscapes (2011) series, of aerial photographs based on Google Earth imagery, shows real places – farmland and urban landscapes in the Netherland – but each place is made abstract by large areas of pixelation. These photographs are appealing visually, but the pixelation is not just an artistic effect; it represents sites that the Dutch government forced Google Earth to conceal in the post-9/11 era of security concerns. And of course, the pixelations are so obvious that they do the opposite: call attention to what is being hidden. Henner is the one artist I looked up online as soon as I got home.
His work, a massive collage, is Pentheus, part of the Bacchae series made tangible. The many individually constructed elements, and the physical space between them (each is attached by long pins) and the panel, work together to recreate the energy and the chaos of the story. I’m always interested in seeing how written works are re-interpreted and in this case the fragmented, multi-layered construction creates a real physicality for the narrative.
Mendel’s Drowning World series focuses on climate change and the worsening floods around the world. He photographs people living in the long aftermath, in waters that do not recede and communities that have neither the time nor the resources to clean up and rebuild. Taken alone the photographs are striking, but together with the video which is filmed at water level, they are especially impactful.
The collages of Manhattan and Jerusalem, part of Nishino’s Diorama Maps series, are so intricate that at first I thought each was a photograph of the city, with a pieced border. In fact each is entirely a work of collage. Similarities: each city is contained, (old) Jerusalem by walls and Manhattan by water. Differences: the Jerusalem map includes people; Manhattan does not. Each an island in its own way, with very different identities.
The artists in this show are grappling with a variety of big global themes: geo-political, socio-economic, climate, race, even the role of technology in our lives. Others explore where the boundaries of the artist – the person – blur with the technology used to create artworks. Another recreates YouTube fetish videos (first picture in this post), reflecting on what is hidden in plain sight, accessible by all.
The visitor experience: what worked
The group format meant that each time I came upon a new artist’s work I needed to first absorb their perspective. This was made easy by a straightforward labeling system: a simple artist overview and then standard labels for each work. The critical element in my visitor experience at this show was the exhibit label about the artist; this included all of contextual information that I worried about not having when I arrived at the show. As a result I was more personally engaged with the artwork and the artists themselves which made the show very interactive for me. I was continually engaged by the ideas being presented, and as a result have a renewed interest in the group show format.
The visitor experience: room for improvement
The labeling system needs to do a lot of heavy lifting in a show like this; there is no audio tour to fall back on. The labels must introduce the artist and the themes that inform their artworks. In most cases a good balance was struck between providing enough information so that I could relate to a work, but not so much that I was confused or bored. That said, in one case the label was just too dense; I don’t know if it was jargon, or maybe the ideas being presented were too complex for such a small space. I didn’t bother deciphering it, though I did try twice. On reflection I think the label writer may have struggled because the motivations and inspirations of this artist were never made clear in the first place.
On a last note, it seems that the ICP marketing department hasn’t managed to maintain current listings for this show. Contrary to the signage in the ICP’s own window and the New Yorker listing, both of which have it closing on September 8th, the ICP Triennial is on view until September 22nd. It’s well worth a visit.
Read about this series on the visitor experience in museums here.