Everyone wears sunglasses in Santa Fe. New Mexico, land of enchantment, is blessed with brilliant sunshine. Local residents include Hollywood celebrities like Ali McGraw and Val Kilmer. And then there are space aliens and Los Alamos, home of the first nuclear blast.
But you really need sunglasses because Santa Fe is so … cool.
Want more evidence? Santa Fe is the home of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, dedicated to the artist who is arguably America's most popular woman maverick. The town has strong communities of Native Americans as well as radical gender-benders. There's also a lot of leisure-time money here -- locals call Santa Fe the "Provence of Texas." The landscape is beautiful Southwestern desert, the architecture fantastically pueblo-styled. And with only 67,000 people, the town recently celebrated its 401st birthday -- making it the oldest city in the country.
The icing on the cool cake is Site Santa Fe, an art exhibition space housed in an 18,000-square-foot former beer warehouse remodeled by the art world's favorite architect, Richard Gluckman. And what brings the international avant-garde here is the Site Santa Fe Biennial, the first of which inaugurated the space in 1995.
The third Site Santa Fe Biennial opens to the public July 10 to Dec. 31, 1999. Dubbed "Looking for a Place" by Barcelona-based biennial curator Rosa Martínez, the show features works by 30 artists from 21 countries. In addition to the Site Santa Fe space, the biennial has expanded into the community, with works placed everywhere from the local Budget Inn to the Our Lady of Guadelupe Cemetery. The budget for the project is running at around $650,000, according to Site Santa Fe director Louis Grachos.
Martínez is a lively, engaging advocate for art that addresses important issues -- "love, cultural displacement, notions of triumph and defeat, the beauty of the myriad ready-mades that leap out at us on the street, and the fragility of the world we live in." Writing in the helpful guide to the exhibition, she says (with understandable hyperbole), "Like the Sipapu, or ritual centers of Pueblo Indian settlements, this biennial aspires to become a temporary world navel." Martínez is good, good enough even to admit the downside of the new global art economy -- xenophobia, inequality and "the penchant of the tourist trade for turning the planet into a theme park."
But what do we actually have in this latest assembly of what New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl has called "Festival art"? If nothing else, a lot of young artists from all over (even if many of them actually live in New York, that identityless center of the art world), all working with the international art language of inventive, allegorical installations and photographs. There's not a painting in sight.
Here are their names (and their national origins): Helena Almeida (Portugal), Ghada Amer (Egypt), Janine Antoni (Bahamas/USA), Monica Bonvicini (Italy), Louise Bourgeois (USA), Tania Bruguera (Cuba), Cai Guo-Qiang (China), Janet Cardiff (Canada), Lygia Clark (Brazil), Diller + Scofidio (USA), Dr. Galentin Gatev (Bulgaria), Greenpeace (yes, the international environmentalist organization), Yolanda Gutiérrez (Mexico), Mona Hatoum (Palestine/Britain), Carl Michael von Hausswolff (Sweden), Carsten Höller (Germany), Simone Aaberg Kaern (Denmark), Zwelethu Mthethwa (South Africa), Nikos Navridis (Greece), Shirin Neshat (Iran/USA), Rivane Neuenschwander (Brazil), Gabriel Orozco (Mexico/USA), Pipilotti Rist (Switzerland), Francisco Ruiz de Infante (Spain), Bülent Sangar (Turkey), Arsen Savadov & George Senchenko (Ukraine), Charlene Teters (USA), Sergio Vega (Argentina) and Miwa Yanagi (Japan).
All in all, it's an impressive performance. The floor of Site Santa Fe's grand entrance space is dominated by Mona Hatoum's Map (1998), her huge (25 by 48 foot) map of the world made out of clear glass marbles. The marbles sit loosely on the floor, and almost invisibly, as it turns out. Visitors to the show repeatedly found themselves literally stumbling into the piece, sending bits of the world skittering across the concrete, in what is a convincing metaphor for the various human depredations of Mother Earth.
The environmentalist theme is also sounded by the color photographs from the Greenpeace archives, which illustrate several actions -- surrounding the Bohunice Nuclear Power Plant with 5,000 crosses, for instance, or projecting the words "We have nuclear weapons on board" on an aircraft carrier. The inclusion of Greenpeace underscores the basic approach of much of the art in the show -- art as political (or metaphorical) theater.
Indeed, the biennial is thick with theatrical video installations -- the works by Bruguera, Navridis, Neshat and Orozco -- as well as installations resembling theater sets, whether life-size (Teters) or doll-house scale (Bourgeois, Rist). Vega installs a diorama, while von Hausswolff sets up a CB radio sound piece. Other works invite direct audience participation (Ghada Amer's benches, Lygia Clark's sensorial masks, de Infante's ladder up to the rafters) or register the effects of performance (Antoni's millstone-like pair of boulders, and many of the photographs).
The most "sculpture"-like object in the show, Carsten Höller's geodesic aluminum Sphere, is presented as a kind of jungle gym with a sliding platform inside.
Among the more amusing pieces are those that deal with gender. Ghada Amer, who is best known for pornographic images outlined with multicolor thread on unprimed canvas, did a special project for Site Santa Fe. Scattered on the grounds are wooden love seats -- actually, benches that have been sawed in half and reattached so that the two seats face opposite directions. Facing these benches are wooden signs inscribed with sexist slogans. "American feminism has a man problem," says one, while another goes on: "The man who is blamed by women has an extremely small instrument, which goes soft most of the time, is thin, and slow to be aroused. Women also dislike men who ejaculate prematurely, are slow to achieve climax or whose chests are heavy to bear and whose buttocks are incapable of supporting their partners' weight." Personally, I don't know what she's talking about.
Monica Bonvicini, the Berlin-based, Milan-born artist who seems to take particular relish in knocking holes in sheetrock, published a limited edition book ($40) for the show titled What does your wife/girlfriend think of your rough and dry hands? A kind of sociological investigation, the book featured questionnaires filled out by construction workers. Among the queries was one asking for construction-worker jokes. Here's one -- "Damn, I cut that board three times already and it's still too short!" Ha ha story of my life.
Shirin Neshat's Rapture (1999) is a new video installation using the simple but effective format that she has now made her trademark. Two black-and-white projections face each other. One is acted solely by Iranian women in chadors, the other by Iranian men in white shirts and dark trousers. The men mass together and stare -- an emblem of the masculine gaze in its ferocious power.
The exhibition is blessedly short on works that indulge in abject blood and gore to make their point. One exception is Tania Bruguera, who presents a video projection of a performance in which she ties the carcass of a slaughtered sheep around her neck, wearing it like an apron, with the sheep's hooves thrust upward by her ears and its split ribs splayed outward at her chest. The brief video focuses on the artist eating something -- it turns out to be dirt -- that drips down her lips. Hanging from the ceiling are several metal racks with hooks, presumably abattoir equipment. It's called The Burden of Guilt. A live performance is promised later, so let me hasten on.
Another video installation, by Nikos Navridis, is both inventive and rather sadomasochistic. Projected onto all four walls of a large darkened room are images of people wearing pale white balloons on their heads -- balloons that have nozzles so that they can be blown up from outside, by another actor, or from inside by the wearer. Much inflating and pseudo-suffocating ensues, along with mutual rubbings of egg-shaped balloon heads. Good, but creepy. This may be the best thing to happen to mime since Mummenschanz
In terms of the sensorium, however, nothing in the show compares to the room full of props by Lygia Clark, replicas of the ones the late artist used in her hippie-style group performances of the 1960s. Visitors are invited to put on "sensorial masks," loose cloth hoods that "expand" the senses in various homemade ways -- a bag of spices sewn under the nose, scratchy steel wool placed next to the ears, slits or mirrors added at the eye holes. "I'm looking for myself," said one participant as she adjusted her mirrors. Dialogue: Goggles (1968) is a simple apparatus of mirrors and goggles worn by two people; moving the mirrors allows one to see his or her eyes in the other's face. Perhaps most elegant of all is Draw with Your Finger (1966), a flat clear plastic envelope half filled with water. Tracing your finger across its surface creates biomorphic ballets of air and liquid.
Other works are outspokenly -- if somewhat comically -- utopian. Sergio Vega, an Argentine who lives in New York (and shows with Stefano Basilico) presents an installation of photographs and a diorama that focus on the parrot, whose "illusionary discourse shimmers like a mirage on the outer edge of history." Vega's poetic wall texts tell a story of Eden, where all animals could talk. Now, only the parrot retains the capacity for speech. Vega says he has been in search of earthly paradise since he saw a parrot on the BQE -- and gives us here photos of a parrot-shaped phone booth from a place in Brazil where Baroque-era mystics hoped to find the original Garden of Eden.
Two other artists turn to the architectural iconography of towers and beacons. Cai Guo-Qiang's Calling (1999) is a 20-foot-tall lighthouse built on the roof of Site Santa Fe from industrial and natural materials. "Its searchlight blinks intermittently as a beacon to New Mexico's cultural and mythic territories," says Martinez. Carl Michael von Hausswolff uses a CB radio in Operation of Spirit Communication (New Mexico Basic Minimalism Séance) (1999). A random mix of 13 sine-wave tones are broadcast through two loudspeakers in town, as if to communicate with the special spiritual resonance of Santa Fe.
Flying seems to be in the air, too. Art lovers who remember the leaps into the void of Yves Klein and Gino de Dominicis will appreciate Simone Aaberg Kaern, whose videotape shows the dark-garbed figure of the artist flitting across landscape after landscape with an odd, jerky knee-bending motion. She is a pilot and has an installation at the airport as well. And who wouldn't want to take to the air using Carsten Höller's Crows and Lederhosen (1999), an amusing model of several flying birds hoisting a pair of Austrian pants by rope. Move over, Baron Münchhausen!
MartÍnez was adamant on the issue of expanding the show out into the surrounding world, and most of the off-site pieces were quite successful -- if problematic with the local communities. Yolanda Gutiérrez crafted a huge snake of woven-together corncobs and half submerged it, Spiral Jetty style, in a fishing pond on the San Idefonso Pueblo. Though the artist had obtained approval for the project from the tribal council, some elders apparently objected and the tribal governor abruptly removed the piece before most of the international art crowd had a chance to see it.
Von Hausswolff, too, received complaints for his Red Night, a simple installation of a red light illuminating the humble Our Lady of Guadalupe Cemetery at night. It seems some of the neighbors didn't appreciate the artist messing with their graveyard. These reactions give new meaning to notions of the "white cube" -- the museum as a quarantined space, designed to hold safely all those obstreperous contemporary works.
The architects Diller + Scofidio scored something of a coup with their witty installation in room 120 of the Santa Fe Budget Inn, located just across the street from Site Santa Fe. A series of discreet mini-videocams taped various "nonsites" in the room -- under the bed, inside the toilet tank, behind the Gideon Bible -- and transmitted them to the TV. Also very successful was Charlene Teters' Obelisk to the Heroes, constructed out of adobe on the plaza in front of the New Mexico state capitol building. Is there some connection between the ancient Egyptians and Native Americans? In any case, the adobe will gradually melt away in the rain.
The biennial might have no paintings, but at least there are photographs. The irrepressible Zwelethu Mthethwa presents five large color portraits titled Some Sacred Homes (1999), showing poorer Cape Town residents in their houses, sitting before simple altars or holding Bibles. Dignified and human, these pictures express a complex sense of spirituality with material roots.
The nine photos by Arsen Savadov and Georgy Senchenko prove that it is still possible, especially in the former Soviet Union, to make a hash of nationalistic emblems that is simply incredible. Their large black-and-white images put soot-covered super-macho coal miners in ballet tutus and give them religious icons to hold. Ubu Roi lives!
And Site Santa Fe is … cool.