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by Deborah Ripley
Five years in the making, Philagrafika 2010 -- a Venice Biennale-sized event devoted to the printed image in contemporary art -- burst upon the city of Philadelphia this week, offering works by a staggering array of 300 artists from 40 countries spread out across 97 venues. Philagrafika’s artistic director, José Roca, an international curator and Venice Biennale veteran, explained: "We want to take printmaking out of its ghettoized state where it has been defined too narrowly. We want people to realize that multiplicity and accessibility are central to contemporary art practice."

The entire Philadelphia cultural community mobilized to make it all possible, which required convincing city officials that Philagrafika would be a destination for international art tourists and worth its $1.3 million price tag. Planned as a triennial event, Philagraphika remains on view through Apr. 11, 2010, with many of the exhibitions opening later on a staggered schedule.

Part of the sales pitch involved the almost patriotic notion that "Philadelphia is a city with ink in its blood" -- Ben Franklin started as a printer in Philadelphia, and Thomas Paine’s famed tract Common Sense was printed here, as well as the first Declaration of Independence. In addition, the city’s dense concentration of museums and colleges within a relatively parochial setting made it perfect for the event. "To make almost 100 institutions collaborate towards one common goal, that would never happen in New York. . . . It’s something I’ve experienced only here," declared Roca.

Philagrafika’s numerous exhibitions are wisely divided into three sections. The first is "The Graphic Unconscious," the core exhibition organized by Roca and his curatorial team, presented at five different locations. Second is "Out of Print," which pairs five artists with five historic institutions in Philadelphia. And the third section consists the "Independent Projects" organized by more than 75 cultural institutions in the greater Philadelphia area, which include a variety of thematic exhibitions in which the printed image plays a key role.

In the introduction to the special guidebook for Philagrafika (an absolute must for visitors, along with the map), Roca argues convincingly that the printmaking process has become key to all kinds of contemporary art, from Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to Swoon and Guyton\Walker. (Hint: you can leave that magnifying glass that you use to look at the details in etchings at home.) Roca is also fascinated by the human impulse to "leave an imprint," and "The Graphic Unconscious" explores many innovative ways images can be impressed on wildly divergent surfaces, including human skin and even water.

My first trip on the "Graphic Unconscious" tour was to the Philadelphia Museum. Assistant curator of prints and drawings Shelley R. Langdale, who chaired an artist talk on Friday night, assured viewers that the conceptual legacy of Marcel Duchamp (PMA has a large repository of his work) would be acknowledged in upcoming exhibitions of works by the Columbian artist Óscar Muñoz and a Japanese video anime artist Tabaimo.

Muñoz’s work Narcissus, which he launched in 1994, is an ongoing series of self-portraits floating on water, made by printing charcoal pigment over the water’s surface. In the haunting Biographies (2002), Muñoz found obituary photos and printed them in pigment in a bathtub and then made videos as the water poured out. Muñoz acknowledged that many of the obituary photos were of individuals involved in Columbia’s violent drug trade. As the water drained, the faces became distorted and, in a disturbing way, brought to mind the decay of human remains.

Tabaimo, who Langdale says is a wildly popular in Japan, is debuting in America her hand-drawn video Dolefullhouse, which was first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale. In the video, which reflects the influence of ukiyo-e colors and manga subjects, a pair of giant hands arranges Western-style furnishings in an oversized dollhouse. The dollhouse eventually dissolves into a violent surrealistic scene.

My next stop was a rather blighted section of North Philadelphia, where the Temple University Gallery is hosting the second venue for "Graphic Unconscious," and where Swoon has pasted up her life-sized woodcut figures on neighborhood streets. On my way to the gallery, I found the paper figure of a man peering out from the front of a bookstore; other locations can be found on the Philagraphika website.

Curator Sheryl Conkelton has understandably focused her exhibition on the role that print plays in the circulation of ideas and politics in local communities. This superb and smart show featured, in addition to Swoon, artists from six different countries: Francesc Ruiz (Spain); BarthélémyToguo(Cameroon); Thomas Kilpper (Germany); Carl Pope (U.S.A.); Superflex (Denmark); and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (South Korea). Interestingly enough, the show is underwritten by cultural ministries from the several countries involved. Most of the artists created special installations.  

Of particular note was Francesc Ruiz’ full-sized newsstand, designed to resemble an actual Philadelphia news kiosk but featuring imaginary periodicals and newspapers, each with special silkscreen covers designed by the artist and referring to Philadelphia politics and city issues. One magazine was called Geno’s Steaks, in honor of the famous Philly cheesesteak eatery, and had a portrait of the restaurant’s famously conservative owner illustrating the featured article, "Subs and the Blood System."

The new room installation by Barthélémy Toguo, dubbed Heart Beat (Philadelphia), responds to what the Paris-based artist calls "information overload." Assisted by Temple University students, Toguo took local newspapers and crossed out the text in black felt pen, leaving only the photos extant, in an attempt to alter local information to create a more meaningful "personal history." These sheets were used as wallpaper, onto which Toguo mounted images of local leaders as well as a video of a man getting his head shaved while listening to a biblical broadcast about the Book of Revelations. Toguo’s piece brought to mind some of the apocalyptic aspects in some Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations.

The exhibition’s video documentation of Thomas Kilpper making the largest print in the world, a linocut, was unforgettable. For State of Control, 2009, Kilpper obtained the actual linoleum floor of the former headquarters of the "Stasi," the notorious secret police in East Germany, and carved into it the history of the building itself. Among the images are Erich Mielke, Minister of State Security and head of the Stasi until 1989, and the Stasi spy Gunter Guillaume. Kilpper inked up the floor, and printed each image on fabric and sewed the pieces together. The resulting work was 1,000 square feet and was exhibited this past summer at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein.

The third venue of the "Graphic Unconscious" is the Moore College of Art and Design, the first and only visual arts college for women, founded in 1848. Textile design has long been an integral part of the college’s curriculum, and the show highlighted artists who employ printmaking in patterning and ornamentation. The show included three women artists and two men: Gunilla Klingberg (Sweden); Betsabee Romero (Mexico); Regina Silveira (Brazil); Paul Morrison (UK); and Virgil Marti (U.S.A).

The big "wow" installation was by the well-known Brazilian artist Silveira, who covered the floors, walls, ceiling and columns of a large room with giant vinyl decals of insects, and presented a table set with tablecloth and dishes also silk-screened with patterns of bugs for her Mundus Admirabilis and Other Plagues, 2008. The installation, which uses 19th-century-style botanical illustrations, hearkens back to Biblical plagues. The whole effect is like walking inside a print –- or like being a small bug crawling up the pages of some giant encyclopedia. Viewers don shoe protectors to walk onto the surface of the work.

The glass doors and windows of the entrance to the Moore Gallery were covered in Gunilla Klingberg’s red lacy vinyl cutouts. Studying corporate logos at the local stores, Klingberg reconfigured them into geometric abstractions, stripping them of their meaning to create hypnotic mandalas. Equally dreamlike was the 40-foot-long exterior wall mural painted using stencils of Paul Morrison’s work. The manipulated images of plants and flowers create a black-and-white image that mimics a woodcut.

This is part one of a two-part report.

DEBORAH RIPLEY is a print specialist at Artnet.