Taryn Simon, Richie Budd & Lu ChunshengNew Works 08.3

Artpace San Antonio

Closed January 11, 2009
by Katie Geha

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      Lu Chunsheng
      Still from The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice, 2008
      HD film
      26 minutes 41 seconds
      Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio

      View Gallery

      Artist residencies are special for a number of reasons. They tend to last for several months, thus providing the artist time to develop or refine a project; they are located in stimulating, often beautiful surroundings; and they allow artists to focus and work freely, unfettered by the usual demands of day-to-day life. Of course, Artpace San Antonio runs an especially impressive residency program, curated by a roster of world-renowned curators and culminating in an exhibition of new work created during the residency. For this most recent round, Hans-Ulrich Obrist invited rising stars Taryn Simon, Richie Budd and Lu Chunsheng to take part in the program. And while all of the artists put the residency to good use by imagining new approaches and experimenting with their medium, the resulting works rely too heavily on show-offy tropes—failed scientific experiments, sparkly doo-dads and heavy handed cinematography—to entice the viewer into an experience that is, frankly, a whole lot of “oh wow” style and not enough meaningful substance.

      New York based artist, Taryn Simon, abandoned her chosen media, photography, to create a scientific experiment on the adaptive possibilities of the cuttlefish. In Sepia Officinalis (2008) Simon placed four cuttlefish in separate tanks. She lined three of the tanks with photographs of sand, the cuttlefish’s natural environment, while a black and white checkerboard pattern covered the bottom of the fourth. The experiment: would a cuttlefish, a mollusk known as the “chameleon of the sea,” be able to adapt to a checkerboard pattern? Certainly the project could be read as the imposition of an artificial environment onto a natural element or a meditation on disguise and adaptation, but the poor fish! By early December, a mere month after the exhibition had opened, the two rounds of fish Artpace had exposed to the experiment had already died and the exhibition was closed. At the very least, if the museum had left the tanks empty with an explanation of the fishes’ deaths, the project might have yielded an important lesson on the dangers of artificiality as a life source. As it was, the project failed in its execution (an execution that could have easily been honed during Simon’s three-month residency) and Artpace silenced the failure by closing the exhibition.

      San Antonio artist Richie Budd's sculptural installation in the adjacent gallery, Liminal Homeostasis (2008), allowed Budd to sit at the center in command of speakers, mirrors, medical equipment, smoke, snow, blinking lights and even a margarita machine. On opening night, according to the gallery brochure, Budd sat in the structure and, like a modern day OZ, acted as a “neurological disc jockey, commanding sound, lights, and sensory elements.” Yet, what effect does this machine have after opening night? Sitting in the gallery, unmanned by Budd, it seemed like a mere prop of a greater project, a Tatlin-like structure that refused to destroy itself. Alone in the gallery, it failed to communicate.

      Finally, Chinese artist Lu Chunsheng created a 20-minute film that revolved around a relationship between a man and his combine. The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice (2008) uses compelling cinematography to create an ambiguous story about a man named Stephen (it says so on his work shirt) who is either taking care of a combine or is out in a large open field beating a snake with a wrench. The images are presented with complete lusciousness and overwrought camera work—at times speeding up a sunset or slowing down wheat as it blows dramatically in the wind—the banal subject matter made foreboding only through a soundtrack of ominous music. Chunsheng’s camera slides over wheat being cut by the combine as a tinny horror tune plays in the background; we can only imagine the wheat screaming in agony. The overly self-conscious camera shots create a slickness and an obviousness that overrides any engagement and, instead, feels disingenuous and empty.

      It’s difficult to explain where each of these artists failed, why they seemed to get so caught up in spectacle. But it is even more difficult not to consider failure as part of a process that is inherent to any new experimentation and therefore somehow necessary, too. It is important to play with one’s work and a residency program like Artpace fosters and encourages this kind of engagement with art. That is special. If Artpace’s list of alumni (Maurizio Cattelan, Felix-Gonzalez Torres, Annette Messager, to name just a few) are any indication of the success of their resident artists, perhaps Simon, Budd and Lu will find a better balance between presentation and conception in the future.

      Katie Geha is pursuing a Ph.D. in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin.


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