Nobody's Property

Princeton Art Museum, New Jersey

Through February 20
by Wendy Vogel

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      Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
      Wonder Beirut #10 (The Sea Shore), from History of a Pyromaniac Photographer 1998–2006
      Lambda print mounted on aluminum
      27 3/4 x 41 1/2 inches
      Courtesy of the artists and CRG Gallery, New York.

      View Gallery

      On view at the Princeton Art Museum, the exhibition Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space, 2000-2010 and its accompanying catalogue serve as a theoretical update and abbreviated survey on land art practices of the last decade. In her catalogue essay, curator Kelly Baum takes as her points of departure the relational, discursive framework of contemporary site-specific practices that Miwon Kwon began to map in her 1997 October article “One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity” (later developed into a book) and Judith Butler’s recent work on relational ethics and subjectivity. Beginning with the exhibition’s subtitle, Baum differentiates between physical “land” and a charged Lefebvrian shared “space,” which join the geopolitical “territory” and legal “commons” as the terminological compass points of her inquiry. These multidisciplinary and highly constructed notions form the support structure for a tightly curated exhibition. The works implicate the artists as part researchers, part provocateurs, engaging complicated notions of geopolitical histories with a semi-fictional and performative flair.

      Baum’s exhibition takes as case studies nine works by younger contemporary artists. Each receives its own handsome installation space—one piece after another. The display strategy suits the show. Most of the works demand an immersive approach from the viewer, and at times, even a suspension of disbelief. For example, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige create a mini-exhibition of vivid Lambda prints of burning photographic negatives attributed to “artist” Abdallah Farah (actually a fictional creation by the collaborators) in Wonder Beirut (History of a Pyromaniac Photographer), 1998-2006. The negatives depict stylized 1960s postcards of Beirut’s captivating Mediterranean coastline uncannily eaten through by fire, resembling a peaceful landscape shattered by exploding bombs so common during the Lebanese Civil War. Much like fellow Lebanese artist Walid Raad, Hadjithomas and Joreige exploit the legitimating force of the white-cube exhibition to call historical documentation into question. Turkish artist Emre Hüner deploys similar strategies in Juggernaut (2009) to more transparent ends. His 21-minute video creates an equivalence between the narrative construction of documentary and fiction. In it, he melds clearly appropriated footage (Disney propaganda cartoons from World War II and 1939-40 World’s Fair newsreels) with reenactments of vague historical events (a Soviet aeronautics enthusiasts’ club and a corporate NASA meeting) to create a tension around utopian narratives bound up in the space-race and the military-industrial complex. Andrea Geyer’s Spiral Lands/Chapter 1 (2007) creates elisions between pairs of slightly displaced photographic views of the same unpopulated Southwestern landscapes fought over by Native Americans and the U.S. government. They are joined by running captions of texts appropriated from a myriad of sources, from political speeches to poetry and the voice of an alter-ego.

      In his catalogue essay, “Land Art in Parallax: Media, Violence, Political Economy,” Yates McKee argues that such sensitivity to the way their works would be documented and distributed, and the elisions that would occur therein, were critically recognized by an earlier generation of 1970s land artists. Rather than remythify the landscape as “unspoiled,” McKee insists that artists such as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and even Ana Mendieta (who has been charged with feminist essentialism for her Silheuta works, where she documented depressions in the landscape where she had pressed her body) had a critical take on the often-contested histories of the sites in which they chose to work. The generation of artists in Nobody’s Property, all born between 1959 and 1977, came of age in a media-saturated postmodern world, where the truth-value of documentary and photojournalistic traditions were as ripe for deconstruction as more obviously fictional forms of narrative. Yael Bartana’s Kings of the Hill (2003), an unnarrated film of Israeli men off-roading on dunes at an expensive resort, mimics the style of Zionist propaganda films with an absurd lack of charged content—other than macho-man bonding. Lucy Raven takes the stop-motion animation form and repurposes it in China Town (2009), where she indexes the production of copper wire in a transnational journey from Nevada to China. Like a slideshow on speed, the work charts a process that usually remains hidden.

      Other artists pursue simple direct intervention tactics to radical ends, questioning the boundaries of property itself. In Francis Alÿs The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (2007), the artist traces the 1948 armistice line of the Israeli state at a moment where it was being contested, incorporating poignant testimony from passers-by into the video documentation. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Caldazilla’s Land Mark (Foot Prints), 2001-2, where they infiltrated a U.S. Navy base with protestors who made specially-soled shoes to impress slogans of resistance, is even more poignant in its photographic documentation. It mobilizes the melancholic trace of Mendieta’s Silhuetas with a more specifically charged history. By contrast, Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s exploitation chic is coolly displayed in Submission (formerly Word of Fire), 2006-7. Exposing the corrupt labor conditions of the artworld is typically Sierra’s tact, bringing, for instance, prostitutes into an art gallery to have a line tattooed on their backs. In this work, the artist hires Mexican day laborers to carve out the word “SUMISION” in the area between the volatile Ciudad Juárez and the U.S. border, the site of immigration skirmishes and the murder of maquiladoras. On a two-screen digital slide projection, a one-minute sequence of aerial views contrast with arduous documentation of the work being carried out.

      It is this contrast between the bucolic and the charged, between landscapes populated by sweating, marked bodies and emptied of inscription, that produce a sense of defamiliarization in the land. This is the exhibition’s best aesthetic contribution. In the catalogue’s interdisciplinary roundtable discussion between political scientist Uriel Abulof, art historian Rachael DeLue and historian Jonathan Levy, moderated by Kelly Baum, all of the respondents agreed that the mediatized idea of landscape had far outstripped the idea of land as property in the public imagination. It is up to artists, then, who have the tools at their disposal to envision alternative landscapes, to stimulate political changes that frame nobody’s property as an opportunity to inscribe pluralistic histories into land fraught with past battles.

      Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.

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