2013 Carnegie International's reach is local as well as global

Carnegie International curators typically travel the globe to find the most interesting contemporary art to exhibit in Pittsburgh. One of the things that distinguishes the current International is the extent to which the curators have also managed to include the most interesting conversations they've had.

The result is an eclectic exhibition that is simultaneously an ongoing international salon. This dual achievement is further fueled by unique local participation and extensive supplemental programming with exhibiting artists.

The international exhibition of contemporary art, which now occurs approximately every three years, was initiated by industrialist philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for his museum in 1896. The 2013 International, which continues through March 16 at the Carnegie Museum of Art, comprises work by 35 artists from 19 countries and includes painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, film, installation and performance art.

Carnegie International a showcase of contemporary art

More than 30 contemporary artists from across the globe are featured in the Carnegie International. (Video by Nate Guidry; 1/26/2014)

One "hears" the conversations through works as exceptional and as varied as the late self-taught Joseph Yoakum's enchanting landscapes; Dinh Le's heartrending interviews with Vietnamese artists who sketched soldiers during the "Resistance War Against America"; Mladen Stilinovic's barbed critiques of power and ideology sweetened by humor and witty observation; and Phyllida Barlow's effusive chorus of form, "TIP," that heralds the exhibition to all passers-by on Forbes Avenue.

The conversations that preceded their selection may have included questions that continue here. Those range from evaluations of what constitutes art and artist in the 21st century to elaborations upon today's big issues.

Indian artist Amar Kanwar, for example, addresses corporate environmental exploitation in the lyrical, meditative "The Scene of Crime," a video installation that opens with a balletically beautiful scene of a fisherman casting a net. (Watch Mr. Kanwar's short "A Love Story," nearby, first.)

Two Iranians broaden experience of their country beyond headlines about uranium enrichment. Seminal filmmaker Kamran Shirdel is given a mini-retrospective of six films made between 1965 and 2002 and lasting between 11 and 43 minutes (with English subtitles). Subjects range from an Iranian women's prison to the modernization of Gulf neighbor Dubai. While most follow the documentary format for which he is known, "Solitude Opus" is a poetic and gripping portrayal of aging, isolation and acceptance.

Rokni Haerizadeh, born four decades later, exhibits fantastical animations made from altered media images that satirize the events of the 2009 Iranian protests and of the 2011 royal wedding of England's Prince William and Kate Middleton. Several individual sheets show the fecundity of Mr. Haerizadeh's creativity, as do the pages of an over-painted book, "The Royal Wedding," that, flying in the face of all museum convention, visitors may gently page through.

Israeli native Yael Bartana shows "Summer Camp," a 2007 video of the sweat-equity rebuilding by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions of a Palestinian home destroyed by Israeli authorities. Paired with an abridged 1935 settler recruitment film, it raises issues of home and coexistence that are both specific and timeless.

These are the kinds of artworks that prompt discussion with a friend over coffee. Or visitors can make a friend in a saffron-colored tent designed specifically for that purpose in the museum's contemporary galleries.

The hands-on artist book is among many firsts of this International. Another is "The Playground Project," a revolutionary concept that includes an outdoor Swiss playground sculpture Lozziwurm and Tezuka Architects' installation that encourages little visitors to romp in the spirit of their groundbreaking Fuji Kindergarten. Also firsts are community outreach projects in Braddock, Homestead and Wilkinsburg by, respectively, members of the Braddock artist collaborative Transformazium, Philadelphian Zoe Strauss and Zurich-based Tobias Madison.

The most defining first is the unprecedented commitment to the Pittsburgh community by the International's three curators, Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers and Tina Kulkielski. They met with artists, explored neighborhoods, organized programs and attended events, and wove their discoveries into the fabric of this International.

The three also laudably committed to the exhibition's history, resulting in a first-time inclusion of the museum's Modern and Contemporary Collection as an International component. The re-hang of those galleries, which interspersed recent purchases with art acquired from past Internationals, is the most inviting I've seen. There, one may take tea with strangers in the aforementioned tent of Rirkrit Tiravanija's "untitled (cure)" (served 12:30-4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays and until 7:30 p.m. Thursdays). The artist exhibited a similar work in the 1995 International.

CI13 artworks are also tucked into the permanent collection galleries, including Rodney Graham's mesmerizing film installation "The Green Cinematograph (Programme 1: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink)" and Lara Favaretto's half-ton-plus steel and silk sculptures that reverberate among 19th-century paintings.

Other CI13 works, such as Mark Leckey's clever visual trickery "Made in 'Eaven," are installed in the Natural History Museum, another nod to the sense of place to which this International pays homage.

Juxtapositions spawn silent conversations and connections throughout the show, as with the grid of "Faces and Phases," Zanele Muholi's dignified photographic portraits of members of the South African LGBTI community, and New Yorker Sadie Benning's electric grid of colorful abstract shapes.

The most spectacular grouping is in the Hall of Sculpture, where cultures rub shoulders while tracking the transitory path of civilizations. Central is Pedro Reyes' "Disarm," a swords-to-ploughshares installation of musical instruments made from drug cartel weapons confiscated in Mexico.

Behind that is the Bidoun Library, an assemblage of books and other publications depicting the Middle East through Western eyes, a lingering Orientalism made hopeful by its subjugation to critique. Ringing the room are Joel Sternfeld's evocative photographs of American utopias lost, "Sweet Earth."

On the balcony surround, Nicole Eisenman's affecting, eerily primitive figures -- philosophical and physical wanderers, weighted with ennui -- are interspersed with casts of idealized figures of classical antiquity. (Her perspicuous painting, "Tea Party," is an exhibition high point.)

Sandblasted into the skylight overhead is Lothar Baumgarten's "The Tongue of the Cherokee," the Native American alphabet installed during the 1988 Carnegie International to challenge the purported superiority of one people over another.

A review of this length may only hint at the complexity of the exhibition with its many layered references to history, politics, art and cultures high and popular, familiar and foreign -- a mirror of our global society. Some works are stunning, while others don't achieve their ambitious reach, but all spark conversation.

"Helena and Miwako," a magical 37-minute video by Japanese Ei Arakawa and German Henning Bohl that is also part of "The Playground Project," exemplifies the character of this International. An unlikely and diverse group embarks upon a quest to locate historical Japanese playgrounds. Along the way they learn about the world and each other, and may even put to rest the spirits of the 2011 natural and nuclear disaster that occurred in Mr. Arakawa's native Fukushima.

Their objective is serious but their journey is free-spirited, imbued with pluck, humanity, curiosity and creativity. A fairy tale, both playful and dark, it's a model for a major exhibition of contemporary art or, perhaps the curators might say, for life itself.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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