The Henry Art Gallery’s newest exhibit is the second part of a meditation on immaterial subjects and concepts within art. The show is a continued conversation on the sometimes convoluted meaning of contemporary art and features a variety of artists, mediums and styles across the history of art. “Now Here is also Nowhere: Part II” deftly mixes the more avant-garde and less understood pieces with those that classically evoke an aesthetic reaction. The ambiguity of the works grounds the exhibit as the show focuses on a celebration of the “unknowing.”
Upon entering the downstairs space of the Henry Art Gallery, the viewer is confronted with lines of text in six languages, but it is not the typical welcome message one finds at airports and international buildings. Each line means, “All those who can’t read ____ are stupid.” I leave a blank because for each language the missing word is the name of the language in which the line is written (e.g. English, Русски, español). This vinyl wall installation by Luis Camnitzer is a tongue-in-cheek welcome to a presumably international crowd, but it simultaneously bespeaks the serious issue of nationalism, national identity and personal identity through the language one speaks. It’s a fitting work to open an exhibition wherein “here” is “nowhere.”
Tara Donovan’s “Untitled (Pins)” piece extends meditations on a lack of place to a lack of physicality and materiality, the fragility of things and even concepts. Donovan’s work, centrally located in the main room, is a cube composed of thousands of straight pins. This solid form, created through the discrete materiality of the straight pins, is riveting. Its prickly precariousness will lead some to question the integrity of the object, how such a thing can stand, and this may occupy some for so long that may not bother to ask what it “means.”
Many of the pieces in “Now Here is also Nowhere” are created from unique or nontraditional mediums, and some of them seem even to break from the oeuvre of the contributing artist. Richard Serra’s piece “Untitled” depicts a vertical black stripe through or upon a white ground. The stark, elongated rectangle carries the eye up and down the wall, evoking a sense of movement. It is a departure from the iconic weathered steel sculptures for which Serra is know, such as “Wake” at the Olympic Sculpture Park. “Untitled” is reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s “zips” in its verticality and simplicity of form. Serra’s piece fits nicely within the show, as it is visually appealing but rather vacant of any clear or defined meaning on its own as a mere concept. Its effect will always be site-specific.
As a meditation on immaterial subjects, the show also challenges “art historical categories and medium specificity.” Along with pieces made from straight pins, terracotta, plastic and dirt, “Now Here is also Nowhere” features video installations. Video installations have become somewhat ubiquitous in group exhibitions and can often feel perfunctory or redundant, but here, within this context, the videos are at home. The works by Katie Paterson and Rivane and Sergio Neuenschwander look at the “immense potential of contemporary art to be meaningful rather than decipherable.” Without a few TVs, an exhibition about immateriality, lack of place and the inherent power of a medium would be incomplete—for in the developed world what medium is more immaterial yet more universal and familiar than the moving image?
“Now Here is Nowhere: Part 1” began a conversation about how we look at and qualify objects, including artwork. The second part of this builds on the concepts presented in the original (what is familiar, but largely intangible), but further delves into the fundamental power of media to convey what is intangible with what is familiar. Just as artists “continually question and destabilize the nature of the art object,” we as viewers investigate and excavate each piece for a deeper meaning—though perhaps the intent all along was to be indecipherable.