'suddenly: where we live now' at the Pomona College Museum of Art

Mia Locks

Reviews / 27.05.2009

Less a theme and more a mood, uncertainty seems to be the unlikely anchor of the nomadic group exhibition "suddenly: where we live now" at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, California. Curator Stephanie Snyder, director of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, begins her introductory wall text: "We don't really know what a city is any more than we know what art is..." The point of departure for her exhibition is an observation by German architect and urban planner Thomas Sieverts. Author of the book Zwischenstadt(1997), Sieverts posits a new form of decentralized urbanity emerging worldwide, an "in-between landscape" (in other words, sprawl) that renders conventional modes of urban planning ever more insufficient and obsolete. His open-ended exhortation, "New ways must be explored, which are as yet unclear," prompted Snyder to muster seventeen young artists whose works imagine fresh possibilities for the uncertain future of urban landscapes.

The resulting project comprises a peripatetic museum show and series of public events around the globe, beginning in Portland and making stops in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Berlin, Wellington, Paris, Miami and Sapporo, among other cities. Needless to say, "suddenly" is an ambitious curatorial undertaking, one that is decidedly decentralized and mutable, echoing Sieverts' call. It seeks to embody a nontraditional exhibition structure, extending beyond the gallery space with spontaneous public lectures, communal dinners and citywide poster initiatives led by artist Marc Joseph Berg. An accompanying website and blog document the events and activities organized in conjunction with the exhibition as they transpire. For example, the site includes a streaming MP3 of a dinner discussion between Snyder and participating artists and writers that took place at Clockshop, a nonprofit in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, on the eve of the Pomona College exhibition's opening.[1]

Within the museum space Snyder maintains a pervasive textual presence, but the ubiquity of her words is balanced by their indeterminacy. The wall text introducing the exhibition consists of two distinct parts entitled, respectively, "Shacking up" and "Stop signs." In the former, Snyder observes that, "Suddenly artists are building shacks, domes, underground dwellings, caves … aesthetic trading posts – sites for the exchange of information and materials on terms of our own making." But a glance to the right, mere inches from Snyder's text, a rugged axe – a sculpture by Elias Hansen, entitled A language I don't understand (2008) – leans against the wall below a mark it presumably made. White paint chips and stray bits of drywall litter the floor and cling to the axe's blade, evidencing a literal deconstruction of the institution. Not least, the piece serves as a visceral punctuation mark for Snyder's strong words in "Stop signs," the second part of her wall text: "Stop catering to the art world," she demands. "Stop sucking up to the money/power relationships that constitute it." This statement suggests that the artworks Snyder has selected for "suddenly" specifically do not bow to art market whims. Thus the axe itself functions as a "stop sign," and its placement at the forefront of the exhibition is quite telling.

Next to the axe is a wall label that begins, "This axe is not what it appears to be, although it is indeed a working axe." The axe's functional capability is hard to miss, but Snyder's label emphasizes the less obvious, process-oriented quality of the object, informing viewers that Hansen created the axe for an expedition into the Alaskan wilderness. "Like many of the objects in suddenly, its natural environment lies outside of the museum," she writes, "within the where we live now." This suggests that Hansen's work defies art world convention not simply by hacking into the museum's wall but, and more importantly, by refusing the notion of artistic object as final product and occupying the exhibition space in an unexpected way.

Fritz Haeg, Animal Estates 5.0: Portland, Oregon, 2008. Mixed media. Pomona College Museum of Art. Photograph: Gene Ogami It seems that most, if not all, of the works in "suddenly" embody a similarly process-oriented, unconventional approach, and share a likewise indexical relationship to Snyder's textual commentary. Take Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates (2008), a seven-city project that seeks to reintroduce indigenous animal species back into their respective urban environments by constructing so-called estates for them to inhabit, using recycled, cheap and readily accessible materials. In the main gallery at Pomona, the estatePortland 5.0 (commissioned by Snyder for the initial, Reed College iteration of the exhibition), forms a looming ceiling-high wooden tower that the artist terms a "multiple-species" dwelling or a "social housing" unit. On two flanking walls are bulletin boards plastered with fragments and ephemera such as maps, pamphlets, sketches, flags, pins, plaques, posters and postcards. The flood of information spills over into a large geodesic tent (a symbolic shack?), where viewers are invited to sit on beanbag chairs while sifting through more textual material, some of which chronicles the initial version of Haeg's project, New York 1.0, produced for the 2008 Whitney Biennial. A substantial wall label from Snyder accompanies Haeg's surplus of supporting texts, suggesting that "suddenly" is as much about reading as it is about viewing. She posits the work as an attempt to "stimulate creative civic participation in the lives of indigenous animal species," in seeming response to Sieverts' open call for innovation. Thus Haeg's hybridized artistic, architectural and activist practice – which foregrounds the construction of practical but imaginative dwellings for a range of urban spaces – proves a fitting centerpiece for Snyder's exhibition.

In the second, smaller gallery is Michael McManus's Sense of Place (2008), an installation comprised of four speakers – one facing in each cardinal direction – suspended from the ceiling at ear-level. The speakers emit the voice of the artist's mother, who describes the surroundings of Mono Lake (located in northeastern California near Yosemite). This narration shifts from speaker to speaker based on the viewer's movements through the gallery space – which are captured by an overhead surveillance camera and fed through a computer program in real-time to a video monitor on the wall nearby – causing an evocative sense of psychogeographical play. Rather than contextualizing the work, Snyder's wall label offers up the advice of a curator-cum-yoga instructor: "Take time to shift quietly through the installation, move your body, and it will be rewarded with nuances undetectable by the eyes, or by typical postures of listening, i.e. standing still with head cocked and eyes closed." But while McManus's "shack" is, at face value, more symbolic than Haeg's tangible dwelling, it also bears a direct relationship to urban planning. Mono Lake is "an ecosystem in peril," as Snyder rightly notes. Its peril is due, in large part, to decreasing water levels resulting from the Department of Water and Power’s diversion of massive quantities of water to the growing population of Los Angeles (more than three hundred miles away) over the years. It seems the lake is not only a metaphor for "the fragility of perception and filial relationships" she mentions, but perhaps also for the relationship between water and power.

Adjacent to McManus' installation is Michael Hebb's The Corridor Project (2009), which features video documentation, backpacking equipment, used bowls and empty bottles arranged on the gallery floor, as well as posters hung on the wall detailing "the walk" – a collective journey led by the artist in January that began at sunrise on the day of the opening at the Pomona Museum and evidently ended with the cooking of a communal meal. Hebb's practice involves gathering people together to dine, and in this case the meal came after a thirty-two mile overnight walk from Claremont through the Chino Hills to the Interstate 5 corridor. According to the artist, "This limited access roadway is arguably the most significant physical feature and architectural structure in the west." That Hebb's work comprises a journey through Los Angeles County (itself the epitome of sprawl) makes it a well-suited response to Snyder's implicit question about the relationship between artistic practice and urban space. Like Haeg's and Hansen's works, the items here are to be read as relics of a discursive and itinerant practice that consciously rejects a longstanding reification of the studio as the locus of creative output.

In one way or another, each work in Snyder's exhibition indexes an action or event that took place outside of the museum space. Viewers are confronted with traces, fragments necessitating further explanation, and Snyder provides extensive curatorial wall labels for each work. But like her introductory wall text, these labels traffic in self-reflexive musings, loose threads instead of succinct facts and authoritative readings. Meaning must ultimately be determined by the individual viewer. The uncertainty of Snyder's voice is thus strategic, challenging the expectation of curator as generator of meaning. Still, the ubiquitous wall labels constantly reiterate her ambiguous voice, in effect suggesting that we "read" the exhibition as we read her curatorial text. The exhibition includes a publications table with a plethora of printed matter, including the exhibition's accompanying catalogue, WHERE WE LIVE NOW: an annotated reader.[2] Unlike a traditional exhibition catalogue, this hefty reader, edited by Matthew Stadler, contains no images or texts about the exhibited artworks – instead, historical, theoretical, and literary essays and excerpts by Sieverts, Karl Marx, Manuel Castells, Rem Koolhaas and others engage with ideas and issues raised in the exhibition, serving a discursive, rather than explanatory, function. It is fitting for an exhibition that defines the "where we live now" as a pluralistic moment of intersecting discourses that may be interpreted in multiple ways. Snyder's exhibition raises questions about the fixity of meaning, turning to artists who provide imaginative alternatives to conventional urbanist thinking. By ambitiously building a worldwide platform for their ideas – both pragmatic and symbolic – about how we might reconsider our relationship to urban space, Snyder proposes a constellation of meaning rather than a fixed point on the horizon.

— Mia Locks