December 2017

by Mark W. Scala, Chief Curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Damien Hirst, Pair of Slaves Bound for Execution, Painted bronze

As the Frist Center organizes its upcoming exhibition of Roman art from the British Museum, I am thinking about art both as a window onto history and as a distorting mirror of how we have gotten where we are. One still occasionally hears classicists react to contemporary art by demanding, “But will it stand the test of time?” The implications are that old art survived because it embodied enduring values, or that it at least has lasting significance because it was collected and treasured, sometimes over millennia, and that today’s values are temporary—not validated by the accumulated wisdom of the ages. The rejoinder to this query is that the circumstances of art’s creation have always been situational. The best that an artist of any time period can do to earn a place in history is to capture the intersection of the inner and social world with authenticity, skill, and perceptiveness. It is the prerogative of future generations to decide if an older artwork still has relevance, or at least offers an interesting perspective or exemplary reflection of past ideas and ideals.

This is not to say that artists needn’t think about history, both as something to which they contribute and as a subject that can be represented for its contemporary pertinence. In Venice, a city where the weight of the past is both excruciating and exhilarating, one cannot help thinking about these questions of history while viewing the magnificent sixteenth-century paintings in the Accademia, or the brilliant ornamentation on the façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica. At the recent Venice Biennale, an event that brings together contemporary art from around the world, I was not the only one thinking about history. Something about being an artist in the Biennale, particularly for those representing their countries in national pavilions, often inspires installations that show a deep political and historical imagination—a means of situating one’s nation among nations. This sometimes involves a kind of doubleness: One may speak about one’s country with the voice of an insider while at the same time assuming a bird’s-eye perspective, capturing its particular set of conditions and linking it to bigger histories, in ways that are not always flattering.

And so we have Mark Bradford’s transformation of the Jeffersonian/Palladian architecture of the American Pavilion into an abstract meditation on the elastic lessons of myth. In his installation Tomorrow Is Another Day, visitors encounter sculptures that relate to the Greek characters of Hephaestus and Medusa, both victims of jealous gods whose stories stand for injustices suffered at the hands of oppressors across time. Throughout the exhibition, abstract paintings and sculptures feature dazzling topographical views composed of layers of paper and paint that have been torn, peeled, and pitted. Their distressed surfaces echo the history of violent transformation that is often associated with humanity’s equation of territory with power, marking today’s battlegrounds of class, race, and gender with the patina of ruined antiquity. For me, this evokes Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, which illustrates the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. The sequence of paintings serves as a cautionary tale for nineteenth-century viewers who may have thought that American civilization could avoid the consequences of its own hubris. Bradford’s more abstract meditation on history and myth provides an archetypal backdrop for the potential devolution of our own sublimely damaged reality —one that is internalized rather than illustrated.

Mark Bradford, Medusa from installation Tomorrow Is Another Day

Across the Giardini, the gardens of Venice, is the Russian Pavilion. Here, Grisha Bruskin’s installation Scene Change comprises what the artist calls a “collusion” (yes, a Russian really used that word, without obvious irony!) between the contemporary and the archaic. Rolling together references to state power, terror, and surveillance, the installation includes a range of sculptural figures. Some suggested herms from the ancient city of Palmyra, and others robots, but the majority were composed of processions of working-class figures, recalling the slaves in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or mechanized humans toiling under Stalinism. Overseeing these statuettes are icons of a new order: ominous overlord robots, soldiers monitoring the crowd with binoculars, surveillance drones, archaic idols with antennas, and terrorists with bombs strapped to their torsos, seeking the anonymity of the crowd. At once comic and foreboding, Scene Change advises that the patterns of history are not easy to break as they wend their ways through twentieth-century ideologies toward a trembling future.

A vaporetto ride to the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana takes us away from the Biennale to the independent exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, a much-hyped over-the-top show by the British artist Damien Hirst, known for his extravagant and often ironic disquisitions on money, death, and taste. Hirst has realized a monumental conceit, a large-scale and expensive production of putatively ancient sculptures that have been supposedly salvaged from the treasure ship The Unbelievable. The centerpiece is a 54-foot-tall Demon with Bowl, a huge headless sculpture that dominates the central courtyard of the palazzo. In perfect keeping with the ship’s name, this gigantic replica of a nonexistent precedent has all the spurious classicism of a giant yard ornament. Throughout the exhibition are other sculptures purported to be from cultures around the ancient world that, the fable goes, had been collected by the wealthy ex-slave Cif Amotan II (an anagram for “I am a fiction”) and were bound for his private museum when the ship sank off the coast of Africa. A significant part of the production is a National Geographic–style film showing the undersea “salvage” operations that brought the objects to the surface. In case anyone mistakes these works for antiquities, we see a range of contemporary allusions, such as logos of today’s luxury items and a barnacle- encrusted bronze Mickey Mouse. This mocks the entertainment industry’s tendency to bowdlerize the past—to make of it a sanitized preview of the present, à la Disney, turning our desire for the validation provided by history into a spectacle and a joke.

Grisha Bruskin’s installation at the Venice Biennale

So, in Venice, I saw three ways of recasting cultural legacies to reflect on our current moment and on our destiny: Bradford’s use of tortured abstraction as a metaphor for cultural entropy; Bruskin’s dark prognostications of a future derived from the dismal record of government control, past and present; and Hirst’s evisceration of the supposed authority of archaeology, history, and science, turning it into an ironic fiction. While historians craft narratives rooted in fact, these artists imagine a more subjective and transient view of history, depicting the connective tissue of human emotions as they float through time.


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