Chaos and Awe at the Frist Art Museum June 22–September 16
WORDS Milena Castro
Chief Curator of the Frist Art Museum, Mark Scala, has brought together an array of powerful artworks for his latest exhibition, Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century. Motivated to confront complex topics that have emerged at a global level, Scala has developed a thematic show that introduces a range of philosophical ideas. He explains that he conceived this show considering his own state of mind in recent years. “I’ve been feeling that people have little control of the network of systems that shape their lives, which makes us concurrently more connected and more vulnerable; things like communication technology and the dark web, fake news, international networks of terrorism or shady finance, racism, and extreme nationalism. These things are often invisible, and they can be frightening. At the same time, the complex of ungraspable forces provides hope for new understandings of how seemingly disparate parts of existence are linked, an exhilaration at possibilities that can arise out of the seemingly incoherent present.” The exhibition presents a framework to consider the invisible systems that we may not even sense or be aware of but shape contemporary reality and attitudes toward the future.
The title Chaos and Awe signifies the dynamic nature of the show. Scala defines the relationship of the terms saying, “The experience of chaos can produce sensations ranging from anxiety to awe . . . awe has to do with a feeling of being transported by something larger and vaster and more powerful than yourself. That can be fear or almost a spiritual feeling.” In the end, the curator concludes that there may not be such a thing as chaos: “Chaos is in the mind of the beholder.” Using the example of a tornado, Scala explains that if your house has been destroyed by one you may feel that life has become chaotic. At the same time, you know that a tornado is a natural event that arises predictably from certain weather patterns, a complicated sequence of events that are wholly indifferent to its consequences for individual people. The disconnection between feelings and rational understanding happens in the social world as well, as emotional experience is often our only way to articulate the immeasurable impact of deep social, historical, economic, or technological forces. While the portrayal of these intangible forces inspires myriad sensations that may or may not be pleasant, the exhibition makes the case that there is value and indeed a (perhaps perverse) pleasure in examining, confronting, and even embracing the tornadic aspects of society.
The exhibition takes the viewer through the unknown and mysterious. The trajectory comes from Scala’s belief that by connecting with the invisible in the world we can make the conscious choice to be frightened or engaged. He says, “We can hide from the unknown, building metaphorical walls, or we can say these are things that we don’t understand, that are perhaps even dangerous, but as a humanistic society, we have the power and responsibility to explore them.” Discussing his curatorial practice Scala notes, “I never come to any resolution to the problems of human consciousness. Instead, all my major exhibition projects are offered as questions that may be unanswerable, but that contemporary artists have nevertheless challenged themselves to address.”
In this exhibition he selected artists from around the world, which reveals that many of the same issues of contemporary life are shared universally. Scala explains the fluidity that dominates the conversation: “We are part of a global discourse. People start thinking the experience of being American or British is something that is unlike anyone else’s experience, but I don’t think that is absolutely true. We have our distinct socio- political realities, but we also share the same anxieties, and we share the same hopes.” As Scala researched this exhibition for several years and sorted through ways of presenting the questions of today, seven themes emerged.
The paintings in No Place explore the technological sublime. Scala elaborates on this idea: “Many people feel a sense of uncertainty, doubt, or anxiety when they think about the Internet and other technological developments as being incredibly powerful forces of connectivity, but they are also potentially destructive, with the capacity to pull things apart and undermine every solid foundation of our lives.” Artist Franz Ackermann’s Untitled uses broad swaths of bright colors and other more detailed visual elements to evoke an urban experience. The objects and composition are so intertwined it becomes difficult to parse what is going on. Is this a scene of the past or the future? Of destruction or unification?
The sections Shadows and Collisions both confront the fragmentation of identity that results from historical forces that are deeply ingrained in world cultures, such as racial animus, colonialism, capitalism, war, and migration. Shadows focuses specifically on the subtle perpetuation of racial attitudes as a way of maintaining systemic and unequal power structures. Collisions focuses on intersections and conflicts, mostly focused on the Middle East. Scala has chosen works that portray the disruption that “happens when nations or groups fight over identity, theology, or borders. These abstract notions have a real-world consequence.” Baghdad-born painter Ahmed Alsoudani’s Birds interprets the experience of displacement and homesickness. Images of birds, birdhouses, broken eggs, and a nest suggest the disorder, pain, and loss felt by the migrant. The tone is troubling as the birds show a life cycle that is disrupted by the context of their setting.
The conflict expressed in the second and third sections is partially resolved in Interzone. This part of the exhibition encourages contemplation of the interconnections and resilience that can arise through cross- cultural exchange and global migration. The central dichotomies are explained in the exhibition catalogue as “colonized and colonizer, east and west, living and dead, past and present.” Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s Tambour II calls viewers to consider the experiences of the Mangbetu people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Represented wearing traditional textiles, their unique head shape recalls the historical practice of performing skull elongation procedures from childhood. While physical deformation is no longer part of the Mangbetu culture, representing these people in this way provides a very specific identification, emphasizing the local impact of global trade. The figures’ bodies are covered in circuit board imagery. While these speak about modern technology overtaking indigenous people, they also carry a specific significance because the Mangbetu people are often employed to mine coltan, a mineral found only in their region, that is used in making electronic devices. Ilunga’s image of hybridity demonstrates the intersection of globalism, technology, and international trade, which has an effect on people at all levels of the economic spectrum.
Virtuality, the fifth part of Chaos and Awe, addresses the porous boundaries between reality and cyberspace. Scala explains this tension: “When we wade into the Internet we don’t really know what’s real and what’s not real, but we often suspend criticality to accept the digital as our reality.” Korakrit Arunanondchai’s Untitled (Body Painting 9), and Corinne Wasmuht’s Bibliotheque/CDG-BSL test the stylistic bounds between abstraction and figuration to suggest a destabilization that occurs as humans see and perceive the world through a technological lens. These and other artists imagine threshold sites, in which notions of truth and fiction are suspended, even irrelevant.
The vastness of the human imagination defines the scope of section six, Boundless. The exhibition catalogue posits that “rational thought is only a narrow subset of the mind’s activities.” Works such as James Perrin’s Semiosis of the Sea and Matti Braun’s Untitled feature dynamic, abstract compositions that lead the eye around the surface with the interplay of color and line. The formal elements suggest that the experience contained within the boundaries of the painting would extend outward forever, just as the things we can see or know are only glimpses of much more expansive conditions—like looking at a starlit sky through a window.
The last section, Everything, is the curator’s attempt to introduce resolutions and raise more questions about the issues presented throughout the exhibition. Scala proposes, “If you start to develop a theory of everything that includes mystical experience, mathematics, science, language, beauty, and love, you must think, How do all these things tie together?” Through a variety of worldviews, topics, and technical approaches, this section is designed to be both cautionary and optimistic. Many of the artworks in this portion of the exhibition call to mind charts or maps, abstract pathways for depicting the unknown. An example is Sarah Walker’s complex pattern painting Tanglement, which provides layers and repeated images that unfold with mystery and suppositions about the role of painting in transporting the viewer and redefining our notions of beauty.
Scala focused his ruminations on how the nature of painting itself helped inspire these themes. Perhaps an unlikely source for decoding the most pressing questions of today, considering that the history of this medium spans millennia, he explains, “Paint when it comes out of a tube is pure potential. It is nothing but it can become anything . . . something absolutely beautiful, provocative, and moving.” He continues, “How is it that this colored substance can be manipulated to suggest such invisible things as energy, memory, anxiety, and spirituality?” As two-dimensional wall hangings, they provide a focal point, encouraging viewers to think that what happens within the frame is a metaphor for that which is beyond. He goes on to say that “we are so caught up in the virtual world, the temporary, the ephemeral that somehow paintings crystallize, making concrete that which is fleeting.”
Scala explains that visitors to the Frist Art Museum will have space for reflection as they move through the exhibition. He notes that certain images may be enigmatic, as mysterious as the ideas they represent. “If people look at works in the exhibition and say, ‘I don’t feel anxiety or precarity, everything is as it should be’ then I will feel the exhibition will not really have captured the zeitgeist of our times.” Instead he wants uncertainties to stick, revelations to resonate, and curiosity to expand. He proposes, “Ultimately I hope they [museum visitors] will come away with a feeling of empathy and connectedness … willing to acknowledge the importance of the things they can’t describe but that they know are there, and see how artists are tackling some of the sensations and emotions that they themselves may indeed be feeling.”
Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century will be on view at the Frist Art Museum June 22 to September 16. For more information, visit www.fristartmuseum.org