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Vol. LXIV, No. 47
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
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Complex, Thoroughly Modern Exhibit at Princeton University Art Museum

Ellen Gilbert

“Land and space are implicated in everything we do,” is the message of “Nobody’s Property,” a recently-installed exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum. Featuring the work of seven artists and two artist-teams, it is a sprawling, thoroughly modern installation that uses several forms of interactive media to reflect the work of what it describes as “a new generation of environmental artists.”

A plainly-lit projection of the words “Nobody’s Property” on the floor to the entrance of the exhibit suggests, perhaps, the illusiveness of this kind of artistic investigation. Each artist or artistic team’s rendering is quite different from the next, though sound effects and images of exploding buildings seem to eerily collide from room to room. Works by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Francis Als, Yael Bartana, Andrea Geyer, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Emre Hüner, Matthew Day Jackson, Lucy Raven, and Santiago Sierra use media that range from video and photography to digital animation, performance, and assemblage. The results are a kind of parsing of “the economic, geopolitical, and phantasmatic conditions of land and space.”

“Their methods are as varied as their media,” according to an introduction to the exhibit, “but they tend to coalesce around one of four approaches: the investigatory, the parafictional, the interrogative, and the interruptive. While some of the artists in the exhibition explore historical configurations of space, gauging its symbolic import for specific actors at specific moments in time, others consider concrete land-sites — sites, that is, with a particular geographical correlate. Among these land-sites are the cities of Jerusalem and Beirut, the island of Vieques, the border town of Juarez, the Navajo Nation, and the industrial center of Tongling. Each one crystallizes a larger debate around issues such as war, globalization, cultural patrimony, civil rights, and national sovereignty.”

Although it refers to “Hiroshima — August 6, 1945,” Matthew Day Jackson’s work actually depicts Dresden, Germany shortly after British and American forces completed an aerial bombing campaign in February, 1945. The rendering of the charred remains of a city recalls philosopher Walter Benjamin’s observation, “There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.”

Although the exhibit suggests that works of this kind only began to appear at the beginning of the 21st century and does not mention Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989), one might argue that the late author was thinking along these lines long before the current generation of “environmental artists.” His memoir, Far Journeys, published posthumously in 1993, is replete with vivid visual images of cave painting, West African dwellings, accumulations of corrugated iron, and Nepalese prayer flags being buffeted by the wind. The accompanying narrative is cannily filled with close observations of everything from “ochreous walls red in the sunset,” to the Prefect of Oualata, who “closely resembles Noel Coward even down to the ear lobe.”

Exhibit Catalog

A fully illustrated catalogue published by Princeton and distributed by Yale University Press accompanies the new exhibition, which will run through February 20, 2011. The volume includes an introductory essay by Kelly Baum, the Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum; an essay on the relationship between historical land art, primitivism, and new media technologies by art historian Yates McKee; essays by Ms. Baum and five emerging scholars (mostly Princeton graduate students) on the exhibition’s nine works of art; and the transcript of a round table discussion between Ms. Baum and three Princeton scholars: Uriel Abulof, postdoctoral research fellow at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; Rachael DeLue, assistant professor of art and archaeology; and Jonathan Levy, assistant professor of history. The volume is described as a survey of “a new chapter in the history of environmental art, one in which space, geopolitics, human relations, urbanism, and utopian dreamwork play as important a role as, if not more than, raw earth.”

“Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space, 20002010” was made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; the Sarah Lee Elson, Class of 1984, Fund for the International Artist-in-Residence Program; and an anonymous foundation. The accompanying publication has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fund for Publications and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation. Additional support has been made possible by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.

The Princeton University Art Museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.

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