Art Seen: Chicago

THE WAY OF THE SHOVEL // MCA CHICAGO

by Ruslana Lichtzier

The concern with uncharted, muted, and invisible histories has been apparent on a global art platform since the early 2000s. That is the proposal given to us by The Way Of The Shovel: Art as Archeology, which opened early this November at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago – a carefully composed survey exhibition organized by recently appointed Manilow Senior Curator Dieter Roelstraete. The exhibition ties together thirty-four diverse and critically acclaimed contemporary artists – among them, Phil Collins, Moyra Davey, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Anri Sala, Hito Steyerl, Joachim Koester, Daniel Knorr, Jason Lazarus, and Tony Tasset. It is structured around four sub-topics: archeology as a metaphor, archeology as an act, archeology of the mind, and a grouping of works preoccupied with Robert Smithson – as either the figure of the archeologist himself or the archeological artifact (it will be up to you to tell). The selection of work similarly displays a gravitation toward historiography, giving birth to new modalities of production and innovating bases of artistic practices within both scholarly research, and fieldwork. Perhaps one of the exhibition’s greatest accomplishments is its consistent and defined voice, yet one with multiplicities and tonalities. Though, the price of this generosity and proliferation is also the loss of experiencing the inherent melancholy of the subject at hand. The constant sonorous stimulation throughout the galleries, with various sound works and film pieces, muffles the inherently absent centers of most of the works; allowing instead the potential for a carefree walk around projects that deal with, by and large, historical specters.

Cyprien Gaillard, Untitled, 2012. The Frank Cohen Collection © Cyprien Gaillard. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago. November 9, 2013 - March 9, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Cyprien Gaillard, Untitled, 2012. The Frank Cohen Collection © Cyprien Gaillard. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago. November 9, 2013 – March 9, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Nevertheless, the strength of the selected works is apparent from the entry. Next to the exhibition wall-text, we face a Plexiglas vitrine encompassing a rusted excavator bucket tooth. The object itself bears resemblance to a dinosaur claw, but simultaneously points toward a relic of our own perishable social-industrialized future, setting a tone of dual historical purposes to the entire exhibition. This vitrine, Untitled, 2012, by Cyprien Gaillard, (French, b. 1980), is one of four that are spread across the exhibition space. They are remnants tied to his 2009 Dunepark project, whose documentation is also exhibited in the show. In a DVD screening, captured in Duindorp, a district in The Hague in The Netherlands, we witness Gaillard’s shoveling. An excavator slowly digs his way down the sand hill while a neighborhood crowd gathers to watch the spectacle. Like a phantom, a Second World War Nazi bunker is being uncovered after decades of it being buried in sand – cheaper than demolition. The project comes to its end by recovering the bunker, returning it to its buried state, as part of a public project associated to Gaillard’s Beton Belvedere exhibition at the Stroom Den Haag, in 2009. By reburying history – especially one of the most unsettling kind – Gaillard bans the bunker from resting peacefully, adding a spectral aura both to the untitled vitrines and the documentation of the Dunepark project.

Cyprien Gaillard, Dunepark, aerial view. Photo: Hein van Liempd.

Cyprien Gaillard, Dunepark, aerial view. Photo: Hein van Liempd.

Michael Rakowitz (American, b. 1973) faces an opposite problem. His ongoing project, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007–present, reconstructs lost or stolen archeological artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. In the exhibition, the reconstructed newspaper sculptures, colorfully covered with found Middle Eastern packaging paper, are presented on a mockup of a fieldwork-table with indexical labels. The project began in 2007, after Rakowitz came to know the unfortunate state of the National Museum of Iraq that missed close to 7000 artifacts as a result of the 2003 American invasion. Reconstructing the missing artifacts with a team of assistants and the aid of archival documents from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Invisible Enemy project is coupled with a series of descriptive monochrome drawings that trace the story of Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former Director of the National Museum of Iraq – the man who witnessed and reported the impoverished state of his collection. The drawings depict Dr. Youkhanna in relation to the museum and the excavation site of Babylon, Baghdad’s multilayered ground of histories.

Michael Rakowitz , Detail view, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007-present. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid, New York. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago November 9, 2013 - March 9, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Michael Rakowitz , Detail view, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007-present. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid, New York. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago November 9, 2013 – March 9, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

In one depiction we can see the nineteen-hundred and fourteen excavations and displacement of the prominent Ishtar Gate, which was rebuilt in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Another depiction is of Saddam Hussein’s megalomaniac undertaking of both restoration and building upon the archeological traces. The third thread of the installation passes above through overhead speakers – inspired by the rock star aspirations of Dr. Youkhanna, who used to play drums in a Deep Purple and Pink Floyd cover band. In the space we hear a recording of the New York band Ayyoub, conducting an Arabic instrumentation cover to Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water.” Rakowitz’s project provokes, among other questions, the position of often-attacked multinational identities. It seems that Rakowitz’s project strength comes, partially and precisely thanks to him being an Iraqi-American artist based in Chicago. One cannot ignore the ironic humor of Rakowitz’s operation, using the documents of the nearby Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago to criticize past orientalism as the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate at Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or, more crucially, the gross orientalism of Untitled States that lead to the Iraq invasion.

Susanne Kriemann (German, b. 1972) presents two photographic-based bodies of work. A silent Crazy Jungle Under Glass (Gestein), 2011, is composed out of black and white photographs, documenting the limestone quarry of Solnhofen, Bavaria. In five exact photographs, Kriemann delicately decomposes the natural site into a vertical archive that holds between its sheets indispensible evidences of both natural and human history – the limestone quarry of Solnhofen is the site in which Alois Senefelder, the European inventor of lithography, used to prepare his printing process blocks.

Susanne Kriemann, A Silent Crazy Jungle Under Glass (Gestein), 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam and RaebervonStenglin, Zürich.

Susanne Kriemann, A Silent Crazy Jungle Under Glass (Gestein), 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam and RaebervonStenglin, Zürich.

In another project, Kriemann further unfolds her interest in natural, rural “archival” sites, clashing human intervention with natural history. The installation, titled in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 2013, was inspired by a visit in Llano, Texas, and the nearby Barringer Hill – a site is home to a rare and radioactive silicate mineral named Gadolinite. This Latin palindrome, which may be translated as: “we go wandering at night and are consumed by fire,” is constructed of three inkjet photographs, two hung, and one placed on a polished copper table, next to stacked silver gelatin prints. The table is lit by a light bulb says to contain a rare earth element. Reverberating the history of the LIano’s site, Kriemann reaches back to the invention of streetlight by Walter Nernst, who used gadolinite from Barringer Hill as a filament; in response, Kriemann produces a light bulb that highlights the moment of the industrial revolution. Yet, the photographs complicate the installation’s orientation. Untitled (Crystal) is a soft focused depiction of an inside of a cave; Untitled (nuclear) is a photo of a deposited – or a trace of – gadolinite on a shot of film. In its minimal aesthetics, both photos recall a more intimate, or rather a minor-move toward abstraction, rather a scientific or objective artifacts. The piece that produces the reverse effect is surprisingly a stack of silver prints, which resist any easy close observation due to their displacement on the copper table, which you are not allowed to touch. We are instead forced to first acknowledge the stack of photos as an object, and later as an image – only then do we notice the jarring landscape that is imprinted, at once archaic and futuristic.

While the impulse of Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy is to fill a hole, to materialize an absence, Kriemann’s work opens up the historic discourse to new imaginaries and possibilities. She questions what constitutes a historical narration by taking it to its extreme, by touching and bringing back both the fragile and the toxic. Like the palindrome, her work carries a strong sense of morbidity in its Latin translation – yet also like the palindrome, it suggests our ability to read and re-read history from different directions.


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This piece of writing is part one of an ongoing exploratory text that engages with the exhibition. The Way Of The Shovel: Art as Archeology runs through March 9, 2014.

Ruslana Lichtzier is an artist and writer, recently graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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