“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .” So Charles Dickens celebrated an era that has resonated far too often with human history, but perhaps never more so than it does with the Americas today. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens captured a revolutionary era at the moment idealism was turning to terror, allowing a charismatic egotist named Napoleon to hijack the hopes of nations and turn promise into catastrophe. Closer to home, influential Americans with gigantic egos have frequently touched the lives of their fellow citizens in similarly powerful ways. As 2016 struggled to give birth to 2017. Fidel Castro, who lifted his island nation out of feudalism and colonial exploitation and into the 21st century, but in the process drove many of its most promising, creative citizens into exile, died even as citizens in countries around the world seemed determined to turn back the historical process of worldwide unification and human rights. While this process played out up and down North and South America, Cuba and the United States have become like hood ornaments on the Ubercar of destiny—a convenance now seen clearly not to be taking any of us where we once thought we were going.
Yet there’s another way that these times, while threatening to become among the worst in politics, economics, and human rights, are simultaneously some of the best. Great difficulties have always brought out human creativity, and a characteristic of this moment is the surfeit of powerful art that can be found almost anyplace in the world today. Artworks that are technically accomplished, aesthetically sophisticated, eloquent, and emotionally plangent can be seen in every corner of the globe. Yet because of their sheer numbers and distribution, it’s a challenge to encounter more than a fraction of them. Thus the rise of a new kind of connoisseur, who replaces the collector, and journeys—not for herself, but on behalf of the audience—in search of significant art wherever it may be found, and makes it available to a willing public. To Salt Lake City, coincidental with big changes here and abroad, the Cuban-American curator Susan Caraballo has brought work by seven international artists: videos and installations she found in Oakland, Miami, Guadalajara, Panama City, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires. They range from calm and contemplative to disturbing, and one that qualifies as harrowing. Every one is rooted in humanitarian concern for the present environmental and minority rights predicament, and each fulfills Caraballo’s intention that it “examines violence and man-made atrocities in general” (though “without explicit and violent scenes”) “and reflects how the future before us looks bleak and far from what we envisioned the 21st century to be.”
The most gentle nudge toward awareness comes right at the gallery door, where Stephanie Syjuco’s “Dark Matter (Grey Cloud)” resembles a scene from an expensive clothing store. Here a constellation of handsome display racks gives the saturation treatment, after all, a standard strategy of high-end merchandising, to a collection of identical grey hoodies. While ”color” opens an entire category of raw social and philosophical questions, a place to start is with this fashion query: what is the difference between the association made by Trayvon Martin’s murderer, between a hoodie and a hooligan, and the association made here, between a perennially popular garment and its potentially tony application? What, besides what is, after all, a minority taste—the preference of those who feel threatened—separates a garment, or the person who wears it, from being seen properly as a human being?
Nearby, Rosa Naday Garmendia’s “Rituals of Commemoration” ambivalently invokes two nearly identical looking, popular tropes with very different meanings. Her wall of names, custom built to fit the location where it is shown, resembles the most popular modern form of memorial, where in place of a generic image, the names and death dates of the victims individualize those it means to hold in memory; in this case, persons killed in encounters with the police. The obvious associations are to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and the hundreds of monuments that have followed its lead, with the difference that in place of a static story of the past, here the lively, colorful, blank bricks that apparently once made up this wall are being inexorably replaced in the present by the somber bricks bearing names. Yet at the same time, the use of bricks also suggests something less tragic, and even potentially optimistic. Along with the use of names carved in stone, in mourning and reflection, countless communities have sold similarly inscribed bricks to raise money for their popular projects. Thus “Rituals of Commemoration” can also be seen as a kind of spiritual investment: one that looks forward to a communal solution to the problem of authoritarian violence.
Another work that looks forward, this time with tongue in cheek, is “Whistle Loudly,” an excerpt from a continuing project by Octavio Abúndez that sees him produce a generous shelf of fake books every year. Printing books, like planting trees, is a powerful expression of faith in the future. So the overall title for the project, The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be, which presumably also provided the exhibition’s overall title, seems particularly apt for a potentially vast library of books, given how often being in print is mistaken for proof of referential reality. Some titles, like “Interstellar Etiquette for Dummies,” unambiguously point to the future while indicting the rude present. A black volume titled “An American Nightmare” all but disappears between “The Fall of Christendom” and “The Last Stand of Communism.” Surely “Whatever” denotes a new encyclopedia, one that doesn’t pretend to care about its contents. And jokes abound, some in English but many more in Spanish, perhaps in part to incite the mono-linguistic in the crowd. Now, this library asks, where’s the future in that?
Some artworks focus on imagination and creativity, but Antonia Wright’s “Are You OK?” feels taken from universal, quotidian experience. Everyone who goes out in public has had the experience of witnessing someone who appears to be in trouble, and wondering whether or not to get involved. Wright stands alone on a street corner in a black dress and appears distressed, going so far at to cry desperately. And she waits to see what happens. Cameras set up to film the faces of passers-by capture their confusion and distress. Occasionally, someone or a small group stop to offer help, a moment every bit as revealing of human complexity as the reactions of those who, as in the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, see her and hurry past. It’s a potentially problematic piece: one that uses deception to evoke an emotional response from its audience. In so doing, though, Wright reminds us of the subterfuge and artificiality of all art, and sets up a rare ethical challenge, not only to the alien targets of so much Contemporary art, but to its producers and consumers as well.
Another video that begins in a common human predicament, “Under the Rug”by Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker displays the border between a lawn and a smooth floor littered with trash. In a series of quick takes, during which sequence the quantity of debris increases dramatically, hands working a broom to sweep up the detritus lift the lawn, revealed to be sod, and sweep the refuse under it. As the rubble grows in quantity and size, what began as an innocent shortcut becomes ever more untenable. If ever there was a work of art that didn’t require an explanation, this should be it; the human impulse to bury what we can’t deal with, from daily inconveniences to the inevitability of personal extinction, is laid out here in what is often the only way we can deal with the unbearable: with laughter.
Looking in the other direction and moving from the environmental perspective to the personal, Leandro Lima and Gisela Motta’s “I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device)”contemplates material choice in terms of personal wellbeing and individual survival. Here a handful of commonplace compromises—unhealthy products and their seductive packaging—have been assembled into the simulacrum of a destructive device most will recognize, even if only from media images. Then, through animation, the potential bomb becomes a beating heart. Asking whether we want this heart to continue beating like this, or to stop, is a little like asking how to let go of a tiger’s tail.
Curator Caraballo’s promise not to subject her audience to images of actual violence needn’t be invoked to explain why she placed artist Ananké Asseff’s “Rueda de econocimiento (LineUp)” apart, in a room of its own. Rather, the full, visceral impact of this brief encounter requires an elaborate setup, precautions, and discretion both technical and journalistic. The monitor that stands outside the door, showing the gallery floor within, carries the message:
PLEASE VIGILANTLY WATCH THE MONITOR
THE EXHIBITION SPACE MUST BE
EMPTY BEFORE YOU ENTER
and neither further signs, nor this review, will disclose what happens to those who follow the instructions and, when it’s ready, enter the gallery. The purpose of the sign is not as nefarious as it sounds: the exhibit is automatically triggered by the viewer’s presence, so a proper viewing requires waiting until the previous viewer exits. Then it’s best experienced by one person at a time. Afterwards, the unusual procedure will make sense, and so will the art—on an initially visual, but ultimately somatic, and pre-linguistic level.
We live at a moment in history when dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs has made the future of paramount interest to us, yet we so often envision that future not as inviting, but as dystopian. The seven artists gathered for us by Susan Caraballo recognize that, but instead of wallowing in hopelessness, ask that we reflect on how the present, which after all was yesterday’s future, failed us . . . or we failed it. And they go on to suggest, with enticing visuals and no small humor, that there is no time to lose if today’s future is going to be any better when, inevitably, it becomes the present.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.