Meanwhile, in Baghdad… and Black Is, Black Ain’t

The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago
Chicago, IL
Michelle Grabner

Meanwhile, in Baghdad… and Black Is, Black Ain’t are two recent curatorial projects crafted by Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker. Of the five exhibitions hosted by the Renaissance Society during the 2007-08 season, these two politically charged enterprises welcomingly distinguish themselves from the profusion of contemporary group shows and biennials that are organized to boost individual curator’s self-importance within the contemporary avant-garde. Walker’s curatorial undertakings opt instead for investigations into pressing, hard-hitting cultural debates such as the Iraq war or the paradox of race.

Walker uses his institution, an esteemed contemporary arts society founded in 1915 and situated on the 4th floor of Cobb Hall on the University of Chicago campus, as a platform for risky political postulates and prominent display of powerful, first-rate artworks. Modestly, Walker says that he is “taking the temperature of a discourse” when he organizes group shows. But his projects are unique in curatorial practice because he does so with an apparently egoless dedication to contemporary art and a conviction for examining uneasy truths.

Installation view, "Meanwhile, In Baghdad...," 2007. Foreground: Jonathan Monk, <em>Deadman</em> 2006. Courtesy of the artist, Casey Kaplan, New York, and Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe. Background: Maryam Jafri, "From the series “Siege of Khartoum”, 1884," 2006. Courtesy of the artist. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Photo: Tom van Eynde.

Walker also organizes parallel exhibition programming that takes advantage of The Society’s affiliation with the University of Chicago and its built-in audience that is loyal to formidable cultural events. Take for example the public curriculum accompanying Black Is, Black Ain’t. The exhibition kicked off with a conversation between the Menil Collection’s Frank Sirmans and Walker, two dynamic curators who are responsible for shaping critical and curatorial discourse on the sticky issues surrounding race in the visual arts. Lectures titled “Race: Effects and Intents,” “An all new CHA?,” “The Black Eclectic…Revisited,” and “From the Moynihan Report to Obama’s Candidacy” graced the following weeks of the exhibition as did poetry readings and panel discussions comprised of distinguished artists and art historians such as Kerry James Marshall, Tyehimba Jess, Darby English, and Kym Pinder.

These events are correlative to the exhibition and not didactic or explanatory, functioning in a manner similar to Walker’s pithy essays that accompany every exhibition and are only analogous to the selection and configuration of artwork. The concurrent programming allows the curator to keep the relationship between art and curatorial practice neat and uncompromised. As a consummate steward of artistic practice and a committed cultural critic, Walker takes on projects that are bigger than curators and art institutions but never bigger than art itself. This puts him at odds with the ranks of contemporary curators who, infatuated with their own imaginations, regularly employ art as props. It also distinguishes him from the curatorial tastemakers who trade exclusively in reputations and commercial appeal.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad… included work by Adel Abidin, Walead Beshty, Matt Davis, Kenneth Goldsmith, Daniel Heyman, Jenny Holzer, Maryam Jafri, Jannis Kounellis, Ann Messner and Jonathan Monk. Comprised of a smaller group of artists than the breathier Black Is, Black Ain’t, this show was more equivocal toward its political thesis. Here Walker selected artist’s who represent very different conceptual and stylistic tracts for navigating the thematics of war. This imbued the exhibition with a welcome additional drift–that of examining the inherent qualities of rigorous contemporary political art.

Adel Abidin, "Construction Site," 2006. Mixed media. Video screen: 26.25 x 19.5. Duration: 01’30 minutes. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view "Meanwhile, In Baghdad...," 2007. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Photo: Tom van Eynde.

The exhibition gets its title from Kenneth Goldsmith’s epic poem “The Weather.” At the opening reception, Goldsmith sat at an unadorned desk with a microphone in the corner of the Renaissance Society’s single-volume gallery reading from his poem. “The Weather” is culled from transcribing one-minute weather reports from an all-news radio station out of New York City for the course of one year—2003. In the spring of 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq. In response to the invasion the weathercasters presented their listening public with fifteen days of duel geographic weather updates: New York and Baghdad. “Battle field forecast: poor visibility.” “Sunshine and forty-four degrees in mid-town.” “Windstorms and sandstorms in the southern portion of the country.” “Favorable for military operations.” After the opening, the desk and microphone remained. A recording of Goldsmith’s poem played continuously, filling the exhibition space with the mundane backdrop of AM radio broadcasting. When pulled from their context and recited ceaselessly, Goldsmith’s appropriated one-minute weather reports evoke media perversions, brainwashing, and governmental propaganda. Yet “The Weather” in all of its political subtexts is foremost a poem. Its loyalties are directed at the vagaries of language.

Ann Messner’s offset tabloid was available free for gallery viewers. Displayed in boxes stacked high on a wooden palette, the black and white broadsheet anthologized professional dissenting voices published during the first three years of the war. Titled The Disasters of War (2005) it included photographs of flag draped coffins, soldiers with prosthetic legs, and iconic images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. It also included a full bibliography and links to websites. Like Goldsmith, Messner’s appropriation derived project compressed streams of public information. It was a collection of voices by powerful political dissenters yet, unlike Goldsmith’s poem, it was artless. Only its title kept it on the literary side of journalism. This is the only work in the show that sat awkwardly between artwork and artifact, political activism and political art.

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