The End of Knowledge

With varying degrees of effectiveness, what’s offered in the exhibition “The Sorcerer’s Burden”, at the Contemporary Austin, speaks to art-as-research


The Contemporary Austin’s latest show, “The Sorcerer’s Burden: Contemporary Art and the Anthropological Turn,” is a sprawling and ambitious investigation of colonialism, race, appropriation, identity, and — as its title suggests — what it means to be a human among humans. Spread across the gallery’s two sites (the downtown Jones Center and its outdoor sculpture park at Laguna Gloria), the exhibit, curated by the Contemporary’s Heather Pesanti, includes sculpture, painting, film and animation, photography, and site-specific installation from 11 artists, including several new commissions.

The “anthropological turn” can be characterized as the gradual incorporation of techniques from anthropology or ethnography — particularly fieldwork — into contemporary art practices. As curator Pesanti notes in her essay “Being There,” the art world’s co-opting of hands-on research methodologies points to the desire for “a perceived aura of authenticity, the ability to use anthropology’s methods without rules, a desire to break out of the white cube gallery space, and an interest in social practice.”

To that end, “The Sorcerer’s Burden” speaks to artmaking as a distinct form of knowledge production, its discoveries — subjective though they may be — as legitimate as those in any other soft (or hard) science. When placed in conversation with each other, this is the question the exhibit’s artworks ask, with sundry and sometimes contradictory answers: knowledge production to what end?

With varying degrees of effectiveness, some of what’s offered in “The Sorcerer’s Burden” speaks to art-as-research.

Nathan Mabry’s sculpture in “The Sorcerer’s Burden: Contemporary Art and the Anthropological Turn,”  Artwork © Nathan Mabry. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Colin Doyle.

Colorado-born artist Nathan Mabry’s work — the viewer’s entrée into the exhibition —combines appropriated figures with modernist staging. The sculptures are culled from two series: “u.n.t.i.t.l.e.d.,” comprising bronze replicas of West African Sande Society masks on colorful suspended stainless-steel platforms, and “T/O/T/E/M,” comprising animal-shaped terra-cotta vessels on minimalist plywood plinths. Both of these series encompass a mash-up, pastiche aesthetic, echoed in the artist’s 2013 interview with BOMB:

“Basically, I have always been interested in dualities, dichotomies, and juxtapositions. This had led me to explore aesthetic combinations of visual tropes, sociological values, and diverse cultural material. I first investigated the ‘authorized’ Minimal object in conversation with the ‘anonymous’ ethnographic iconography a few years ago. These objects in unison exemplify the perfect debate involving aesthetics, philosophy, and psychology.”

If these sculptures exemplify a debate, neither side seems to be interested in giving the other the benefit of the doubt. Their juxtapositions rely too heavily on black-and-white contrasts for that. Instead, they seem to operate on the simple principle that two different things placed near each other will automatically generate resonances and, to put it bluntly, generate meaning — they “make sense,” literally (and paradoxically).

Such a logic of pure association threatens to trap Mabry’s sculptures in the most obvious dichotomies — ancient or modern, fluid or rigid, patinated or pristine, and so on— rather than transcend them.

The wall text tells us that “the replication of existing forms is intended to both honor and critique them.” What exactly is being honored or critiqued, though, is less obvious, as the sculptures’ ethnographic iconography is neither awarded the rehabilitative context of an anthropological museum exhibition (which serves to illuminate the often-lost histories of ancient, neglected, oppressed, or otherwise marginalized cultures). Nor is it filtered through a critical mechanism that situates them anew other than by re-iterating the appropriation they’ve already suffered.

The ethnographic artifacts are positioned prominently, to be sure, but their display atop plinths arranged stylishy orthogonal to the gallery walls suggests less of a challenge to existing hierarchies than a high-end department store. The platforms themselves only seem to underscore this: “T/O/T/E/M’s” plywood plinths evoke Donald Judd’s minimalist forms, but without his finely machined surfaces. Instead, they have a hyperefficient tiny-home, assemble-it-yourself aesthetic, especially alongside the prominent nuts-and-bolts of “u.n.t.i.t.l.e.d.’s” primary-color-block structures.

If the viewer is tasked with approaching cultural appropriation as a foundation for “ethical inquiry” (as the wall text says), the art must do more than enact this appropriation via juxtaposition that points fingers — or, more troublingly, winks.

Mabry’s sculptures do highlight contrasts between the ethnographic artifact and modernist tropes, while simultaneously underlining their surface similarity with each other (these are all made objects, after all). But if these sculptures’ thing-ness is at their core, then what of the artist’s engagement with the actual materials they’re made of? From where was the bronze, stainless steel, and terra cotta gathered? Where was it assembled? What resources went into mining these materials, and who was responsible for that labor? What do the colors represent, beyond a nod to the modernists’ love for primaries?

The sorcery of contemporary art is, I think, its ability to hold the weight of such questions. However — at least in their context in this exhibit — Mabry’s sculptures seem to collapse under them, leaving me to content myself with their admittedly beautiful surfaces.

In contrast with Mabry’s work, Canadian-born artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s “Flowers for Africa: Ivory Coast” (2015) engages much more deeply with its materials. On its surface, this work is simple: an ornate flower arrangement, set atop a white podium, that wilts throughout the duration of the exhibit. But each flower arrangement is also a historical document (and a document of the labor of researching and resurfacing history), its appearance re-created from arrangements seen in archival photographs of “defining moments of independence in African countries.”

Even without a viewer delving into the history of the Ivory Coast, the work touches on the role of care in establishing and maintaining political sovereignty: The arrangement’s decay is a kind of warning canary for what happens when such maintenance is neglected. As replications of historic artifacts, the flowers here also perform a role for visitors similar to that of wax figures of politicians or recreations of the living quarters of oppressed peoples, positioning reenactment a global form of appropriation-as-homage. Finally, Africa: Ivory Coast” gives a nod to notions of duration: in gazing at the flowers, one witnesses a sculpture that is also an ongoing event.

Like Mabry’s work, Kiwanga’s seems to give a nod to modernist tropes (e.g. Kiwanga hires florists to construct the actual floral arrangements, à la Warhol’s Factory). Still, it doesn’t get bogged down in these conventions or treat them with an ironic distance. Instead they serve mostly to ground it as a firmly contemporary work, with one foot in the present and one in the past.

Three prints from California-born artist Ruben Ochoa’s series of photographs of deteriorating Los Angeles sidewalks also brilliantly exploit this dynamic between an artwork’s ability to simultaneously embody (in itself) and provoke (in the viewer) investigation.

My favorite, “Kissed in the 90011” (2007), is a tightly framed shot of tree roots bulging through a crumbling sidewalk. A red stripe has been painted on the curb, and the red paint overflows the curb itself, running over onto the elevated tree roots in a hard-edged red line. Without ever telling the viewer how to feel, the gesture exemplifies the social and emotional toll of the manifold ways in which cities — through municipal neglect, through gentrification, through literal redlining — dictate who is allowed to be where and whose presence is privileged.

The weight of the physical objects present in Ochoa’s photographs seems to physically weigh them down. Their heavy, wide-set wooden frames are set low to the ground, positioning the viewer in the gallery at the same level as they would be witnessing these sidewalks while walking down the street as Ochoa did. The artist’s rust-on-linen paintings are also gorgeous, particularly in conversation with Kiwanga’s flowers — both of them draw from unexpected social domains to make a statement about both society and the materials out of which it’s made.

San Antonio artist Dario Robleto’s film “The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed,” commissioned this year by The Contemporary Austin, is an ultra-wide-screen meditation on the human heart. It begins with an intimate, autobiographical view on the subject (Robleto feeling his grandmother’s fading pulse on her deathbed) and broadens into a treatise that enfolds scientific measurement, medical history, and the cosmos. Throughout, Robleto’s voiceover narration offers alternately objective and subjective information, a dynamic echoed by the visuals, many of which are culled from archival footage and photography.

But it’s this interplay between science and speculation, between history and the interpretation of history, that offers a view into what happens when art-as-anthropology becomes too didactic.

“The Boundary” is at its strongest when adopting an essentially educational role for the viewer, elucidating the saga of various researchers’ attempts to capture and visualize the human heartbeat, from 1853 (when the first pulse was recorded) to the present day (when artificial, beatless hearts are the latest offering in medical replacements for the organ). As with any expert speaking passionately on the subject of their obsession, it’s fascinating and pleasurable to learn of the struggles to, for example, record a human fetal heartbeat (the first successful attempt involves a human-sized vice, a soap bubble, and a glass thread formed by shooting molten glass across a laboratory with a bow-and-arrow). And it’s interesting to hear the story of how Ann Druyan’s heartbeat, as she meditated on her love for Carl Sagan, ended up etched onto the Golden Record and preserved indefinitely in the far reaches of space.

But despite this exciting history, the film left me cold, largely due to Robleto’s own subjective interventions. The artist consistently intervenes to tell the viewer how to feel. Each new discovery is “poignant.” His grandmother’s heartbeat has “a rhythm of finality.” Research is summarized with the phrase “love as immutable mystery.” And facts about artificial hearts are met with a rather reductive (and a little ableist) rhetorical question about “the poetic price of a beatless heart”.

Robleto doesn’t interpret his own film for us. But by interpreting all of the research in it, it ceases to become art-as-research and starts to become art-in-response-to-research, leaving little room for the viewer’s own responses—emotional, intellectual, or otherwise. A subject as well-worn as the human heart, with all its oft-evoked metaphorical resonances, demands a light touch. Robleto’s commentary, though, often relies on cliché — the heart’s association with love, love’s association with the eternal, the eternal’s association with death, and so on — and as a result it fails to intrigue and ends up mired in melodrama and sentimentality (the presentation of feeling without its evocation).

In this didacticism, Robleto’s film is in clear contrast to the other video installations in the exhibit, particularly Theo Eshetu’s “Adieu Les Demoiselles” (2019), which appropriates Picasso’s famously-appropriative “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which in turn quotes from both ancient Iberian and African figures.

Theo Eshetu, “Adieu Les Demoiselles” (still), 2019. Single-channel HD video, color, sound. Running time: 8:45, looped. Commissioned by The Contemporary Austin. installation view, “The Sorcerer’s Burden: Contemporary Art and the Anthropological Turn,” The Contemporary Austin, Austin, Texas, 2019. Artwork © Theo Eshetu. Courtesy the artist and Axis Gallery, New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Colin Doyle.

“Adieu Les Demoiselles” employs performers and projections to reinvent Picasso’s painting in a series of slow-choreographed tableaux. Here, replication truly does “both honor and critique,” and the result is both ethically complex and aesthetically transfixing. Eshetu plays with (mis)alignment, movement and stillness, color and form, and all the many historical connotations of the nude. As Eshetu remarks in an essay accompanying the exhibition: “Within the story of my African heritage as an artist of the African diaspora, it’s great that I can take from Picasso in the way that he has taken from African cultures in a productive way, and continue the conversation.” (I highly recommend the catalog—a work of art in itself—for its in-depth exploration of the exhibition’s themes and its wealth of related materials.)

Ed Atkins’ “Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop” (2012) and Nuotama Bodomo’s “Boneshaker” (2013) and “Afronauts” (2014) are just as compelling as Eshetu’s work. But unfortunately these three films are situated in two rooms separated only by a pair of curtains, and the resulting audio bleed makes Atkins’ narration (voiced in a purposely blasé way) barely intelligible at times as Bodomo’s score plays. The subtlety and stillness in Bodomo’s films likewise suffers from the intrusion of Atkins’ sound effects.

“The Sorcerer’s Burden” is likely to have something for everyone — this review doesn’t even touch on the majority of works on offer. The exhibit is also, for this viewer, a lesson in the capital-P Purpose of art-as-research. It is not enough for a work to indicate that an investigation has been undertaken, or even to reproduce that investigation for the viewer. It should also provoke independent, spontaneous investigation on the viewer’s part.

I realize that this is a rather normative and prescriptive demand. But I also know that it’s precisely this irresistible call to explore, to ask questions, and to wrestle with their materials that will make works like Kiwanga’s, Eshetu’s, and Ochoa’s stick with me. I’m still figuring it out.

“The Sorcerer’s Burden: Contemporary Art and the Anthropological Turn” continues through Feb. 2, 2020 at The Contemporary Austin. 

Annelyse Gelman
Annelyse Gelman
Annelyse Gelman is a writer and artist currently based in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, TriQuarterly, The Iowa Review, the PEN Poetry Series, The Awl, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone (2014).

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