It must be hard to fill a space like the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. With its high ceilings and panels of light-filled windows, any hanging art is sure to be dwarfed by the height of the bright white walls. Photographs and delicate watercolors don't quite fill the room, nor do videos projected onto walls, ephemeral and fleeting. But for those who feel art is too self-conscious and too self-centered, Parsons' current group exhibition in the Center, The Storyteller (through April 9), is the appropriate reply. While the objects are small in size, they are massive in scope, telling and retelling stories from almost every corner of the modern world. Though the space appears empty at first glance, the air is abuzz with sound and light, and the placards on the wall are full to bursting with text. The Storyteller rewards the patient viewer with art that has a story, a voice, and most importantly, a conscience.
The Storyteller presents works that are a refreshing break from art for art's sake; it is art as documentary, and it takes on some of the most harrowing events of our time. Canadian artist Emanuel Licha takes the viewer on a video tour of impoverished suburban Paris as part of his "War Tourist" series (below). Licha enlisted a Parisian man as a guide while he recorded the sites of the 2005 riots. Licha remains purposefully cold and indifferent behind the camera as his guide sputters in broken English, desperate to elicit a reaction from him. It is a brutal yet effective way to convey the distance wedged between the viewer and the rest of the world. Whether self-imposed or not, Licha makes that distance tangible and painfully real. Steve Mumford's "Iraq Series" (2003-2005, at bottom) is a series of documentary watercolors lining the back wall of the space. Painted while he followed the U.S. army during the beginning of the Iraqi conflict, his medium is unlikely, yet offers a graceful and thoughtful alternative to the immediacy of photojournalism. As Mumford writes in his artist's statement, "Making a drawing is about lingering with a place and editing the scene in a wholly subjective way." Michael Rakowitz's "Return 2006 and Ongoing" is a multi-media project chronicling his attempt to import Iraqi dates into the United States. Utilizing text, photographs, and found objects, Rakowitz tells the story of the bureaucratic nightmare that plagued his fruit as he sought to bring it from a small farm in Iraq to a Brooklyn storefront.
Cao Fei, an artist represented last year at the New Museum's first triennial, tells a three chapter fairytale in the unlikeliest of places: a light bulb factory in Guangzhou, China. "Whose Utopia" (2006, at top) is a film that follows the life cycle of a household light bulb, a process that takes place completely independent of human hands nearly from start to finish. The employees gaze steadily into Fei's camera while performing the most mundane, dehumanizing tasks (sorting through tiny piles of filaments, assembling packaging, wrapping boxes, etc.) before acting out their real ambitions that the viewer would otherwise never have known; a woman dances en pointe in a warehouse and a young man strums a guitar on the workroom floor. The film's title echoes with every solemn stare of Fei's subjects, forcing the post-industrial viewer to answer truthfully that uncomfortable but necessary question.
Given the wide array of media, The Storyteller isn't easy. The majority of the works rely heavily on video and the few that don't lean on a lot of text. It's an exhibition that demands things of viewer: time, attention and a healthy amount of knowledge of the world. It can feel endless and overwhelming, but that only makes it a more accurate representation of the world that we inhabit. In the tradition of artists like Louise Lawler and Daniel Buren, the works go far beyond ornamentation or concept. The Storyteller offers viewers art as provocation, art that is relevant to the world in which it exists.
(photo credits: Cao Fei, Emanuel Licha, Steve Mumford)