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Is this a joke? "9 Artists" at the Walker aims to provoke

Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2012
Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2012
Image courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam

If you go to see "9 Artists," the international group exhibition at the Walker Art Center curated by Bartholomew Ryan, there may be a few moments when you say to yourself, "Was that supposed to be some sort of joke?" In a number of cases the answer will be, "No, it wasn't a joke. The artist was being absolutely serious." But not always.

There is some vastly outlandish work in the show, and some of it is certainly provocative; sometimes wonderful, sometimes horribly wrong, but always very out there. 


From 'The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin' 2013, by Bjarne Melgaard 
From 'The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin' 2013, by Bjarne Melgaard 

One of the most bizarre rooms features the work of expressionist artist Bjarne Melgaard. In this installation, he presents a series of photographs by Johannes Worsoe, called The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin, capturing Melgaard's comings and goings in his studio, around town, and with various people. The photographs act as a kind of mock documentary, except it really depicts Melgaard's life. However, it does so in a way that pokes fun at the idea of celebrity and reality television.

The photo series offers glimpses of Melgaard's paintings, as well as his day to day life. But the one photograph that really stands out amongst all of it captures a piece of work created by Melgaard's lover, Omar Harvey. It depicts an image of a gun with words in white painted on top (see above). The image is extremely shocking, as is the use of the taboo term -- especially if you don't realize that it's not a creation by Melgaard, a white Norwegian-born man. The exhibit as a whole includes numerous collaborations between the selected artists and their various collaborators. In the case of Harvey's piece, it almost needs more examples of his work in order for it to provide enough context for such a jarring image. 

Bjarne Melgaard, 'The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin' (detail) 2013
Bjarne Melgaard, 'The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin' (detail) 2013
Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

In the center of the same room, there's a video Melgaard made in collaboration with Marie Kalberg that includes flashes of many of the photographs shown on the wall. There's also a jolting scene of a group of people, including the artist and a young woman, rolling around on the ground in drunken desperation. Like the photo series, it's unclear if the video is supposed to be satirical or not. 

'David (He doesn't turn to see her)' 1999 by Liam Gillick
'David (He doesn't turn to see her)' 1999 by Liam Gillick

A few of Melgaard's drawings of the Pink Panther hang in a separate room, along with little sayings, such as "Study for Depressed Pink Panther." In the same room there's Liam Gillick's David (He doesn't turn to see her), which is an oversized Bloody Mary, as well as an installation by Renzo Martens called On the Institute for Human Activities, which features photographs, a mission statement of sorts, and a lecture Martens gave at the Walker Art Center about his work in the Congo. 

Martens is another artist in the show who you might think at first is kidding. Really? Gentrification as the end goal? You think artists should go to third-world countries and somehow improve their circumstances through art? It's colonialist to say the least: Richard Florida, the godfather of the creative class concept gone global. His recorded lecture that he did at the museum could be a satire of Ted Talks -- if it weren't serious. 

Other artists featured in the show are more deliberately satirical. In Nástio Mosquito's video Nástia Answers Gabi, the artist takes on a goofy persona, complete with a Russian accent, to deliver a stream of ridiculous philosophical musings. Hito Steyerl's brilliantly funny video How not to be seen. A fucking didactic educational.MOV file, meditates on the struggle to remain human in the digital age, complete with hilarious graphics and physicality. Yael Bartana's masterpiece three-video installation, and Europe will be Stunned, poses questions about Israel's history and current military role in the global world, presenting a series of films about a fictional uprising of Polish Jews who go back to Poland to reclaim their homeland. 

Nástio Mosquito, 'Nástia Answers Gabi,' 2010
Nástio Mosquito, 'Nástia Answers Gabi,' 2010
Image courtesy DZZZZ ArtWork

And then there's Danh Vo's I M U U R 2, an expansive knickknack shelf full of Disney paraphernalia, Asian figurines, blackface collectibles, and other random stuff all taken from the personal archive of Lower East Side painter Martin Wong. Like some of the artists featured, Vo's installation acts as a collaboration between himself and Wong, who collected this items during his lifetime. The collection says a lot about what Wong was intrigued by, and Vo's homage to him paints a portrait via the things he left behind. The blackface collectibles certainly are troubling, and they call into question the responsibility of the artist (Vo) when exhibiting pieces once owned of another person. Does Vo get a pass for presenting these racist images because they are not his own, especially when the person they belonged to is no longer alive to have a say in the matter? 

If nothing else, the work curated by Bartholomew Ryan in "9 Artists" brings up a lot of questions. It's not the kind of exhibit you can just breeze through. It's probably going to infuriate or offend some people. However, you probably will be thinking about for quite a while afterwards. 

IF YOU GO:
"9 Artists"
Through February 16, 2014
Walker Art Center

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