On a screening of the PBS Art 21 Series on American contemporary art

Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore, 5 September 2004

ART 21, an eight-hour television series about contemporary American art in the 21st century, produced by PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, aprivate, non profit corporation comprising of America’s public television stations), was recently screened at the Chitrakala Parishath (CKP), by a group called ART (Art history,Resources and Teaching) in collaboration with the Department of Art History of the College of Fine Art at CKP .

With its focus on living and working artists with a range of themes and in different places, this series was a great insight into today’s world of visual art. Diverse in their media, themes, practices and inspiration, the featured works of the 16 artists had one common factor – the underlying complex and philosophical themes. The four themes for four seasons of the show were stories, loss and desire, humour and identity. Most work embodied a complexity of meaning and interpretation, but these were complex artists living in complex times.

The whole series – Art 21 – consisted of footage of the artists showing and speaking about their work, their philosophy of art, and the many things that art was to them. Some showed them working while most other parts were shot at their homes, galleries and other spaces they frequented. The films were engaging and intimate. In this sense the series made full use of the pedagogic potential of the television documentary.

Each programme began with an introduction by a famous arts personality to the theme of the segment.

Created by Charles Atlas, a film-maker and video artist, the openings featured film-maker John Waters, actress Jane Alexander, comedian Margaret Cho and dancer Merce Cunningham.The first part of season-one with the theme of stories featured Kara Walker,Kiki Smith, Do-Ho Suh and Trenton Doyle Hancock, with all of them using narratives in some way or the other.

Kara Walker’s work speaks of racism and gender in stories like ‘Gone with the Wind’. Her work comprises of tableaux with cutout silhouettes of characters in traditional tales involving African-American slaves and their masters.

Kiki Smith makes sculptures about the body and myths around it. Intrigued by witches, saints and catholic tales, she manipulates their traditional meanings in her work.

Do-Ho-Suh’s work is about issues of the individual and the collective. In several of his floor sculptures, viewers are encouraged to walk on surfaces composed of thousands of miniature human figures. In Some/One, the floor of the gallery was blanketed with a sea of polished military dog tags.Evocative of an individual soldier as part of a larger troop or military body, these tags swell to form a hollow,ghost-like suit of armour in the center of the room.

Trenton Doyle Hancock paints about the interactions between the comic characters  he creates, between mounds which are plant or human mutants, characters like Torpedo Boy which he claims to be his alter ego, another character called ‘the painter’ and so on .

The second theme called ‘Loss and Desire’ featured Collier Schorr, Gabriel Orozco, and Janine Antoni. Schorr works mainly in photography, but in ways that sometimes play on conventional views about the subjects she chooses. In her 2001-project ‘Forests and Fields’ , she dressed up young men in many different army uniforms and has them pose as soldiers in a mock battle. The pictures are shot to depict bravery, but these men are not real soldiers, so what does that say about both bravery and the uniform?

Gabriel Orozsco, one of the featured artists, is someone who on the surface manipulates games and objects, but all his work is deeply thought out  in terms of philosophy and relationships of object, man and nature. Janine Antoni makes sculpture and performance art, and sometimes both. In a work called ‘Lick and Lather’ she made busts of her portrait in chocolate and soap, and then videotaped her washing the soap figure and licking the chocolate bust. She was thus symbolically washing herself with herself and licking herself with herself.

The series was followed by a discussion by ART’s founding art historian, Annapoorna Garimella, Suresh Jayaram, artist and reader at the Art History department of CKP, and Vasanthi Das, film historian and visiting scholar at the department. During the discussion, a need for collecting and archiving art from places that don’t get spoken about, like the third world, emerged. A member in the audience also felt that Indian artists did not have the right platform to communicate their art to people.

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