Curated by Rosa Martinez
SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico
3rd International Biennial
July 10 - December 31, 1999

Partial Review and Commentary by bob schweitzer

"Looking for a Place, " curated by Rosa Martinez, is SITE Santa Fe's third international biennial. Before discussing this particualar exhibition I would like to comment on the emergence of art biennials in "the periphery," and the attempt to place Santa Fe into this discourse.

During numerous interviews with Rosa Martinez leading up to the opening of "Looking for a Place," as well as during the panel discussion (1) which took place during the opening weekend of the exhibition, reference had been made to the significance and meaning of biennials now taking place in such areas as Havana, Istanbul and Johannesburg in a manner that would include SITE Santa Fe in this discourse. This attempted association is on the surface ludicrous and more fundamentally represents a profound disservice to the intent of the other biennials mentioned. The only possible ways in which these four biennials may be considered "similar" is that they tend to include a number of the same artists (in part due to the occasional shared curators, for instance, Martinez was the curator for the biennial in Istanbul two years ago), and that they do not approach biennials using a format of profiling "national exhibitions" which has been the tradition for the long established biennials, such as Venice, and even Sao Paulo. Other than this, the social, political, and cultural dynamics of Santa Fe and the origins of SITE Santa Fe have very little to do with Havana, Istanbul or Johannesburg. Santa Fe is a very rich city with a great deal of new money accompanying those who have recently moved into the surrounding countryside, mostly arriving from the West coast (especially California). SITE Santa Fe clearly did not emerge from the reality of strong and long standing ethnic tensions, nor from the indigenous communities, or latino communities. SITE Santa Fe and it's biennials in particular are more the result of money attempting to draw attention to itself, albeit, in a most magnificent physical setting - the city of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe, attempting to assert itself as an emerging arts center, does not in any significant or meaningful way expand the dialogue regarding the dominance and power associated with the metropolitan centers of NYC or Paris.

"Looking for a Place" is essentially a "portable biennial," it could just as easily have taken place in Denver or Des Moines. It's "meaning" would not be noticeably different, enlarged, or raise additional significant issues in either location, in contrast to the very nature of "place," and the critical issues raised through the biennials in Havana, Istanbul or Johannesburg. [I expect to cover this issue further in a future essay.]

Having said this I would like now to consider the merits of "Looking for a Place" more as a straight forward exhibition and less as a biennial.

The thematic rational for this exhibition is intended to be considered and experienced in a very broad sense, seeking to expand our relationship to the idea of "place." Given the curator's selection of the artists and the works presented, the exhibition clearly has positioned itself in an open field of interpretation. Works by Shirin Neshart, Gabriel Orozco, Charlene Teters, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Greenpeace may be the most accessible for the visitor in terms of a more conventional notion of place recognized through referential images or objects, while the works by artists such as Lygia Clark, Carsten Holler, and Janine Antoni may prove to be more challenging and problematic.

Shirin Neshart's film, which had been exhibited in NYC at D'Amelio Terras Gallery in Chelsea just prior to the opening of "Looking... ," is an emotionally charged, and riveting visual examination of issues pertaining to gender, ritual and everyday life in a Moslem "place." The broad sweep of the camera over the landscape is drawn back to the faces of the men and women who appear on separate screens, face to face... we must move in the mid-ground between the two, choosing back and forth between the images in our view, and our stance - physical and other.

Gabriel Orozco's film recounts the camera's eye as it moves in a somewhat random path through Amsterdam, staying with the passing of one leaf as it floats through the air, the motion of the water in the canals, the constant shifting of scenes, individuals passing by, each frame "taking note," recording as a document the mundane... in some measure seeming to besto it with a sense of purpose or significance.

Charlene Teter's obelisk memorial in front of the State Building makes direct reference to the monument in the Plaza in Santa Fe where the word "savage" has been recently removed from the inscription which formerly read: to "the heroes who died in various battles with savage Indians." Her work takes the idea of "heroes" and places it closer to the experience of the oppressed and the "everyperson."

Another work installed in the museum*, "Picnic: The Golden Age with Mosquitoes" by Sergio Vega, builds on historic accounts of contact with the unfamiliar, imagined existences, and actual memory of a place to produce a work which is both outwardly compelling and personal, a work which at the same time enables the visitor entrance on their own terms. The diorama component to this this work incorporates numerous art references which on one hand provides a moment of humor, while at the same time reveals the long standing notion (or image, as in imagination) of "the other" or the "exotic" in western culture and life.

The work of Francisco Ruiz de Infante, within the bowels of SITE Santa Fe, brings us in direct contact with the physical reality of the structure in which most of the works were exhibited, it's "breathing" air ducts and it's frame; while the work by Carl Michael von Hausswolff uses audio communication devices to bring the sound of one specific place outside the museum into a small back gallery (hallway) within the museum. Both works clearly play off a very Cagian concept of experience and place.

Along with additional installations by Louise Bourgeois, Pipilotti Rist, and Mona Hatoum, familiar artists to the international art scene, was an installation by Tania Bruguera, a young Cuban artist. Tania also presented a performance piece during the opening weekend. In the very dim lit gallery space, Tania moved in a slow, repetitive, ritualistic manner, to rub animal fat between her hands and over her body. [I will be writing a more extended essay on Tania's work in the near future. I have know Tania for a number of years, first meeting her when she was a art student in Havana in 1989, during the 3rd Havana Bienal.]

Rosa Martinez stated from the outset that she wanted to extend the experience and presence of works beyond the confines of the museum during this biennial. Works were scheduled for installation at a number of "off-sites," including the Santa Fe Budget Inn, the Railway Station, the State Capitol Building (mentioned above), a municipal parking garage, the Los Alamos Airport, billboards along Interstate-25, Our Lady of Guadalupe Cemetery and the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Certain works had a very short existence, such as the installation by Yolanda Gutierrez at San Ildefonso Pueblo (lasting about one day), and the "light" work by Carl Michael von Hausswolff, which was to take place evenings in the Cemetery was also called into question by the church. While the work by Charlene Teters mentioned above and the installation by Dr. Galentin Gatev in the Sandoval Municipal Parking Garage were very "present" and effective.

It is interesting to note that Rosa Martinez seemed to make much of the "newness" to the concept of the off-site installations - clearly there is little new here, though they were certainly a significant component of the overall exhibition. (Since the exhibition space within SITE Santa Fe is quite limited, the installation of works at off-site locations was also a practical response to this reality.)

(1) Panel discussion "Who's Afraid of Biennials?" took place on Sunday, July 11th, and was open to the public. Participants included Rosa Martinez, Okwui Enwezor (Artistic Director, Documenta XI) and Harald Szeeman (Artistic Director, 48th Venice Biennale).

* SITE Santa Fe is essentially an exhibition space and not a traditional museum with a permanent collection, hence the use of the term museum is somewhat problematic.