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SANTA FE — Unsettled Landscapes, the first installment of SITElines, SITE Santa Fe’s reimagined model for how biennials are conceived, curated, and structured, is a conglomeration of art from the Americas. The exhibition is quite large, featuring 40 artists from 15 different countries and spanning three generations. Winding through the installation at SITE’s expansive location, you are met with an abundance of visual and auditory stimulation — all well and good, but what is absent is a clear indication of where to go, what story the curators are trying to tell, and where you belong in relation to that story; the arc of the show is fractured. While there’s clearly a defined thesis for the exhibition in all the associated language — one that promises to inspect the chosen art through the narrative veins of landscape as genre, landscape as territory, and landscape as trade — the execution of that thesis is not clearly visible in the galleries. A few pieces stand out with resonance and gravitas, but many more get lost in the muddled curation and lack of cohesion.
Among the highlights, the majority of which are moving-image works, is the experimental documentary piece “Fordlandia,” by British-born, Mexico City–based artist Melanie Smith. The film takes up the story of Ford Motor Company’s attempt to construct a factory town in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in the 1920s. At the time, Henry Ford envisioned a company town that would be the world’s largest producer of rubber, but it was a complete failure, due in part to Ford’s lack of skill in navigating the native landscape and cultures of the region. “Fordlandia” is installed in a large gallery room with a lush, dark carpet and lawn chairs; you enter around a corner, making your way in the dark. Once inside, the feeling of inhabiting a rainforest is palpable; the auditory ambience of the film, in combination with the darkness of the room, create a sense of being transported from the desert of New Mexico to the rainforest of South America. The video is poignant, devoid of narration or any direct dialogue with the viewer. Yet in its invocation of colonialism, the decay of a failed Western construct, it silently implicates the sitter.
Canadian artist Charles Stankievech’s “The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond” also operates successfully in the context of the show’s curatorial premise. Probably the most evocative, haunting, and unsettling piece in the biennial, “The Soniferous Æther” is a 35mm immersive film installation set up in two rooms, an antechamber and a main gallery room. In the former, you encounter a 35mm projector scrolling through the film reel, projecting its images through a rectangular hole cut in the wall. Walking around the corner, you pass through a white curtain that stretches from floor to ceiling, and instantly you’re transported: the floor below you is white, textured, and feels and sounds like stepping on packed snow. A bank of white benches invites you to sit and watch the film, about the ALERT Signals Intelligence Station, “the northernmost continually inhabited settlement on Earth.” The piece illustrates the isolated and almost alien environment of the terrain and the absurd way that man tries to tame and inhabit such a hostile natural landscape.
Pioneer of video art Juan Downey has a large chunk of real estate in Unsettled Landscapes. His work Video Trans America is a documentary-style, 14-channel film series exhibited on vintage television monitors, which are arranged on the outline of a map. The films were shot by Downey between 1973 and 1976, when he made three trips from New York to Texas and then zigzagged through Central and South America.Video Trans America represents a kind of observational anthropology, looking at the inhabitants of each location with respect and reverence, the artist trying not to superimpose his own ideas and ideologies on their lives. Part art, part political and cultural activism, the piece asks the viewer to consider different points of view from different regions of the globe.
These three works stand out for their clear and inextricable links to the stated curatorial framework of Unsettled Landscapes. Yet overall the show lacks critical engagement with the concepts the curators promise to address. The addition of some wall text expounding on the ideas would have gone a long way towards creating a stronger foundation. As envisioned, SITElines is a multiyear commitment to biennials that take up a continuous narrative; hopefully the next iteration will be more successful.
Unsettled Landscapes continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 11, 2015.
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