DALLAS — At 37,000 square feet, the Dallas Contemporary (DC) is a leviathan when it comes to programming. Like premier art spaces across the developed world, its cavernous gut is a product of the Siamese twins of urban revitalization: post-industrialization and gentrification.
Back in the days when the main thoroughfare of the area was Industrial Blvd, the almost-football-field-sized space housed a metal fabrication and sprinkler factory. In 2009, city boosters changed the name of the street to Riverfront Blvd, and Joan Davidow, the DC’s former director, strategized an institutional move to the hip, new, almost dauntingly cavernous space. One year later, Peter Doroshenko, the former president and artistic director of the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, became the first director of the DC not from Texas or anywhere close to the region.
Goings-on at the DC have been at times transgressive and at others status quo for the city. Evolution in the local art world came in January 2015 with French artist Loris Gréaud’s destruction of his own art in the DC exhibition The Unplayed Notes Museum. The performance baffled local critics while opening minds to the fact that an artist might willfully ruin his beautiful objects to make a point about the pointlessness of classical beauty. At the same time, old habits die hard, with the inertia that is the DC’s ongoing penchant for substituting fashion for art, pandering to a city long presumed to be the dumb blond of the art world. To give credit where deserved, though, Dallas is something of a fashion micro-capital, with Neiman Marcus, JC Penney, Haggar, and the Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas. Perhaps more than placating, the DC challenges the public opinion of Dallas by using fashion as bait for serious intellectual encounters.
The photographs in SYNCHRODOGS’s Supernatural, curated by DC Assistant Curator Lilia Kudelia, do precisely that, lending depth to the shallows of a culture otherwise strictly beholden to the surface. The large glossy pictures of a beautiful sylph standing nude in craggy, barren landscapes of the American Southwest look tarted up by digital retouching, like the stuff of a fashion photo-shoot. But they are not: the artists don’t use Photoshop or any other digital retouching software in the making of these images. The duo behind SYNCHRODOGS — Ukrainians Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven — are masters of illusion, using their bodies, the earth, and banal materials like Band-Aids, light-reflecting tape, AstroTurf, and glitter as props within the sublime landscapes of the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend National Park, and Caddo Lake in East Texas. They recast Prometheus as a glitter-laden female nude balanced on the tip of a rock, reminiscent of the gilded Titan crowning the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center. A small constellation of lights floats around her smooth, be-glittered body as she stands between prehistoric rocks smoothed over by the coursing waters of deep evolutionary time.
The work in Supernatural is the product of an artist residency program sponsored by the DC. Shcheglova and Noven’s time in the United States literally rolled along as a four-month road trip. The DC flew the duo to the United States, rented them a car, and gave them a per diem to travel across the Southwest documenting their trip via surrealist-cum-fashion photography.
In addition to giving intellectual ballast to fashion, the SYNCHRODOGS contribute to the ever-expanding internationalization of the DC’s artist roster. Since Doroshenko’s arrival in 2010, and more recently Director of Exhibitions and Senior Curator Justine Ludwig’s in January 2015, the DC has become a beacon of worldly outwardness in Dallas, a welcome energy that is culturally and socially constructive for the region. Ludwig curated the video installations by Bani Abidi that make up An Unforeseen Situation and the many-headed multimedia work by Nadia Kaabi-Linke that constitute Walk the Line. While both live and make art in Berlin, Abidi is Pakistani and Kaabi-Linke is Tunisian by origin.
Abidi’s large, immersive multi-projector installation, “Funland (Karachi Series II),” recreates Karachi, the capital of the province of Sindh and the largest city in Pakistan, in cinematic sound and moving image. The installation is rich in color yet fractured in resonance and picture. Seven scrim-like rectangular screens hang from the ceiling, vertical and horizontal in orientation. A camel stands tall in dangling regalia, referencing traditions of mobility by mammal. Empty boxes sit stacked up on a beach with a red flag. Books are packed as a library is closed. A man walks through the rubble of a destroyed building. An unpeopled tilt-a-whirl whirls away, making whooshing mechanical sounds, at a desolate fair. Plastic stackable chairs sit next to the ocean, virtually empty with the exception of a single man.
The juxtaposition of geographies, architecture, and actions creates a broken, filmic landscape. Absorption into moving images here means entanglement into an abstraction of fragments. While abundant with noise and imagery (smell goes sadly missing), there is a poignant and beautiful vacancy at work in these videos. Unlike 19th-century stereographic photographs, which were intended, in Disney-like fashion, to import the full exoticism of the faraway through three-dimensionality, Abidi’s videos make the faraway real through absence, in order to fill you with the curiosity of despair, loss, and melancholy. Envelopment in moving images in this instance equates existential desolation.
With “An Unforeseen Situation,” a 25-minute video commissioned by the DC, Abidi takes a more linear and narrative-oriented tack than the videos of “Funland (Karachi Series II).” “An Unforeseen Situation” is an assemblage of bits based on true stories, Abidi’s fictional riffing on real events that teases out the machismo and patriotism emanating from state corruption. It opens onto the scene of a botched world record–making event in an arena that had been sponsored by the Punjab Ministry of Sports. Public workers stack and stow 150,000 empty plastic chairs, which were to be used for a mass gathering that had to be cancelled because the event manager screwed up. This storyline gives way to another about a man training to break a different world record: the most walnuts cracked by a person’s forehead in the shortest period of time. One perversion of aspiration gives way to another in Abidi’s clever and wry political commentary.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke makes work similarly based on memory, geography, and place, but using diaphanous materials. Situated in a large open space at the DC between Abidi’s moving images and the SYNCHRODOGS’ hyperreal photographs, Kaabi-Linke’s thread-, hair-, and language-based works, large anamorphic drawing of a bicycle, and painted triptych are refreshingly hands-on in orientation. Kaabi-Linke’s six projects, located in the front gallery, are light and precious in presentation but heavy-hitting in conceptual impact, as they deal with national borders, war ruins, and identity politics.
“Walk the Line,” the signature piece after which the installation was named, is a living work of art that grows over time. It is a performance piece in which members from the Dallas–Fort Worth community walk around two columns in the middle of the gallery, each day wrapping them with colored string the length of the border separating Texas and Mexico.
Curated by Pedro Alonzo, an adjunct curator at the DC, Adriana Varejão’s Kindred Spirits occupies the largest gallery of the DC, taking up roughly half of its 37,000 square feet. This giant open space is always a challenge to fill, and while Varejão’s paintings are immaculate, pristine, and, best of all, smart, they are somewhat dwarfed by the giant industrial grotto. They hang tight, sound, and stolid in the barren, open space.
Three forms of painting by the Brazilian artist Varejão make up this part of the greater exhibition. First, the eponymous Kindred Spirits is a series of 29 self-portraits based on a book about the influence of Native American art on modern Western painters. Second, the large circular Color Wheels are an investigation into Brazilian racial identity, with each sliver of color denoting a skin tone. And third, the Mimbres, truly a polyglot of cultural reference, are large square paintings with smoothly cracked earthen surfaces. The surfaces are based on the processes of 11th-century Song Dynasty pottery from China, while their patterned edges come from 11th-century Mimbres pottery of the American Southwest.
If there is one word to bring all of this together, it is heterogeneity. While heterogeneous in form, cultural reference, and concept, the four exhibitions at the center of the DC 2015 season openers stand together seamlessly. Divergence is the stuff of convergence; dissemblance is the connective tissue of semblance. In toto, it is a successful execution of illuminating difference within repetition — that is, preserving the individuation of each artist and body of work within the large plenum of space that is the DC. Nothing gets lost; all resonates. Ultimately, the problem is equally the solution: the very cavernousness with which the DC struggles also enhances these four disparate shows, giving each enough space to live and breath without a hint of crowding.
SYNCHRODOGS: Supernatural, Bani Abidi: An Unforeseen Situation, Nadia Kaabi-Linke: Walk the Line, and Adriana Varejão: Kindred Spirits continue at Dallas Contemporary (161 Glass Street, Dallas, Texas) until December 20.