The newest SITE Santa Fe biennial, The Dissolve, hit the city’s art scene in a string of previews, parties and performances last week. But the show itself proves that all this fuss is about more than the production of fuss. It’s also about the production of an all-video exhibition that still feels human.
The show is based on the emerging artistic practice of fusing “the handmade and the high-tech,” co-curators Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco say; technical wizardry takes a backseat to the visceral qualities of traditional mediums, such as films made from hundreds of painstakingly crafted paintings.
At least, that’s the idea. And most of the included artwork supports it. Just a few feet beyond the entrance, for instance, Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”—a masterwork of cut paper, and one of four historical works in the show—still dazzles 84 years later and drives home the point that so-called obsolete technologies often offer a richness that the newest varieties can lack.
But this is also a show that can’t help but highlight its own irony: The exhibition’s very existence hinges on spanking-new speaker technology, which makes it possible to have multiple audio channels going in a room at once, without the sounds blending into a cacophonous mess.
Similarly, the pieces that stand out most among the 26 contemporary works tend to deal with issues that relate to the strengths of the show’s thematic technology, the moving image, such as impermanence, perspective and limited visibility. Paul Chan’s “4th Light” elegantly handles all of the above in a single digital shot of a slowly shifting sunbeam cast through a window onto a wall; its shadow-play reveals both mundane and disturbing goings on outside. William Kentridge’s “History of the Main Complaint” looks at the harm one causes oneself when one commits violence against others. He uses “erasure,” an animation method in which portions of the same graphite drawing are erased and changed, to examine a way of coping with the wrongs of Apartheid.
The question of technology’s role gets even stickier in Bill T Jones and Openended Group’s new commission “After Ghostcatching,” a 3-D reworking of the 1999 2-D project “Ghostcatching.” Created by feeding information from sensors on Jones’ body into a computer to construct an image based on those points alone, the piece’s human core lies in Jones’ stellar dancing. But the colored lines that fall forward out of the screen, like the vines in Avatar’s fantastical forest, are what truly enthrall the viewer. Despite the curators’ assurances that this piece would “wow” more for the artistry of the body than for its thrilling presentation, the experience is exactly the opposite. The fact is, 3-D is still too new not to grab us simply for being what it is: cool.
In one sense, the decision to commission a piece that highlights a newly perfected technological advancement seems contrary to the show’s purported purpose. But a choice that so emphatically leaps into the future (and takes us with it) also makes the point that, in another decade, the coolness of 3-D will be standard enough to recede like the technology in the rest of this show. In this way, The Dissolve is so prescient it almost gets ahead of itself.
With its title taken from the cinematic term for a fade-out, and appearing at a time when biennials are losing their distinction and maybe their relevance,
could say a lot about the state of the biennial in general. Having proliferated and overlapped so much that its original role has somewhat dissolved, what purpose can the biennial serve in today’s world?
“Biennials are over,” outgoing SITE Santa Fe Director Laura Steward tells SFR. “They’re played out as a form.”
Yet her own final production seems to contradict her. A show as cohesive, timely, global and loaded with knock-out artworks as The Dissolve might be just what’s needed to breathe new life into this cast-off form.