If SITE Santa Fe’s last biennial lived up to its premise of demonstrating “still points on a turning world,” its new biennial is more like a churning world lumped into a singular point. There are works that sit in roomy silence at off site locations, but at SITE the experience of the biennial is a clashing, labyrinthine carnival of sound, imagery and cultural dissonance.
In contrast to curator Lance Fung’s frequently elegant statements on collaboration and the community, the manifestation of his ideas is a messy barrage of elements, as likely to combat as to complement each other; it is ultimately of questionable use or value to the community and its assertions that it might be valuable borders on recklessness. It also happens to be delightful and very likely the best biennial Santa Fe has hosted.
Lucky Number Seven does not have the gravitas and presence of Klaus Ottmann’s Still Points, the catchy scholarship of Rob Storr’s Grotesque or the hip fluidity of Dave Hickey’s Beau Monde. Instead, it oozes with a lack of control, reflecting itself as a tenuous string of projects that only barely came together and were piled into a nearly overwhelming exhibition design by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.
People close to the project will laugh at the idea of a “lack of control.” Despite working with a global cast of curators to identify artists largely unknown on the international stage, and subsequently suggesting that the artists could do anything they pleased, including nothing at all, Fung is something of a self-acknowledged control freak. SITE Santa Fe has its own tendencies toward control and artists, of course, are not big on being pushed around. So, in a sense, it is an overabundance of direction and influence that has fed the sense of chaos. Within those frantic tendrils, Lucky Number Seven quietly assumes accidental genius.
The exhibition design begins with the yellow wooden and fabric entrance to the building, and becomes a morass of stairs, catwalks and ramps that create a tight and constricting navigation of SITE’s ordinarily cavernous space.
“Why the hell would anyone put their work in there?” one artist, who chose to work off site, asks. For some artists it is not a good idea, for others it works fine.
Soun Hong’s installation of paintings benefits from being forced into a corner by Tsien’s and Williams’ walls and ramps. In turn, the paintings reveal the complex and surprising visual possibilities created by the design. Ricarda Denzer interrupts space and design with a counter-intervention of her own: A torn-out segment of wall, carefully structured, erupts into a blossom of otherworldly, churchly beauty. Enough electricity to power a small city sits as potential in the roughly draped electrical line Mandla Reuter strung throughout the exhibition space. Piero Golia simply breaks through the end of an elevated viewing platform, places some padding below and invites viewers to jump.
At other locations, Nick Mangan’s careful plumbing of New Mexico history is displayed through poignant questions about authority, the control of history and tourism, as well as labor. Marti Anson also addresses ideas of history, preservation and community values with his installation of a scale-replica building on Museum Hill, uncannily striking in the heart of NIMBY territory. Erick Beltran blankets the area with artifacts that also contain historical threads and impressive local insight.
Zbigniew Rogalski and Michal Budny execute trompe l’oeil projections on the exterior wall of SITE. Their evocations of the sumptuous rounded forms that were romanced by New Mexico’s early modernists, in tandem with their mockery of contemporary art’s current reliance of technological oneupsmanship, is among the most successful works in the exhibition. Another team, Raphaël Siboni and Fabian Giraud, manage to pull the lore of the West, the marketing of Native Americans and the counter culture of alien abduction into a singularly remarkable piece of despicable beauty and haunting allure. Their recasting and re-recasting of a traditional bronze sculpture is the most clever twist on the idea that works in Lucky Number Seven should be ephemeral enough to avoid becoming art commodities in the wake of the exhibition.
One of the artists who most engaged the community, Luchezar Boyahjiev, placed bulletin boards throughout the community to solicit commentary on the biennial, art and life. He is among the exhibition’s most blunt critics, but also the first to admit that, as an artist, he has never experienced anything like it. To have so many artists working in proximity, for so long, toward this one grand and ambiguous goal, Boyahjiev believes, will have a lasting effect on himself and his peers.
Art’s relationship with the public always moves in tides. Some exhibitions move and transform some people. This exhibition, for all its towering confusion and brutal flaws, has transformed its artists. No previous biennial at SITE may make such a claim so robustly and it is in this uncomfortable role of evolutionary enabler that Lucky Number Seven so ridiculously succeeds.