Brazilian critic, curator, and professor Priscila Arantes discusses contemporary art in “post-urban” settings, considering Atlantan and Brazilian artists. Dr. Arantes’s talk is a response to the book Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape.
My encounter with the art produced in Atlanta makes me think of the art produced in São Paulo. Looking at Atlanta from far away, I use the mapping carried out by Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape as a guide to my perception. Although living in São Paulo offers many points of contact with the sense of so-called “noplaceness” perceived in Atlanta, my perception is still my own experience, defined from my place of origin. It is through the contrast between these different sensations that I can get in contact with the state of contemporary art in Atlanta. By traveling in the fuzzy definition of noplaceness, one can perhaps find the spirit of the place, even if it is tenuous and flexible.
When I received the request to write an article about the book Noplaceness, which focuses on a slice of contemporary art made in Atlanta, I was faced with a challenge: how to write about a city and its artistic production that I knew only virtually? The question, which seemed impossible to solve, was slowly revealed as I progressed deeper into the content of the book. After all, the main theme here was the feeling of not belonging anywhere, even when connected directly to a physical space.
After receiving a virtual copy of Noplaceness and being contacted through Skype, I started to build an imaginary Atlanta in my mind while living in São Paulo. Of course my imaginary city was not a purely subjective creation, but was based on the descriptions found in the book and on the research that I conducted. This virtual contact and a sense of displacement mirrored, to some extent, the ideas and concepts contained in Noplaceness. Life in these contemporary times has allowed us to create a new relationship with space, in which the place we inhabit is not always the same as the one we experience. Being virtually connected to individuals from other locations, with whom we often interact more deeply than with our own neighbors, we create a new sense of space and change our relationship to the urban landscape. The Italian sociologist and professor at the University of São Paulo, Massimo di Felice, calls this new way of living atopic dwelling. “The atopic dwelling is no longer tied to geographic coordinates or to the genius loci, but to the information flows and to a mutant spatiality.”
The case of Atlanta seems a compelling example of this kind of fluid space. Certainly, its historical conditions as a city formed by the intersection of important transport routes, the current centrality of its international airport, and the legacy left by the strong presence of the black community and various migratory currents have influenced how it is configured spatially, and the art that is produced. At the same time, Atlanta is connected to the globalized world, leading to a varied and updated art scene based on cultural diversity. In order to have a better idea of its artistic production, however, we should set aside a generalized approach and choose a more defined point of view, even if this point of view may seem restrictive and incomplete.
The sense of place that was once common has come under attack now that we experience so much of the world through the media. And big cities are no longer organized rationally. Instead, the boundaries of the modern ideal city—which have always served to create order and civilization—have been replaced by a fluid and chaotic space. The evolution of cities did not lead to the utopian space promised by modern architecture, but has become a complex territory where the political landscape—the roads, central buildings, and infrastructure determined by government—is at odds with the vernacular landscape—the houses, parking lots, and other structures determined by private, everyday people. Writer and landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson described three different historical periods of the landscape: Landscape One, Landscape Two and Landscape Three. Landscape One was the medieval landscape, organized according to a free interaction with the natural world. Landscape Two was the space organized politically by cities, their monuments and administrative borders. Landscape Three refers to the contemporary situation of in-between spaces, transient places that change according to use, suburbs developed without prior planning that may or may not be in alignment with the political landscape determined by states and governments. Landscape Three includes not only the environment, but the insertion of people into it: their actions, needs, and social relationships.
Several commentators have thought about the new spatial configurations of the contemporary city. Their reflections range from sociological discussions about the conflicts between identities and territories—as in the case of the concept of “liquid spaces” by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman—to poetic and inventive approaches such as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Although all these narratives seek to describe the feeling of noplaceness, our individual experience is based on a direct relationship with a real place, even if this place is constantly changing and being contaminated by the world of virtual images. Contemporary artists, too, must confront constantly these ambiguous relationships with their own places. Even if artists are in contact with culture being produced around the world, their local histories and social backgrounds influence their poetics. Perhaps this is the central challenge for contemporary artists: how to assert their identity and their language in the face of a homogenized and supposedly uniform culture. As pointed out by Cinqué Hicks in the essay “The In-between” in Noplaceness, the idea of a completely nomadic artist in constant movement around the world, as depicted by Nicolas Bourriaud, proved to be a fantasy accessible only to a few jet-setting artists financed by the international art market. This tension does not invalidate the notions of fluid identity and displacement contained in the concept of noplaceness. But understanding art today requires a tense negotiation between the idea of placelessness and the vague sense of belonging to a specific location.
We might find a precarious balance between the concepts of noplaceness and genius loci. For the Romans, each place had its own divinity, which defined its character and aspirations. This deity was called the genius loci, which means the spirit of the place. The concept has been used by many historians seeking to relate the influence of site and landscape on the cultural production of each community. Thus, the art of Mediterranean Europe, for example, presents a brighter color palette and a more idealized beauty standard, while the art of northern Europe presents darker shades and a less idealized formal description. However, how is it possible to believe in the spirit of the place if our contemporary landscape is in constant transformation and our sense of belonging has become even more unstable and dissolved?
When I turn my gaze to art produced in Atlanta, I see many points of contact with São Paulo, yet also some differences. The work of K. Tauches and Beth Lilly, for example, raise questions about the notions of the ephemeral and the feeling of disorientation. While K. Tauches makes clear the idea of disappearance caused by the passage of time by means of her poetic interventions with light or by interfering with painting upon photography, Beth Lilly tries ironically to find an almost mystical sense in the banality of unimportant urban places. Both artists seek the significance of a space that has lost its original meaning and remains adrift, ready for altogether new meanings. The accelerated growth of cities blurs their historical references. The city can no longer be seen as a stable place that ensures social life. While Atlanta seems to have grown from a less centralized and more fluid urban network, São Paulo was founded initially from a center that became disrupted throughout history, creating a more chaotic and less organized urban layout. Currently, although some of the original central points still survive, São Paulo is structured from multiple centers, and its enormous size keeps its inhabitants from knowing their city completely. They often move in limited areas of their territory or have to travel very long distances to get things done.
In a fluid space such as a modern city, individuals easily become lost and spend a lot of time in transit. Perhaps this explains why performance and temporary urban interventions are so important in contemporary art. In São Paulo, these artistic actions have gained increasing prominence. Graffiti is an extremely powerful means of expression in contemporary art produced in São Paulo, and performances and collaborative actions are becoming more and more frequent.
In Noplaceness, one can also find several examples of this kind of ephemeral work, such as those reported by Catherine Fox. These interventions range from the inclusion of painting in the urban space, as in the works by the Paper Twins, to the video projections on Atlanta buildings by Micah and Whitney Stansell. These artworks change our perception of the public space, casting new doubts about it and creating new meanings.
A case in point is the ephemeral actions produced in “Memory Flash,” by the collective John Q. These performance works activate the public space, raising questions about gender and sexual identity. The discussion of social, sexual, and racial roles is a frequent theme in the art produced in Atlanta. A fluid space formed by disparate individuals requires ongoing multicultural negotiations of identity. The assertion of a social role may sometimes cause some discomfort that resembles the feeling of not belonging anywhere. Noplaceness here is a space of conflict where each individual seeks to find a place in the sun.
We can see this tension clearly in the work of artists like Ting Ying Han, Hye Yeon Nam, Fahamu Pecou, and Sheila Pree Bright, among others. Although they are quite different artists, each one with his or her own poetics, the power of their work comes from the assertion of identity. For Hye Yeon Nam, for example, the integration in a foreign community causes discomfort, making daily activities a bit strange. Ting Ying Han tries to connect her Taiwanese cultural background to the urban landscape found in the new world. Her poetic sculpture of a traditional American home made with rice seems to show a deep sense of noplaceness, without giving up, however, the idea of genius loci. The house built by Han carries the sense of displacement, while at the same time it also evokes her cultural heritage. Although contemporary culture may seem homogenous and global, the local identities have not yet been fully dissolved. They still carry a genuine and vivid trace, even while living in standing conflict.
When we look at other individuals, we can see something different in ourselves. The construction of identity is inevitably a process of confrontation with alterity. The self-representation strategies that we see in the paintings by Fahamu Pecou, for instance, incorporate stereotypes related to black American culture, generating images that purposely oscillate between the fake and the plausible. We are not sure if what the artist shows in his paintings is really how he would like to present himself or whether what we see is only what our prejudiced eyes perceive. Yet, the interior photographs by Sheila Pree Bright demonstrate that the constructions of racial and individual narratives go far beyond mere appearance. They are hidden inside our homes and private lives.
When I look at these works with Brazilian eyes, the power with which the black community places itself in the artistic scene in Atlanta draws my attention. Although the black presence in Brazil is also extremely important, the discussion of racial identity here is still more timid and restrained. The integration of white and black cultures occured in a different way than in America. I believe that racial mixing in Brazil is more common than in the United States. We certainly have important black artists, but I think that their language is more universal and less confrontational. It is a different approach to the issue of racial identity.
When I search for the spirit of the place in contemporary art in Atlanta, trying to find something different from São Paulo, I find the strong figuration present in the works of Marcus Kenney, Benjamin Jones, Whitney Stansell, Sarah Emerson, and Ann-Marie Manker, among others. Although Marcus Kenney and Benjamin Jones show very expressive images charged with a vibrant and almost folkloric color palette, Sarah Emerson and Ann-Marie Manker use a visual language that comes close to pop art, renovated by a contemporary perspective. Differently, Whitney Stansell makes partially autobiographical narrative drawings that come close stylistically to the illustrations of the 1950s. Her work stays in an in- between space between illustration and painting, integrating the vernacular past and the universal present.
Figurative work already appears with great force in the art of Atlanta. And in São Paulo it is now appearing more often, especially in the work of younger artists. São Paulo has a strong tradition of abstract art, and the Concrete Art Movement (or Concretism), which had great prominence in the 1950s, still exerts strong influence on art being made today. Art that places its own abstract form at the center of its meaning still represents an important value for many artists. Although no longer dominant in the current art of São Paulo, it has been renewed by younger artists using more contemporary approaches. The purism of the older generation is being replaced by a more critical position, incorporating a certain conceptual approach. The abstract art produced in Atlanta also may incorporate conceptual approaches, especially in the work of Kathryn Refi, Alvaro Alvillar and Rocío Rodríguez. Catherine Fox tells us in her text “Apocalypse!” that Rocío Rodríguez said in an interview that abstraction paled in the face of the powerful images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, she started to introduce figurative aspects in her works, which make reference to contemporary destruction and fear, establishing a dialogue with her expressive abstraction. The representative landscape and the invented landscape speak to each other about the current limits of what art can do.
Far from an ideal space, contemporary landscape is irrevocably contaminated by culture and generates hybrid and contradictory spaces. Although nature seems to be completely artificial and controlled by humans today, it also sometimes looks threatening and strange. We live in a time when previous certainties are no longer in place, but in a precarious and unstable balance. A simple armchair, for example, that could give us the comfortable feeling of stability, can be invaded by moss, as in the work by Pandra Williams, or snugly cradle a fox staring out at us, as in Jody Fausett’s photo “Broken Window” (2007).
The relationship between different spaces of meaning, between abstraction and figuration, between past and present, between local and global, between the individual and the collective identity, between the permanent and the ephemeral, between nature and culture, defines the contemporary art scene. Whether it became difficult to find the spirit of the place in fluid and varied cities like Atlanta and São Paulo, we might say that what characterizes their artistic production is the very sense of noplaceness they carry. Thus, the concept of noplaceness, instead of becoming a homogenizing idea that justifies everything by the inclusion in a globalized language, it incorporates local histories and memories, creating varied and complex poetics. Trying to put together the concepts of genius loci and noplaceness may be a contradictory and impossible task, but the contradiction is perhaps the most striking sign of life in these contemporary times.
Hugo Fortes is a
Brazilian artist, curator, and professor at the University of São
Paulo. He received his PhD in Arts from the University of São
Paulo, Brazil, which included two years of research at the
Universität der Künste Berlin, Germany.
The image used to illustrate this essay on the home page is a detail from “Fluid Architecture: São Paulo” by Danielle Roney.
Part of Atlanta Art Now’s mission is to create dialogue with
artists, writers, and thinkers working in contemporary art around the
Artists, curator, and professor of art Hugo Fortes will speak about the complexities of place for artists both in Atlanta and in São Paulo.
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Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape is an incisive look at artists whose work reveals the changing perceptions of place and space in the era of globalization. Noplaceness features writing examining the work of over 30 artists in historical and critical contexts, including Scott Belville, Sarah Emerson, Ruth Laxson, Beth Lilly, Ann-Marie Manker, The Paper Twins, Fahamu Pecou, Sheila Pree Bright, Rocio Rodriguez, Angela West, and K. Tauches. Noplaceness is the 2011 edition of Atlanta Art Now, a biennial book series by Possible Futures, Inc.
Atlanta Art Now is a new biennial publication by Possible Futures, Inc. that links contemporary art in Atlanta to broader conversations about contemporary art around the world. Atlanta Art Now traces lines of inquiry among artists producing incisive, critically engaged work.
The 2011 edition of Atlanta Art Nowâ€”Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscapeâ€”examines art made against the backdrop of the currently shifting sense of place, borders, and psychological space both in Atlanta and globally. An expanded table of contents follows.
Geography has failed. The logic of globalization continues to throw into question an endless number of paradigms the 20th century taught us to love: Borders, stable identities and local languages all find themselves now under assault. Meanwhile, resources and entire industries move freely over the globe faster than people can access them, leaving legacies of devastation with increasingly unsustainable frequency.
Cities, too, have undergone tremendous changes within a generation. A certain breed of international city now boasts the same Starbucks, the same airport furniture and the same asphalt landscapes whether in Los Angeles, Paris or Singapore. All places threaten to become noplace in particular.
Atlanta has thrived under the specter of noplaceness for a century and a half. A global hub with the worldâ€™s busiest airport, it is nevertheless entirely post-urban. As Rem Koolhaas has famously declared, â€śAtlanta is not a city, it is a landscape.â€ť Atlanta is both the pre-eminent noplace and the very template for the post-urban global metropolis, the model that generates all other places.
Reflecting these and other conditions, Atlanta artists have examined notions of place and their role within it. Whether understood historically, civically, or personally, the new global conditions exert themselves on these artists in myriad ways.
NOPLACENESS, the 2011 edition of Atlanta Art Now dissects both the crises and the opportunities that noplaceness affords. Intertwined notions of apocalypse, inbetweenness, Utopia, and regeneration are explored, as well as art that resists noplaceness, insisting steadfastly on the specificity of somewhere-ness.
Possible Futures, Inc., an Atlanta-based foundation, is excited to announce the 2011 publication of Atlanta Art Now, a book designed to trace some of the most relevant ideas and critical trends at play within Atlanta's contemporary art scene by examining the work of a number of the city's artists.
By coupling incisive critical accounts of artists' work with color photography and professional production values, the book, scheduled for release in November 2011, will establish a highly visible touchstone for Atlanta's diverse community of art professionals and enthusiasts.
"We've conceived of 2011's edition as a pilot that, if it's successful, can be repeated in the future," said local art critic and writer Cinqué Hicks, who will be acting as Atlanta Art Now's founding Creative Director.
In the fall of 2010, Possible Futures, Inc. founder Louis Corrigan approached Hicks as well as Atlanta art critics Catherine Fox, co- founder of the online fine-arts magazine ArtscriticATL.com, and Jerry Cullum, editor-at-large of Art Papers magazine, with an early vision of the project. After a series of exploratory conversations, as well as gallery and studio visits, the three writers, who now comprise Atlanta Art Now's writers, agreed that such a high-profile publication would be both viable and desirable for the Atlanta scene.
"The Atlanta arts community stands to benefit greatly from a visible and informed public conversation about the most meaningful lines of critical inquiry currently being pursued in this city," said Corrigan. "My hope is that Atlanta Art Now would help situate the most engaging trends within the work of Atlanta-area artists within discussions of contemporary art at the regional, national, and even international levels."
More information on Atlanta Art Now will be forthcoming in the months ahead.