The Carnegie International, a contemporary art exhibition that put Pittsburgh on the global cultural map at the turn of the 19th century, closes its 58th edition on April 2. For those who don’t want to miss out — but feel they don’t have time to take in all 130-plus exhibiting artists — we offer a Sampler Treasure Hunt of work by six artists you’ll be glad you made time for.
All quotations are from interviews with artists in the 58th Carnegie International catalog.
Truong Cong Tung
Born 1986, and lives, in Vietnam
His “the state of absence – voices from outside” is a stylized garden comprising organic materials that conjure the present and the past.
Cultivated raised plots house lacquered gourds that are connected by a flowing network of water-filled plastic tubes. A dominant sculpture of entangled elements suggests a wilder natural landscape.
The latter may reference the once pristine areas of Vietnam’s Central Highlands where Tung grew up. A screen made of material gathered from spreading tree plantations dominates, or defines, one side of the installation. On the other side hang the lacquer on wood paintings of “Shadows in the garden #3: Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La, Si, Do.”
A garden “acts as an eternal witness to our behavior and actions,” Tung says. It is a space of transmutation, as when a leaf grows, falls, decays and takes on “other states and forms.”
Time, temperature and space are among the materials the artist cites as contained within his artworks.
The element of inherent change exists also in his use of lacquer as he adds and scrapes subsequent layers. Tung decided to study the traditional medium at university because its philosophy seemed to resemble his own, he says.
Working with lacquer taught him to “look inward,” to consider a world where everything has “dharma, its own life,” where silence has voice.
“If [lacquer] is the boat that carries you across the river, it is you yourself who has to row to see the shore — such is the philosophy of lacquer.”
“A river, a lump of dirt, a raindrop, a tree — each has its own silent message that needs to be heard. Art allows us to listen and respond.”
Thu Van Tran
Born 1979 in Vietnam, lives in France
Tran also receives inspiration for her art from a changed Vietnamese landscape but more specifically centers on the chemicals the U.S. used to defoliate the countryside during the Vietnam War. Those include the notorious Agent Orange but also others such as Agents Blue and Purple.
Tran has repurposed that destructive palette in 10 exuberant abstract panels painted in a modified fresco style in the Hall of Sculpture’s balcony.
The title, “Colors of Grey,” comes from a project Tran started in 2012 (of which they are a part). Since that beginning, Tran has contrasted, through a variety of media, the expectations of a rainbow of color with the actuality of the gray shroud cast over the land in their wake. That concept, elusive in this very decorative work, has visual immediacy in, for example, silkscreens from 2015 that are gray save for four narrow horizontal bands of color at the bottom (not exhibited here).
Tran was 2 years old when her family left Vietnam for France and the French and American historic presence in Vietnam, as well as global power shifts, have been constant interests of hers.
“I envision my work in the Hall of Sculpture as a formal, lyrical and symbolic hold on the site,” she says. “I will stain the site with a signifier, with a past history, but also permeate it with an aesthetic experience. And the immediacy of the aesthetics will serve as a counterbalance to an architectural monument that is in fact a replica of an empire’s monument.” (The Hall of Sculpture is modeled on the Parthenon in Greece.)
Born 1984 in Iraq, lives in England
There is no mistaking that a critique is embedded in Sami’s nearby paintings, although it may be more layered than is first apparent.
Sami says he was an artist before he was born, and was first interviewed on Iraqi television when he was 4 years old. By 2005, he was a curator with the Iraq ministry of culture. But by 2007, the devastation of war and worsening political conditions caused him to seek refugee status in Sweden, eventually settling in England.
In his early paintings in Iraq, Sami “tried to articulate war and memory explicitly,” he says, with realistic depictions. Since then he has embraced a device from Arabic literature, taoria, a kind of indirectness that often incorporates more than one meaning.
“Taoria is like a pun mixed with tears. So while it might sound like praise, an attentive reader understands it as tragedy,” he says.
That duality is reflected in Sami’s approach to art-making “that’s beyond just brushstrokes, beyond just representation. It’s time not to paint a bullet but to paint the sound of a bullet.”
In “The Fountain I,” for example, plumes of blazing-orange water surge into the night sky. Sami does not ostensibly include people in his painting but what appears to be a figural statue occupies a darkened space at the edge of imagination between two plumes.
Sami has also learned to tune in to what he dubs his “belated memory response” — when something that didn’t register fully at the time takes more concrete form after being triggered by a current encounter.
The resultant paintings often speak as much through what is not represented as what is.
Born 1964, and lives, in Nicaragua
Belli, who has championed feminist issues for decades, turned inward for her installation, “stories from my dead.”
One’s mood changes upon entering the Charity Randall Gallery, an alcove off the Hall of Sculpture’s balcony that’s well-suited for artworks that invite immersion.
The lighting is dimmed. Sounds are softened. Horizontally suspended tree branches become pathways through a glassed-off dreamscape of small fabric figures, shards of a broken mirror and candles. The visitor is a participant but not fully a part of the narrative, in the way of memory, of history, of a dream.
Belli’s mother died recently and, in the period preceding, the artist asked her to tell stories from their past. She, her mother and her father, who had died 30 years before, were very close.
“My mother always thought he was looking after us from the afterlife. And she was looking after him too because she was always praying for him. There was a reciprocal relationship happening through this magical power,” Belli says.
Belli is not so sanguine about continuance in an afterlife.
“To me it’s really hurtful to think that the ties are cut, that my mother doesn’t remember me because she’s dead. My father is dead; everybody’s dead.”
The stories playing within the installation are told by people who knew her mother. They are not profound, nor even complete, but speak to how small details make up a life, a persona. “It’s important that they are not important. That’s the expression of our insignificance.”
“stories from my dead” grapples with the existential in a way that is both personal and universal. It blends grief for the other and for the self.
“… my focus now is on lost memories. I never knew my father’s siblings or really my mother’s. Now they’re all dead. They were the ones who could tell me about me, so in a way it’s a loss of my legacy.”
Born 1994 in “The Forest” (Iraq) and lives in the “Small Farm” (U.S.)
Within an exhibition with a poetic title — “Is it morning for you yet?” — Eyal is the resident poet.
What appears to be a scattering of casual sketches of plants and people is an herbarium of a mythical garden, rendered in ink, colored pencil and oil because the actual plants have disappeared.
The actual people have disappeared too — as did the artist’s father and five uncles who have been missing since 2006 during the war in Iraq, when he was 13.
How does one represent the inconceivable horrors of war, the disorienting unraveling of the self into loss? When normative phrasing is not enough, poetry offers options.
As Eyal defies convention, he simultaneously re-writes it, providing a meeting place for those who have no grave to lie in nor to pay respects at. He is a casualty of war, but not in the traditional sense: he is witness to and voice for an epic event, universal in form, played out too frequently in human history.
“All my works are ghosts,” Eyal says. “And all ghosts desire a body, an intermediary. I am also a kind of ghost; I keep myself concealed like the unseen woodworm that nevertheless appears to have eaten everything.”
For eight years Eyal refused to show his face in public, “a dialogue with the missing persons, with the lost villages and destroyed houses.”
He uses manila folders for his drawings, in part, because of the bureaucracy they represent, implicating governments for the role they play in upheaval. (These are installed at two sites in the museum.) A large surreal collage could be read as a visual journal the artist has laid out as an exercise to restore order to a fragmented existence. The artist includes the word “and” at the end of all his work titles “to insist on the breakdown of time’s linearities.”
Ultimately Eyal asks questions that probe beyond traditional answers that don’t satisfy.
“Where Does a Thought Go When It’s Forgotten? And.,” his installation title, postulates with simultaneous finality and open-ended possibility.
Born 1939, and lives, in Japan
Among the most memorable artworks in this International are those of Tsuchida’s “Hiroshima Collection” series.
The artist photographed objects from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The individual images are digitally printed on a white background that also has a short text describing them.
Each is heartbreaking, including:
- A 13-year-old’s school uniform found hanging from a tree by his father; the child’s body was never found.
- A pocket watch given to a father by his son, which he carried everywhere; the badly burned father made it home but died within the month.
Tsuchida blends elegant simplicity and eloquent silence in works that respect those who died but also provide a space of contemplation to all of humanity who grieve such inexplicable events.
Sometimes numbers and scope get in the way of creating imagery that portrays the unimaginable. Tsuchida’s focus on the schoolchild down the block, the father you visit on a holiday, delivers poignancy to a viewer’s doorstep, no matter where in the world he or she resides.
Tsuchida photographed the objects “not dramatically but in a way that is faithful to their original form … to present them first as universal symbols,” he says. The text is from the Peace Museum database, which he modified to balance the visual images, and he considers it an essential part of the whole.
“Hiroshima Collection” is part of the “Hiroshima Trilogy,” an ongoing broader project begun in the mid-1970s because, he says, “I felt I needed to learn and share knowledge [about Hiroshima] beyond the history we all know.” The trilogy includes “Hiroshima 1945-1979,” which focuses on the people, and “Hiroshima Monument,” on the landscape.
The 58th Carnegie International proclaims to “trace the geopolitical imprint of the U.S. since 1945,” so it is appropriate to that goal that this artwork is included.
Certainly the emotional as well as physical fallout is as prevalent today as was the fallout then from the atomic cloud that spread over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and over the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days later.
But also significant is that while the facts of history don’t change, their interpretation does.
That’s why Tsuchida “feels strongly” about continuing his project, “to keep revisiting the history for new meaning.”
“Japan has created, mostly through education, a historicization of the war in which Japan is the victim,” he says. But that overlooks that Japan was an aggressor on other Asian countries in addition to the combat with American military, and that its refusal to accept the July 1945 Potsdam Declaration led to the bombings, he adds.
Pointing out the courage it took to make such a statement, Dan Leers, Carnegie Museum of Art’s curator of photography — who interviewed Tsuchida for the International catalog — asked how reception to the “Hiroshima Collection” differs in Japan and the U.S.
Tsuchida replied that he doesn’t know the answer yet, but is “very interested” in what the response will be.
“It will not be possible to divide participants in a future nuclear war into perpetrators and victims. It will be a global war in which all can be victims. I hope my Hiroshima series will make viewers feel such awareness.”