Home Art collection FRONT International is all climax and little resolution

FRONT International is all climax and little resolution

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Tied discreetly to a screen door and leaning against an overturned truck is a small drawing on folded paper by Sol LeWitt (Untitled, 1973). Above, a living painting by Horace Pippin of an a cappella quartet (Harmonizing, 1944). Such is the tense composition of Ahmet Öğüt Bakunin Barricade (2015-ongoing), a realization of socialist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin’s unfinished proposal in 1849 to barricade Prussian forces with paintings from national museums. Presented for the first time outside Europe and from the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin – one of the many sites of the FRONT International 2022: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art – Bakunin Barricade, upon request, must be loaned for use in “extreme moments and movements of economic, social and political transformation”, according to a contract that hangs next to the facility. That political works by Alfredo Jaar, Barbara Kruger and David Wojnarowicz are also affixed makes Öğüt’s work read like an exasperation: if the art only seems theoretical against oppression, it might as well be serve as a literal line of defense.

Langston Hughes, facsimiles of several drafts of “Two Somewhat Different Epigrams”, c. 1955–60, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station, 2022. Manuscripts © Estate of Langston Hughes; photography: Field Studio

Entitled “Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows” – inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Two Somewhat Different Epigrams” (1957) – this second iteration of the triennial features 100 artists in more than 30 locations and responds to the recent political turn of the right lasts in the United States with the premise that art is a form of healing. A frame that repeatedly asks what art can do, however, stretches the metaphors. And, while much of the work boldly resists oppression, the triennale as a whole is all high point and unresolved.

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Abigail DeVille, The Guardian of Dreams, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Quincy Garden. Courtesy: the artist; photo: FieldStudio.

In a glazed gallery of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Firelei Baéz brings to life the ruins of the Palace of Sans-Souci in northern Haiti (former residence of King Henry Christophe, war hero during the revolution for the independence of the country in 1804) with a series of blue arches springing from the wall marked with raised fists, broken chains and black panthers. Title the vast ocean of all possibilities (19°36’16.9”N 72°13’07.0”W, 41°30’32.3”N 81°36’41.7”W) (2022), the installation resembles an unconvincing staging – its overly fabricated decay, its overly cared-for rubbish – on which these symbols of resistance unfortunately become decorative. A similar embellishment occurs in Devan Shimoyama February (2018), a silk floral hoodie honoring Trayvon Martin, a victim of teenage racial abuse, which opens the group display at the Akron Museum of Art. Seemingly a touching act of remembrance, the work ultimately seems superficial. Silk flowers add beauty to a culturally and often tragically charged garment, but make it a sugary distraction, like a luxury item.

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Sarah Oppenheimer and Tony Cokes, SM-2N: sldrty?, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station. Courtesy: the artists; photography: Brad Feinkopf

Located in the cramped space of the Sculpture Center, Abigail Deville’s The Guardian of Dreams (2022) is a little more successful. The precariousness of its conglomeration of scaffolding, foil, plastic, chicken wire and salt is intensified by the looping sound of a hacksaw. Brief histories of the region – from indigenous artifacts to salt mining to photographic documentation of African Americans in the community before the Great Migration of the early 20th century – are conveyed through film screenings and photocopied, folded essays and draped over the installation.

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Wong Kit Yi (黄潔宜), Inner Voice Transplant, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Emily Davis Gallery at Oberlin College. Courtesy: the artist; photography: Field Studio

But what the triennale loses in coherence, it makes up for in abundance, bringing a remarkable artistic profusion to the region. In addition to institutions, art can be found in neighborhood classrooms, bars, libraries, hospitals, factories, gardens and more. The scale suggests that FRONT is truly a public, even local triennial, meant to be viewed in parts, over time. Additionally, the exhibit’s pocket guide contains a question intended to open up the art featured in each venue. For example: “How can a work of art slow down the rapid pace of consumption and make us look deeper? Or: ‘What can storytelling teach us about healing, memory, trauma and bereavement?’ Perhaps the answers to these questions transcend issues of “good” or “bad” art.

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Haseb Ahmed, Defeat the Void!, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, SPACES. Courtesy: the artist and Harlan Levey Projects, Brussels; photography: Field Studio

The most successful component of FRONT is undoubtedly its program of films and videos, whose works reveal their interiority more gradually. Tony Cokes installed monitors in interstitial spaces across the city; paramount is a new collaboration with Sarah Oppenheimer at Transformer Station. SM-2N: sldrty? (2022), a supremacist fragmentation of space, encourages viewers to guide two black beams mounted on pulleys onto axles, moving screens and projectors to momentarily censor and focus Cokes’ particularly hushed video of cultural partitioning. Across the street at the Bop Stop community jazz club, Martin Beck’s Last night (2016) loops on stage in complete darkness. Presented during the opening and closing weekends of the triennale, the work is a complete and perfectly framed transposition of each record played by DJ David Mancuso during a loft party in SoHo in 1984: the needle oscillates and moves away, the disc wobbles, the label blurs. The beat could go on forever.

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Jumana manna, wild relatives, 2018, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, SPACES, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London; photography: Field Studio

In a back room of the Cleveland Public Library, Moyra Davey surveys her film Western (2019-22) while telling the story of Elle, a young woman who could have been at Mancuso’s party. Davey’s narration is offbeat, like the swing of his zoomed-in camera, locked wonderfully to bird feeders, a dragonfly caught in a web, and a flying squirrel. In a dark study room in the Cleveland Clinic’s Samson Pavilion, Wong Kit Yi makes his debut Inner Voice Transplant (2022), an equally low-key video essay that’s subtitled like a karaoke track. A cheap disco ball spins among generic sofas as we listen to Wong link ancient medicine to his recovering mother and the jiangshi, or Chinese Hopping Vampire, cursed to steal souls forever. In another refurbished room in the pavilion, Naeem Mohaiemen projects Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Don’t Drown, 2021), an enveloping attempt to understand how and why life ends. Near the end of the film, a husband performs one last waltz with his wife amidst medical equipment, which we realize may have been just an unfulfilled desire.

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kitchen units, To those who feed2022. Courtesy and photography: Cooking Sections.

Although “Two Somewhat Different Epigrams” is only four lines long, Hughes arrived at the poem after concerted revision – his articles can be seen in an accompanying exhibit at the Cleveland Public Library. An extra preposition or misplaced line break can be the difference between exaggeration and deep sentiment. It is therefore perhaps the collective of artistic activists Cooking Sections whose work has enjoyed the most success. Since the 1960s, due to heavy industrial pollution, nearby Lake Erie and its associated microclimates have been steadily dying. The kitchen sections have installed two fountains in the harbor to re-oxygenate the lake, but they are only poignantly symbolic – hundreds, perhaps thousands, more would be needed. At the SPACES gallery, there is nothing to show for the collective’s contribution beyond a photograph and the coordinates of the fountains – because, perhaps, we have reached our limit of doing shows of ecological or political conscience. Other SPACES works support this philosophy: Jumana Manna’s wild relatives (2018) is a patient and observant epic of seed dispersal while Haseeb Ahmed introduced a real-time opera of wind and its rhythms into the gallery (conquer the void, 2022). The presentation at SPACES is not a reaffirmation but rather a voluntary optimism. Over the next three years, the kitchen sections will bring together local farmers in hopes of reducing the use of chemical fertilizers. We can only hope that once the work leaves the gallery, its purpose will live on in the world.

FRONT International 2022 is on view in various locations across Cleveland, United States, through October 2.

Main image: ‘Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows’, 2022, exhibition view, FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station, Cleveland. Photography: Field Studio