Critical Reflections: Lucky Number Seven: SITE Santa Fe Seventh International Biennial

SITE Santa Fe<br /> 1606 Paseo de Peralta

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Kathryn M Davis

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Curator Lance M. Fung's biennial is "about community,"€ because that's a "stronger message than simply filling an exhibition with "€˜the best [artists from the biennial circuit],'"€ he told us at the press preview for Lucky Number Seven. He continued with this cheery assurance: his show is "about hope, collaboration, and community."€ Somehow nearly everything La Fung says reminds me of Barack Obama's campaign speeches. I'm an Obama mama, but "Yes We Can"€ does not an art exhibition make.

Three days later, after an undoubtedly exhausting weekend for Fung and the whole global crew of institutional directors, artists, staff, and art sycophants, the fey curator expressed "surprise"€ that his "theme of community was controversial."€ After all, his twenty-five artists had been carefully chosen by eighteen curators from non-profit arts organizations in sixteen countries to interpret their outsider experiences of Santa Fe for Santa Feans; what could possibly be troublesome about that?

By the time the above comments were made at a panel discussion later in the opening weekend, I had visited SITE Santa Fe three times, and seen most, though not all, of the off-site venues at least once. And I have to say that, Lance aside, many of the artists really got Santa Fe. Australian Nick Mangan's A1 Southwest Stone faux-archeological dig investigates the layers-literally-of our history and our story, and how our identity as a place is as mucky and mired in our people as it is in the adobe, real and Santa Fake, of our architecture. The Austrian artist Ricarda Denzer's video and sound piece, restore, presents one seemingly indisputable truth-the land of northern New Mexico-with the truthiness of our narrative, as relayed by the voices of disenchanted locals who discuss low wages and the high cost (not simply financial) of living in Santa Fe. I jumped one short story, pun intended, off the platform that Italian Piero Golia imposed onto a ramp system designed by New York architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams to make the viewers' experience of the biennial less linear, more unpredictable. Originally asked by Fung to inflict a kind of roller coaster ride onto biennial viewers, the architects wound up designing more of a lightning bolt that zigs and zags throughout the former beer warehouse so that viewers are tantalized by glimpses of the art ahead-just like riding Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, without the water sprays. Do Tsien and Williams realize how effectively the metaphor of their architecture defines contemporary Santa Fe?

Other standouts include Spanish artist Martí Anson's installation of a 1:25 scale model of a flourmill that his hometown government sought to replace with a shopping mall. After swift and vociferous protest (hello, Santa Fe?), the building was recognized for its historical significance and is to be replicated within two hundred meters of its original site-an odd and unsatisfying conclusion that has yet to be realized. Anson and his interns built Martí and the Flour Factory of handmade adobe bricks; the edifice is to remain on location in the ancillary parking lot on Museum Hill, with the artist's direction that it not be used as a work of art after the biennial is over next January.

None of the artworks are meant to remain intact as permanent, precious objects. Some, such as locals Eliza Naranjo-Morse, Nora Naranjo-Morse and Rose Bean Simpson's installation in three sites, Story Line, will return to the elements to which it is exposed. Story Line is composed of clay and panty hose, among other materials, and is lovely in places, particularly where it shatters apart inside SITE Santa Fe. Unfortunately, it is dreary as an entry point to the exhibition. In its two other settings, it is hopeful, genuine, even urgent, reflecting how important it was that these three artists from Santa Clara Pueblo find release from being stereotyped as indigenous artists according to consumer expectations and reflect their own awareness of cultural and personal identity.

For Fung, collaboration is key to the biennial experience, and I give him kudos here: the totality of Lucky Number Seven is energetically dynamic (like the curator himself) in a way that the last two Santa Fe biennials markedly were not. International biennials have become equated with the phenomenon of spectacle. Fung would do well to continue focusing on aspects of display and celebrity-an arena in which he obviously thrives-and repress his urge to thrust "community"€ where it may not be appreciated, no matter how good its intention.

As he wrote in his catalogue essay, Fung's "goal at SITE Santa Fe was to make a biennial that would touch and inspire the mainstream public as much as the art world."€ Clearly, the artists and staff at SITE felt a very strong sense of community as they worked together. However, when your opening gala dinner tickets cost $500 and up, and some of the workers are excluded, the "mainstream public"€ isn't partaking in your community. Real community might mean a free-to-the-public barbeque and posting a price tag at the entrance to SITE: "This biennial cost just under $1,000,000."€ If that fact somehow seems wrong, you probably aren't a member of Lance Fung's community.