Marriage equality in art & poetry
'The Air We Breathe,' a mixed-media exhibit at SFMOMA
by Sura Wood
I approached the opening of The Air We Breathe, a new exhibition at SFMOMA in which 30 visual artists and eight poets were invited to respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage, with a mixture of high expectations and no small amount of trepidation. (The title comes from a 1938 Langston Hughes poem that reads, "Equality is in the air we breathe.")
On the auspicious side, the subject couldn't be timelier or scarcely have greater resonance than it does in the Bay Area. But thematic "message" shows rarely engender the best art, and the exhibition evolved from an illustrated book project, The Air We Breathe: Artists and Poets Reflect on Marriage Equality, rather than the other way around. The book, it should be pointed out, is augmented by artist bios, and essays by Frank Rich, Eileen Myles and SFMOMA organizing curator Apsara DiQuinzio, supplemental resources not readily available to those who may wander in off the street.
Displayed on a wall on the museum's second-floor landing, the exhibition, which fortunately is more poetic than didactic, arrives with a dynamite core concept and a fine synthesis of poetry and images in a variety of media, from collage, drawing, video animation and a colorful, upside-down map of the U.S, to a typed list of countries where female-on-female sexual relationships are legal. Though the artworks are tightly clustered together with not enough air to breathe, pardon the pun, there's plenty of room for visitors to mill around. The idea is that people will find the setting – and the exhibition itself – conducive to reflection, dialogue and debate.
Perhaps because its genesis was a book, a radically different form with different structural imperatives than a museum show, the exhibition feels truncated and the works shown feel like a prelude to something bigger – a first act, if you will, with no second or third act to follow. Granted, it's a small-scale, modest undertaking compared to the enormity of its complex and controversial topic. In a questionable curatorial choice, none of the works are titled or attributed to artists who made them. This may have been designed to promote an unobstructed experience of the art, but confusion, not purity, is the result. Visitors must refer to a brochure with arrows and numbers to figure out what they're looking at and who did what; distracted, they're left to pore over a flow chart instead of engaging with the art. Many pieces are in close proximity to one another so, at first glance, it's not clear if some of these works are autonomous or are part of a grouping by the same artist.
What does succeed is the integration of poetry, which isn't easy to pull off in a mixed-media context. The transgender, gay, lesbian and straight artists whose works were commissioned for the show are from all over the world, an inspired touch, and address love, connection, the meaning of domestic partnership and the concept of equality with poignancy, humor and observations from a multitude of perspectives. But while the art is well-executed and contributed by thoughtful individuals such as D-L Alvarez, Nicole Eisenman, Simon Fujiwara, Robert Gober, Martha Colburn, Elliott Hundley, Raymond Pettibon and Laylah Ali, along with new poems, some defiant, others ruminative or confessional, by John Ashbery and Ariana Reines among others, the overall effect is toothless.
It's not that stridency would be desirable; it's the absence of intensity that's surprising. Same-sex marriage is a pressing civil rights issue where the state, homophobia, a primal sense of the "other," religiously-based sanctioned prejudice, and the most deeply felt and intimate of human choices converge; as a socio-political-legal arena with personal ramifications, it couldn't be more fraught or hard-fought. It's difficult to imagine another single issue that contains as many inherent pressure points or one that carries such profound implications, not only for those it directly impacts, but wider ones for what kind of society we want to be. People will bring their own attitudes, feelings and assumptions to the party, but it's doubtful they will take enough away from this exhibition to have their hearts and minds sufficiently tweaked.
In addition to Air, a new photography exhibition and a custom-designed installation were unveiled at SFMOMA last weekend. When you enter the museum, gaze skyward at the atrium, where you'll discover Jim Campbell's latest opus, "Exploded Views," a suspended, sculptural, streaming, 3-D cinematic installation that dazzles with hundreds of flickering LED lights and elusive three-dimensional figures that take shape and vanish. From the stairway balconies, the optimal vantage point, you can discern the rippling dance movements of the Alonzo King Lines Ballet. (The digital films will rotate every couple of months.) And in the first comprehensive retrospective of her work in two decades, Francesca Woodman reconsiders the brief but remarkable career of a fascinating American photographer who continues to exert a powerful influence on other artists, especially women, 30 years after she committed suicide at the age of 22. Watch this space next week for more on that one.
The Air We Breathe and Francesca Woodman run through Feb. 20, Jim Campbell through Sept. 25, at SFMOMA, 151 3rd St., SF. Info: www.sfmoma.org.