By Max L. Feldman
For the most part, the art at art fairs reflects the changing whims of the ravenous hordes of investors banging on the door of the contemporary art world, looking to “flip” works of art like stocks. Installations immediately look like a high-risk investment. Meanwhile, it is hard to look at abstract paintings and not think about formulae determined by some artistic futures market.
It’s good, then, that the two standout booths at this year’s EXPO Chicago art fair — Kameelah Janan Rasheed at NOME (Berlin) and Exhibit A.A.A.: Art and Architecture Atlas of Brazil, curated by Mexican architect Sol Camacho at Bergamin & Gomide (São Paolo) — had explicit historical and political contexts that made intellectual demands on viewers and resisted the calculated gaze of collectors in search of trendy visuals or themes.
Rasheed uses a Xerox machine to tell fragmentary narratives from a distinctively American experience of race. This obviously means something specific in Chicago, a city with a historical and current racial divide, largely along economic lines, than it does in Berlin, where NOME is located. In central Europe, many white liberals still pat themselves on the back for embracing a very narrow vision of multiculturalism, where the differences between all cultures are smoothed out for easy consumption. In Chicago, however, the stakes are different because the intersection of class and race is obvious to anyone not in denial.
Rasheed’s work navigates these intersections, combining and recombining linguistic and visual registers, from mathematics to scholarly writing heavy with numbered footnotes to speech fragments in standard and colloquial English. This is visually presented in a way that resembles the inter-titles from silent movies, but unaccompanied by any images. The point is not to encourage self-flagellation in White viewers. Rasheed’s aims are, rather, emancipatory all the way down: she wants to open up what we might call a racialized “horizon of experience,” forcing everyone to rethink how we tell ourselves stories about our shared social world and what kind of collective political project might be possible in the future.
Their non-linearity, meanwhile, means that each assemblage of words shoots off in all sorts of directions at once. Lazy Equations (2019) contains four lines of text. It reads ““1 + 1” = 2. we are already human! But lazy equations can trick our efforts,”. The line “we are already human!” comes with a footnote, which says “not yet”. The whole thing, from the use of scare quotes, non-capitalization, footnote fragment, and a line that ends in a comma, frustrates any attempt to use the reading skills developed since childhood. You can’t make sense of the narratives by just letting your eyes move from left to right and down the page. Nor can you piece together a whole story by reading left to right from one work to another, which were all displayed in the booth like the plot of a mystery novel where the reader couldn’t remember who was the crook and who the cop.
Long Division (2019), meanwhile, is set out in the mathematical form its title would suggest. It says “THEBLACK” in all capitals, but differently weighted typefaces. Above this says “finding further numbers new means Of sentences. may be established” and “(chance.” To open The interior,)” beneath it. The footnote at the bottom of the visual field corresponds to the number one hovering just above the letter “k” in “THEBLACK”. It says “how precarious”. Footnote 67, which comes after the word “chance”, meanwhile, doesn’t even appear in this piece.
Like Lazy Equations, Long Division stops the reading eye in its tracks. It prevents the writer from being able to clearly describe the work, since we are forced to push at the boundaries of what counts as acceptable punctuation or any publication’s style-guide. It’s a nightmare for any word processor’s spellcheck function.
There’s something sneakily playful about Rasheed’s placement of these statements in white typeface on a black background. Hopefully this recalls what the Frantz Fanon of Black Skin, White Masks calls the “epidermalization of inferiority” and will make collectors at least a tiny bit uncomfortable (but since NOME sold everything straight away, this might not be so). For Fanon, colonized subjects or victims of racism are “locked in” to their bodies because Whiteness is the standard model of who counts as a subject in the first place and is predicated on denying this possibility to Black people. Many White collectors might simply see what Rasheed is trying to do, and the deeper values supporting her aims, as good for commerce in art-world terms, but somebody else’s problem politically.
At least in their organizational form, Rasheed’s work and the 71 pieces displayed in Camacho’s Art and Architecture Atlas are polar opposites. Where Rasheed’s fragments are deliberately incomprehensible, Camacho neatly organized the works, which include paintings, drawings, and gouaches of hypothetical structures, along with chairs, sculptures, and inkjet prints of existing buildings, into eight themes for maximum lucidity: “blocks,” “walls,” “façades,” “surfaces,” “color,” “texture,” “subtraction,” and “transparency & shadows.”
Camacho’s lucid approach extends to the written material, too. Instead of composing a press release in any standard sense, the booth presented visitors with something more like an educational pamphlet. Here, Camacho points out that mid-to-late 20th century Brazilian art and architecture have been openly political — as artists and architects have criticized segregation and a lack of public space or opportunity for many people in Brazil — and have been formally experimental.
The point is not that the way out of the colonization of art by data-driven business models (note that every speech EXPO president and director Tony Carman delivered throughout the week mentioned “commerce” and “collaboration” as if they were synonymous) is to think geometrically or architecturally. Nor is it to lazily suggest we have to make some “return” to the political, as if politics ever went away prior to Trump in Rasheed’s United States or Bolsonaro in Camacho’s Brazil. It is, rather, to say that the only work that is worth making or looking at will resonate with how we speak and think and act in a shared public space.
If contemporary art is going to mean anything — and it should mean something — it has to be not only about what the viewer sees and how they see it, but the social space in which seeing and talking about what they see takes place. Ideally, if politicized contemporary art does something, then it makes itself felt not just in the viewer’s worldview but in the invisible relationships between them and everyone they interact with, encouraging a sense of responsibility for how we all respond to the past here and now, and our duties to the future, whatever the fractures of today’s social experience.