When Tina Kukielski and her two Carnegie International co-curators were planning the Carnegie Museum of Art's
signature, twice-a-decade event, which opens October 4, the first thing they did was discuss the art they were most curious to discover themselves. From here to the Middle East, artists who had piqued their interest, and art scenes they had never visited, became the first targets of their exploration together.
Now Kukielski, Daniel Bauman and Dan Byers, who had never met before, have curated the 2013 International—the first since 2008. While its 35 artists hail from 19 countries across the globe, all of the living contributors visited Pittsburgh prior to the exhibit, sometimes using the city to give direction to their artistic choices.
Begun in 1896 as a way for Andrew Carnegie to bring the next Old Masters to his museum, along the lines of the Venice Bienalle, this year's version is the 56th edition and, she says, continues to be "forward looking, anticipating the new art that is on the horizon.”
The trio had "endless discussions and negotiations" about the artists, she adds, since they had to agree on the artworks chosen. "We were our own first audience. We wanted to bring [new] artists to Pittsburgh instead of artwork." Indeed, 70 percent of the pieces have been commissioned specifically for the International.
For months, Pittsburgh has gotten glimpses of this unique edition of the exhibit. The curators have been blogging
about their work and have maintained a space in Lawrenceville to give the International an early presence in the community.
Deciding that childhood play, with its implications for joy, social interaction and physical movement and risk—and its influence on 20th-century art—would be a major theme of the International, they installed the "Playground Project” in the museum's Heinz Architectural Center for three months this summer. This much smaller exhibit traces the variety and history of playground design from the 1940s through the 1970s. The most prominent component of the Project has been the Lozziwurm—a colorful, tunnel-like piece of playground equipment designed by a Swiss sculptor—which was installed this spring in front of the museum as both art and play equipment. The Project reopens with the International.
Kukielski says play is reflected in several International pieces, such as the documentary created by Ei Arakawa, who was born in Fukushima, Japan, and now works in New York, and Henning Bohl of Hamburg, Germany. Their film, shot in Fukushima over the past six months, is an extended travelogue of playgrounds designed by one of the Playground Project artists—playgrounds that now cannot be used due to the tsunami that flooded the local nuclear plant.
Since the 1970s, the museum's permanent collection of modern and contemporary art has been de-installed so that the International can occupy its galleries. Instead, for 2013 the permanent collection has been reinstalled to include International art from the past. Too often "we forget about this history," notes Kukielski; this year the curators wanted "to look back at the history of the museum and of the Carnegie International and what has been left behind by those exhibitions." Now artwork from past Internationals can be seen in dialog with the museum's de Koonings and Giacomettis.
Several of the artists are using Pittsburgh directly for their art. Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss has taken the labor union history of Homestead and more recent urban renewal there as her subject. She has been photographing the remains of the steel mills and set up a photography studio at 215 E. Eighth Ave. in Homestead through Oct. 14 to take portraits of residents and those who work in the borough today. The first 200 portraits will become part of the museum's collection.
The Braddock artists' collective Transformazium has gathered art from all the International participants to form an art-lending library in the Braddock branch of the Carnegie Library. "I believe this is the only one of its kind anywhere near Pittsburgh," says Kukielski. Anyone with a library card can borrow a work, display it in his or her home for several weeks and then return it, just as they would a library book.
Paulina Olowska of Mszana Dolna, Poland, is creating an environment for the museum's café inspired by the Margot Lovelace puppet theater, which had its heyday in Shadyside in the 1960s and 70s.
The international art has also been arriving at the museum. For weeks, London sculptor Phyllida Barlow's work,"Tip," has been rising in front of the museum entrance near Forbes Avenue and Craig Street. Using construction materials (wood, steel and steel mesh, paint, cement, fabric and varnish), Barlow's piece "radically transforms these everyday materials into … ephemeral yet monumental works," says Kukielski.
The curators kept in mind how their artistic choices would resonate locally, she adds, although "local" in this instance refers both to Pittsburgh and to the entire country, since there aren't many International-type shows in the United States today. But the International is also about bringing the world here.
Dinh Q. Le, for instance, who works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Los Angeles, has made a short documentary on the art of Vietnamese soldiers fighting against Americans five decades ago. Rokni Haerizadeh, who was born in Tehran, Iran, but works in Dubai, employs drawing, painting and animation, subverting images distributed to the media, such as the royal wedding portrait of Kate and William, into parables or fables.
London's Sarah Lucas has installed "Ace in the Hole," showing distorted, half-naked female forms around and on a poker table. She challenges our assumed relationship to our images of womanhood, says Kukielski: "There's a lot of humor in Sarah Lucas' work, and I also think of her work as having a kind of rude elegance."
Closer to home, Joel Sternfeld of New York has 29 photos from his "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America" project. He has been working since the 1970s, documenting this peculiar bit of American culture, from the remains of the Transcendentalist movement to enduring hippie farms and newly formed sustainable communities.
Kukielski has been very happy with the way Pittsburgh is supporting this year's Carnegie International thus far, and how the city has embraced the exhibit in the past. In introducing herself to people, she has discovered that Pittsburghers have nostalgic stories of past Internationals, in the same way they might recall tales of meeting under Kaufmann's clock downtown.
"Those kinds of stories mean a lot to us," she concludes. "The legacy of this exhibition is very important, not just to the museum but to the people of Pittsburgh."
The International runs through March 16, 2014.