Lessons from Cleveland's recent FRONT Triennial and Yayoi Kusama’s 'Infinity Mirrors' Exhibit

Recent museum exhibits and citywide art displays in Cleveland provide fresh ideas worth emulating.

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click to enlarge Yayoi Kusama's "Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity" - Photo: Cathy Carver // Courtesy of OTA Fine Arts, Victoria Miro & David Zwirner
Photo: Cathy Carver // Courtesy of OTA Fine Arts, Victoria Miro & David Zwirner
Yayoi Kusama's "Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity"
Two things can really ignite a city’s Contemporary art scene: a major museum retrospective by a superstar living artist and a citywide exhibit, possibly a biennial or triennial, of recent major work from international artists. These send a message to the world about a city’s arts ambitions.

When you have both those types of art events going on nearly simultaneously, as Cleveland did from July through September, you’ve really got a happening place. It’s something for other regional cities to want to emulate.

I went there for a September weekend to take in as much as possible in a short time, both at the aforementioned “superstar” exhibit (Yayoi Kusama’s now-closed Infinity Mirrors at the Cleveland Museum of Art) and at the festival FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. (Several FRONT exhibitions extend beyond Sept. 30.)

Kusama, 89, is a still-active Japanese avant-garde artist who rose to acclaim in 1960s New York for her colorful “infinity rooms,” which use mirrors, lights and art objects to create a psychedelic illusion of floating in endless space. In general, her art has both been informed by and helped shape the genres of Pop, Fluxus, Performance and Installation Art (and much else of the ’60s). When she moved back to Japan in the ’70s, she somewhat faded from the U.S. art scene.

This exhibit, organized by Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum, has been her triumphant return. So too has Kusama: Infinity, a successful new documentary that explores both her life and art — now playing in theaters nationwide. It will screen downtown at Cincinnati World Cinema’s new Garfield Theatre at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17 and 4 p.m. on Nov. 18.

The Kusama show’s impact on Cleveland transcended the kind of barrier that usually limits the impact of Contemporary art on a city — people who are not already art-informed feel too intimidated by it to try something new. One of the attendants at my hotel, not previously a Kusama fan, raved about seeing her show: “It was everything people said.”

Despite the blockbuster hoopla, the seven mirrored infinity rooms on display created a sanctuary of contemplation and wonder. As you stood inside a space reminiscent of a very tiny home, you were surrounded by endlessly reflected twinkling lights, floating lanterns, surreal polka dot-bedecked pumpkins and cacti, and more. Only very small groups were allowed into each room at a time, so for the short period while inside visitors could really be alone with the art and removed from all earthly noise.

FRONT, which is in its first year, was meant to explore the power of contemporary art of all types to make us think about art and our times. As shaped by its executive director, the arts philanthropist Fred Bidwell (with Michelle Grabner serving as artistic director), it featured more than 100 participating artists, often presenting commissioned work.

Cincinnati’s current FotoFocus Biennial has a similar sweep and depth, specifically in service of exploring lens-based art. Last week and this past Sunday, during openings of its major exhibits and at FotoFocus-sponsored appearances, rising-star British conceptual photographer Gillian Wearing (who has a new show at Cincinnati Art Museum), American artist/filmmaker Miranda July and the American-born/Nigeria-raised photographer/writer Teju Cole spoke before large, enthusiastic crowds. (One FotoFocus exhibit, at downtown’s Michael Lowe Gallery, even featured three photographs by Kusama.) And our BLINK arts festival, next scheduled for 2019, specializes in outdoor art. 

By comparison, FRONT is not so heavily focused on lens-based or outdoor art, and also seems to have a more specifically stated socio-political purpose. 

The best of the work I sampled included a fantastic installation by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, who created “The American Library” at the Cleveland Public Library with assistance of its staff. Using African wax prints (cotton cloth with colorful designs), he made covers for 6,000 books on shelving in the center of a large hall. Stamped in gold ink on the spines were the names of first- and second-generation immigrants to the U.S., as well as African-Americans who left the South for the North during the Great Migration, who all have made important contributions to this country. The result is a wondrous tribute and celebration — to the people it honors, to immigration, to libraries, to enlightenment. That means it’s also a rebuke to those who are anti-immigration, and thus to the extremist nationalism of Trump.

Even more powerful to me was the installation by the Chicago-based African-American photographer (and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient) Dawoud Bey. His “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” piece consists of very dark, framed-in-black landscape photographs suspended by wires over the wooden pews of an 1838 Episcopal church in a Cleveland neighborhood. The church was once a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad — a last stop for runaway slaves before safety in Canada.

click to enlarge Dawoud Bey's "Night Coming Tenderly." Installation view at St. John's Church. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. - Courtesy the artist, Rena  Bransten Gallery, and Stephen Daiter Gallery. Photography by Field Studio.
Courtesy the artist, Rena Bransten Gallery, and Stephen Daiter Gallery. Photography by Field Studio.
Dawoud Bey's "Night Coming Tenderly." Installation view at St. John's Church. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

Bey’s photographs are meant to imply what the escaping slaves might have dimly seen from afar, with a mixture of fear and hope, as they approached freedom. The artwork meshed seamlessly with the site.

FRONT also had artists recreate an op-art mural by the late Julian Stanczak on the side of a downtown building. The Polish-born artist, who had moved to Cleveland to teach in 1964 after first teaching at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, had first done the “Winton Manor” mural there as part of a 1973 public art project called City Canvases.

This reminded me, of course, of Stanczak’s Cincinnati mural, “Additional,” one of our city’s art treasures. But it also reminded me that we had a similar public art project here in the 1970s, Urban Walls, and that only one of the nine murals created for it — Barron Krody’s “Allegro” — still exists in full.

However, it needs restoration. It’d be nice to see that get done as a way of paying tribute to Urban Walls’ early vision. It’d be even better to see other Urban Walls murals re-created, maybe as part of the next BLINK.

For more information about FRONT: frontart.org. For Kusama: Infinity movie tickets: cincyworldcinema.org.

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