I’ve had a difficult time trying to write about Buildering: Misbehaving the City, the first show at Contemporary Arts Center that its curator, Steven Matijcio, has put together since arriving here last year from North Carolina. And now it is nearing its end — it closes Aug. 18.
My resistance isn’t because I don’t admire the ambitious exhibition or its intentions, many well-realized. Matijcio has selected work from contemporary artists around the world (all but one alive) that fit a provocative theme: To combat alienation and the crushing conformity of urban life and architecture, artists are turning to misbehavior to humanize their built environment.
As such, this is often a subtly funny show. For instance, the video “Underground Garage” by German artist Sebastian Stumpf features long, static shots of garage doors slowly closing. Stumpf runs into the picture at the last moment and rolls into the gap — and into an unknown we can’t see. It’s like a Jackass stunt interrupting Andy Warhol’s meditative film of the Empire State Building.
Matijcio makes the point that “buildering” — a combination of the words “building” and “bouldering,” a rock-climbing term — is often a political act. It can also be, as Stumpf’s piece shows, quite amusing — maybe simultaneously.
And this is why I’ve struggled with the show. Shortly after it opened on Feb. 28, there was a spectacular — but unrelated — example of “buildering” in Cincinnati. On March 4, members of Greenpeace got out onto the towers of Procter & Gamble’s headquarters and unfurled banners linking the use of palm oil to deforestation.
This was not officially sanctioned performance art and it has not been treated as such by authorities. The activists face criminal charges, including a very serious one for burglary that is a way of others saying, “We are not amused.”
To me, that haunts Buildering. It’s tough for me to view the show on its own cloistered terms, which seem safe compared to what happened outside the museum walls.
Still, Matijcio deserves notice for his astuteness. And the videos are often uplifting. A literal example is “Material Inconstancy” by the Brazil-based Mexican artist Hector Zamora, in which Turkish bricklayers noisily, joyously toss around their wares as the camera seems also to be airborne.
Spain’s David Bestue and Marc Vives have a 33-minute video called “Actions at Home” in which they do all sorts of weird things, from putting money in their underwear to sealing (and then unsealing) a door. I particular like this one because it has range — there are the jokes, some smutty, but also moments of the sublime, as when the artists try to place keys on a table without making a sound.
The strangest video is “Altruisme” by Ivan Argote, a Columbian artist working in France. He passionately licks a subway pole, presumably out of love rather than hunger. This certainly subverts society’s intentions for proper use of subway-car infrastructure, but how exactly does it humanize a depersonalized environment? (I guess maybe it keeps the poles clean.)
The videos do tend to overpower the still photographs and sculpture when sharing gallery space. As a result, there are some gentle still photographs — those of Egyptian-born artist Iman Issa, especially — here with wondrous but understated imagery crying out for more attention to be paid.
Buildering is partly inspired by last year’s 10th anniversary of the CAC’s Zaha Hadid-designed building, and some of the pieces purposely connect and comment upon that challenging (for exhibitions) environment with its unconventional spaces.
The show does beg the question of whether Hadid’s CAC needs some artistic intervention and, if so, should Buildering have just been about artists addressing it.
Los Carpinteros — the Cuban-born, Spain-based artists Marco Antonio Castillo Valdes and Dagoberto Rodriguez Sanchez — create a tour-de-force of cardboard and tape by having their “El Barrio” wedged into a gallery corner. (It looks a little like a small Taos Pueblo.) It gives Hadid’s building a “lived-in” look.
But the best piece in this vein is another one by Stumpf. It should be acquired by the CAC for permanent display. It’s a video of a performance in which he slowly slides down the rail of the CAC’s interior ramp-like stairway.
Matijcio has positioned this video piece so that when you climb the stairs, you face it and the steps appear to go on forever. It’s like a stairway to heaven.
For visiting information about the CONTEMPORARY ARTS CENTER, visit contemporaryartscenter.org.