IT'S BECOME A CLICHé TO OBSERVE that all art centers have become peripheries, that no single major city or nation can currently claim to be a global aesthetic capital. And in this decentered landscape, in which migratory artists and curators have emerged as notable fixtures, the international biennial has taken center stage as the dominant exhibition format for presenting new work. There were 10 such shows in 1997 alone, hosted by Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Turkey and Australia, among other countries. Typically featuring a U.N.-style roster of artists, these exhibitions showcase an internationalist ethic as if that were in itself a prerequisite for creating a truly contemporary art show.

While Los Angeles has made a halfhearted concession to this trend with its summertime International, a hit-and-miss sampling hosted by assorted galleries, the major international art event west of the Mississippi takes place in Santa Fe, that adobe Disneyland better known for Georgia O'Keeffe and Native American tourism. The biannual exhibition organized by SITE Santa Fe is, in fact, the only international biennial in the U.S. And though it's still merely a junior partner in the global-arts sweepstakes — this year's show, which opened in mid-July and runs through the end of the year, is only its third incarnation — it still has all the trappings, including the problems, of its longer-running brethren.

Put together by Spanish curator Rosa Martinez, a veteran of several international mega-shows including the 1997 Istanbul Biennial, this year's exhibition is titled “Looking for a Place” and includes artists from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Cuba, Iran, South Africa, Sweden, Brazil and even a few from the U.S. It also features work by a pair of architects and by the environmental activist group Greenpeace. While most of the show is displayed inside SITE Santa Fe's warehouse (its permanent exhibition space), artworks are also scattered in various locations around the city, as well in the nearby ghost town of Galisteo and the Los Alamos airport. Martinez, who believes that the most innovative art seeks to break free of institutionalized spaces, clearly takes her show's title seriously.

And most of the interesting work in her biennial addresses the theme of “place” fairly directly, whether in specific or general terms. Mona Hatoum, a Beirut-born artist who lives in London, offers a global perspective on the subject with a monumental map of the world laid out on the floor of the main gallery with 3,300 pounds of uncolored glass marbles. As you walk around inspecting continents unblemished by national boundaries, the marbles reflect light in unpredictably shifting patterns. And inevitably, vibrations from the footsteps of curious viewers cause them to stray and wander from their mapped positions, evoking a world of instability — whether cultural, political or meteorological.

Hung on a back wall so that they appear to be looking out across Hatoum's Map are
five portraits of Cape Town residents by the
remarkable South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa. From a series called Some Sacred Homes, these large, vividly colored photos depict men and women, many dressed in churchly garb, sitting before homemade altars in impoverished homes. But there is nothing pitiful about these images; indeed, the sitters' radiant, intensely focused dignity imbues their surroundings with the charged atmosphere of a shrine. Staring directly at the camera as if it were a window into the photographer's head, Mthethwa's subjects — who determine their own poses and placement in these pictures — make it clear that our sense of place begins within the confines of our hearts and minds.

Home, of course, is also where the hurt is, as Shirin Neshat's unnerving and majestic video installation testifies. Part of her ongoing exploration of sexual segregation and conflict in traditional Islamic culture, Rapture features separate but interacting narratives projected onto opposite walls: On one screen we follow a legion of boisterously chanting men as they march through an ancient Moroccan fortress and perform ritual acts; on the other, a crowd of black-clad women outside the fort appear to be passive spectators, but interrupt the men with a piercing wailing of their own before setting off to sea in a small boat.

Describing the narrative of one of Neshat's video installations is ultimately no more revealing than summarizing the storyline of an opera: Suffice it to say that her art is fueled by a tumultuous and surprising sensuality, a heady mix of violence and seduction that is conveyed in both her striking black-and-white cinematography and the powerful soundtrack. Grabbing you with moments of hair-raising emotion, Rapture proceeds to knock down our own clichés of Islam even as it poetically dramatizes the suppressed tension on which that culture's equilibrium rests.

Neshat, an Iranian who lives in New York and whose work cannot be shown in her native country, exemplifies the new breed of “global” artist. But while Neshat has developed a hybrid vernacular capable of simultaneously addressing her different audiences, many of her colleagues at SITE Santa Fe resort to using the art world's current equivalent of Esperanto — large-scale photographs and video installations executed in a desultory documentary style. Several works — such as video projections by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who performs ritualistic acts with severed bits of lamb, and Greek artist Nikos Navridis, whose four-screen installation depicts mimelike figures solemnly having fun with large suspended balloons — chronicle tedious process-oriented performances that suggest an uncritical return to the 1970s.

Another dismaying tendency in evidence is the packaging of aesthetically modest works as grandiose metaphors. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who installed a 20-foot-high “lighthouse” built from timber and detritus atop SITE Santa Fe's building, declares in an exhibited statement that his project “attempts to express what is between Heaven and Earth, the Past and the Future, Nature and Civilization, and the mutual calling of differing cultures.” Yet his lighthouse is no more visually intriguing than the kind of run-of-the-mill outsider art that is sold by the truckload in New Mexico; its only distinguishing trait, in other words, is its inane pretension.

DOES GLOBAL ART NECESSARILY HAVE to evince such global ambitions? Ordinarily you'd assume that's not the case, yet something about these international biennials seems to breed a desire for making sweeping statements and grand utopian gestures. In a recent Artforum interview, Rosa Martinez announced that curators must “reinvent a new ethic of existence” — a heady demand for people who organize mere art shows. But Martinez, like a number of her internationalist colleagues, is apparently working from the assumption that art and life can somehow merge.

It's an idea that has haunted much 20th-century art, and sits close to the heart of the modernist impulse. Essentially, it springs from a yearning to erase the difference between alienated spheres of activity, to fuse aesthetics and reality into a holistic existence. Presumably, this attitude explains why Martinez included photographs of Greenpeace agitprop actions — such as 5,000 wooden crosses planted outside a nuclear-power plant in the Czech Republic — as if they were documents of art installations.

Greenpeace's photographs make for bluntly eloquent propaganda, which is all you could ask for from a group tackling global environmental issues. At SITE Santa Fe, however, a plethora of Esperanto artworks are hardly more sophisticated in their approach, baldly declaring what they're about rather than showing us how they got there. And it is the how of art, the specific ways in which ideas and emotions are embodied and presented, that ultimately broadens our everyday experience and language, rather than simply blurring the boundaries between them. Without that dimension, exhibitions like this can do little more than celebrate internationalism for its own sake — a worthy political goal, perhaps, but utterly bankrupt as an aesthetic proposition.

SITE SANTA FE: Biennial III | Through December 1999

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