On May 13 an eager audience filled the Hill Auditorium at the High Museum to hear Art Papers Live! guest speaker, Ute Meta Bauer. Bauer is an influential curator and current professor at MIT, known for work with Documenta 11 (2001) and the Third Berlin Biennial (2004), just to name a few. She jumped off by stating that, after working with over 200 biennials and art fairs, art had lost its “edge”. As a curator, she sees it as her job to pull an audience into a more complex dialogue, not merely to entertain, and her exhibitions reflect postmodern theory.
Before I answer the daunting question of what is postmodern, it helps to understand what it is not. In 1955 at MOMA, Edward Steichen curated a monumental exhibition entitled “Family of Man.” It showcased photographs of people from all over the world. It was an ambitious project and aimed to prove the universality of the human experience. This need for there to be an universal human experience and an universal art is a tenant of Modernism. Postmodern is definitely not about universality.
In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard defined postmodernity as the breaking of these meta-narratives (such as the Enlightenment) that universalize us. Lyotard’s claim was that we are more aware of difference and diversity, and we have become more multicultural; therefore, one grand theory cannot represent everyone in the world. The examples of exhibitions Bauer spoke about all dealt with a specific time and place, and the issues that surround these circumstances in order to create a dialogue among the local community and art world.
One of Bauer’s earliest exhibitions was “InformationService,” held first at Martin Schmitz Gallery in Kassel, Germany, concurrent with Documenta 9 in 1992. “InformationService” consisted of four carts containing over 80 hanging files with articles, videos, audiotapes, and other information about women artists. The 1990s saw a flourish of women artists making an impact, such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer. However, during this particular Documenta, as well as still in the mainstream art world, many felt these artists were underrepresented. “InformationService” was a protest against their underrepresentation and an effort to draw more attention to the work of women artists.
This exhibition also showcased Bauer’s emphasis on the archive. The archive is and continues to be a hot topic, particularly within the world of contemporary photography. (Last year the International Center for Photography put on an exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor entitled “Archive Fever: Uses for the Document in Contemporary Art” that dealt with photography as the quintessential method for archiving.) In “InformationService,” Bauer uses the archive like a catalog of women artists. An archive, like Bauer’s carts of information, promote the rethinking of identity, history, and memory. Looking at an issue from another perspective helps promote dialogue among the artistic community.
The emphasis on the archive is present in each of the exhibitions Bauer discussed last Wednesday. “Mobile_Transborder Archive” from 2005 is another good example. It was created for inSite 05 San Diego(USA)/Tijuana(MEX), which aimed to promote participation of cultural and educational institutions in the US and Mexico. Bauer’s contribution to the project was literally a library on wheels containing books, photographs, and other information specific to the Baja region.
Other shows dealt more explicitly with issues revolving around a certain time and place. One of these was held in Porto, Portugal, in 2001, for the annual European Capital Culture (each year the EU promotes one city’s cultural development for a year). Bauer worked on “First Story: Women Building/New Narratives for the 21st Century” which created an interdiscplinary approach to issues dealing with women in Portugal. This featured an inclusion by Women on Waves, an organization by a Dutch gynecologist who takes women seeking abortions onto international waters in order to perform the procedures. Portugal only legalized abortion in 2007, and at the time of the exhibition one nurse and seventeen women were being prosecuted for undergoing abortions. By bringing Women on Waves into the exhibition space, Bauer created lots of controversy and also a dialogue among the community.
Another exhibition with similar intentions was the Third Berlin Biennial in 2004. This exhibition promoted discussion of what happened during the 28 years East and West Berlin were separated by the wall, and how to promote an understanding of the two sides. It incorporated music, film, and visual arts into five hubs dealing with specific issues such as migration.
Bauer’s exhibitions are postmodern, highly conceptual, and involve the local community. Their intended goal is to spark a dialogue with creative and conceptual art. Bauer’s exhibitions have been heavily criticized for being too lofty and theoretical and not translating into a workable gallery space. Her speech in Atlanta hopefully was inspirational and will cause those in this artistic community to think outside the box and take some risks.