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The Progress of Love (Menil Collection)

Kristina Van Dyke, Bisi Silva, eds.

(Yale University Press; US: Dec 2012)

Like love, art follows a lateral progression. That is, neither progresses strictly, hierarchically forward or upward, instead flowing coincidentally and continentally, as it were, indiscriminate as a blanket or a glacier covering many areas at once. Love traverses a wide field; art responds in kind.


The Progress of Love is an exhibition catalogue for a tripartite art show. Spread across three individual museums simultaneously—The Menil Collection in Houston, Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, and The Pulitzer Foundation for The Arts in St. Louis—the exhibition takes its title from a series of paintings by 18th century artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who was “among the first in the history of European art to represent love as a contemporary phenomenon, with persons in recognizable dress and scenes, as opposed to showing them in the guise of allegory or fiction.” 


Fragonard’s paintings of polished elegant spectacle depicted the various stages lovers go through, from courtship to consummation. This modern exhibition, Kristina Van Dyke explains in her introductory essay, “inherits the tradition [Fragonard] spawned in exploring the representation of love as something specific to a time and place, in this case Africa, Europe, and America.”


While Fragonard’s narrative followed a traditionally Western, heterocentrist arc—man and woman court, date and mate—the works in this contemporary project sprawl in manifold directions, charting love’s progress and regress, its undress and redress, experienced through a variety of cultural lenses. The individual yet concurrent shows mirror and comment on and collaborate with one another, and each museum’s visitors, whether consciously or not, exchange a small, yet significant amount of geo-empathy.


One’s exposure to an exhibition through only its catalogue is, of course, an incomplete experience; reproductions provide only partial, and sometimes less than partial, evidence. Though much of the art here is photographic, and thus perhaps easier to get a sense of in terms of its actual physicality, other works are more performative and interactive, and would doubtless benefit from interpersonal contact. 


That said, the catalogue is a finely produced hardcover, with a thorough presentation of the work in its most approximate context. In lieu of actual travel, the scholarly essays go a long way toward assisting an absentee experience. Through descriptions of works, of the contributing artists’ working methods and artistic philosophies, and the works’ cultural ramifications, one is able to get a sense of the exhibition’s global layout and intentions.


The catalogue defines the exhibition’s treatment of “progress” as a movement from one historical moment and culture into or between others, more passage or interchange than the traditional historical notion of progress as advancement or even betterment. Such traditionalism was linked to an “Enlightenment rationale… used as justification for imperialism and colonialism.” Progress, and love, in this sense, meant simply domination by one power over or through another. “[…W]hat this project demonstrates,” the catalogue continues,  “is that definitions of love [and the progress of love] in the West and on the continent of Africa have long been and remain contingent, not part of a unidirectional flow from one sphere to another.”


Thus the exhibition, with its simultaneous presentations in triple locales (along with the catalogue and a website), is itself an enactment of this more multi-directional contingency, with each location still retaining its own particular personality or emphasis, in order to “provide viewers in each space with a possibility of self-identification that would allow them to be more active participants in the exhibitions and performances.” (Again, an indication of the unfortunately lopsided experience of “viewing” an exhibition solely through its catalogue.)


The pluralism that extended through the art world of the ‘70s has long given way to massive explosions of styles, media and methods, a global Anything Goes, So Long As It Goes Somewhere. Though the works here range from oil paintings to painted bodies, the predominant medium is photographic: The forlorn portraits of Ricardo Rangel, black and white snapshots of late-night bar crowds in early 1970s Mozambique, filled with the “tension between intimacy and disconnection.” Or the more recent photographs of Zanele Muholi who, through photographs of a “gender queer” named Miss D’vine (2007), posing in unlikely locations, posits “questions about who belongs in or conceptually owns” certain cultural spaces.


It’s always refreshing in this digital age to see some good old-fashioned representational oil painting. Works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, such as Secular Readings and Marble (both 2010) glory in a kind of diffuse painterliness, their figures set in open, indeterminate spaces that hint at the pastoral without locking into that interpretation.


There are also more abstract painterly forms, such as the work of Zoulikha Bouabdellah entitled Chéri (2007), which, at first glance, seems like purely abstract red drips and splashes on white backgrounds, someone bleeding out Rorschach tests. But the essay informs us the work “comprises over 300 sheets of paper on which individual words for love in Arabic are written in red lacquer [and] organized in a grid-like formation.” The spilling thus becomes a lucid linguistic expression: bloodletting as love letter.


The grid, that go-to form from Modernism to Minimalism, is still the ideal structure for cultural and linguistic systems and their critique; serving as both matrix and metaphor, grids gird the works visually and reinforce their meaning.


An installation of 150 pocket mirrors by Joël Andrianomearisoa, entitled Darling, you can make my dreams come true if you say you love me too (2010), is another such grid-like form. The catalogue describes it: “One’s encounter with [these compact mirrors opened at varying angles] results in a fractured reflection of the self as opposed to a totalizing one, suggesting the ways in which the demands we make on others for completion can never be fully met.”


Even without the physical experience of seeing oneself reflected and fractured so many times, the implication of a multiplied self is clear—as well as to whom the “darling” refers: Mirrors, mirrors on the wall…


What is harder to distinguish from the catalogue alone is the effect of the mainly performative pieces that comprise the Lagos portion of the exhibition. The work of Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku appears especially provocative. In the essay “Performing Love, Enacting Life,” Bisi Silva describes one such performance (unrelated to the exhibition but indicative of the artist’s work):


“…at a small, local ram market… a man on all fours, wrapped in cellophane with a rope tied around his neck [was] being dragged by two men wearing suits. As the man crawled around, making unintelligible noises amongst the other animals, he was joined by a group of people who danced and sang momentarily around him. Then the man… stood up and got into a car that drove away. A few minutes later the performer reappeared fully clothed and mingled with the crowd.”


Clearly inspired (as the catalogue notes) by German artist Joseph Beuys’s “social sculptures,” such aggressive performances must be seen, or experienced rather, in order for their full impact to be felt.


More thematically direct is the multimedia (or what the kids are calling “transmedia”) work of Sophie Calle. Comprised of photographs, videos, audio recordings and text, the installation Take Care of Yourself (2007-09) was inspired by a break-up email the artist received that ended with the title words. Calle then asked “107 women, chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter. To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.” As the women chosen for the project “used the scalpels of ‘cold reasoning’ to cut through the body of the letter,” the result is a wide-ranging interactive cataloguing with a kind of delectable procedural thrill. Aesthetic autopsy and annotation. Art as clinical revenge.


While the exhibition’s “conversation” with its namesake series is mostly oblique or implicit, artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE, deals directly and explicitly with Fragonard, to the point of co-opting the 18th century artist’s figures and “recast[ing] them as headless mannequins in ‘African’ garb…”. These headless tableaux—kind of total works of art incorporating elements of painting, costume, sculpture, and photography—are striking even in reproduction. For the exhibitions organizers, Shinobare’s work “calls attention to the ways in which global economic forces participated in emerging European notions of romantic, heterosexual, couple-centered love. In pointing to the ways in which Africa and other parts of what are now considered the developing world were implicitly present in these formations, Shonibare asserts that notions of love are, and have long been, relative.”


Shonibare concludes the catalogue with an appropriately complex image: Fake Death Picture is a photographic staging of a 19th century painting entitled Chatterton (1856), by Henry Wallis, depicting the suicide of 17-year old poet Thomas Chatterton. In both painting and photograph, the figure, draped upon a divan, has the delicate, slightly sensual sway and curvature of an odalisque. Yet Shonibare replaces the poet with British commander Horatio Nelson, whose victory in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar “freed up the seas for the British, [which led], in turn, to the building of the British Empire.” Typical of the kind of negative capability inherent in Shonibare’s work, the artist acknowledges gratefully that Nelson’s imperialist imperative “created the London we know today: an exciting, diverse, multicultural city.”


The staged photograph reconciles oppositions and welcomes contingencies: Adorned in Shonibare’s familiar Dutch Wax, the eye-popping “African” textile that was in fact a Dutch/British colonial import, the work embodies, and suicides, an amalgamation of cultures and cultural histories. Within this lavishly constructed and upholstered spectacle is a critique of that spectacle and, finally, a palpable love of spectacle itself.


Now that’s progress.

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