I just binge-watched the entire new season of ART21. It was like a year’s worth of grad school lectures condensed into four hours, and for the most part, it was riveting. For artists or anyone who wants to understand contemporary art, this show is for you. Professional artists articulate the ideas intrinsic to their work, which can teach you how to ask questions of any artwork you encounter; you will see how a cross-section of international artists thinks. New seasons of ART21 are released every other year, like a biennial, and being featured on the show is like receiving a blue chip in the world of media and contemporary art. All artists are museum-level candidates for the history books.
Each episode features three artists and is organized loosely around a theme that is purposely interpreted very broadly. "Investigation," "Secrets," "Legacy" and "Fiction" are this season’s focus. There are investigations of cultures and professions, military secrets, several mentions of influential families, and of course, fiction, something that art is almost always engaging with. ART21’s signature production style often begins with "huh?" moments followed by a big reveal, however different methods are used to best match each artist's practice. If a community (including studio assistants) is deeply involved in the work, their interviews are just as important as the artist’s. Sometimes photos tell the story, as with legendary photographer Graciela Iturbide, the artist behind Our Lady of Iguanas, a memorable image of a woman wearing a crown of live iguanas for sale. Just like art, the artists’ words are left open to interpretation. It’s often up to you to decide what they're really saying, and there are no interviews with critics or curators to speak for the artists or tell you what to think.
Some episodes will speak to you more than others, and that is totally on you. It's not about whether you like the art, because your mind can be changed once you learn more about it. It's more about your aesthetic taste, of course, but also your taste in ideas.
Trevor Paglen, a UC Berkeley grad now living in New York, is incredibly knowledgeable about so many things that it seems like his very large brain must have an external hard drive to hold all that information. He has an MFA and a PhD and knows everything about the universe, the military, history, geography, technology and the foundation of art. He talks about the perception of the night sky as a mirror of culture, and the same has been said about art. He and another artist in the series both reference drones, a noticeably contemporary concern. Paglen knows the history of government technologies, but also the emotion behind those developments, an illustration of the balance between his scientific and artistic practices. He is a badass. He takes pictures of secret military operations from a technically safe distance, but on the very edge of danger. KQED sponsored a lecture with him at SF State several years ago. After meeting him, I was convinced he would be offed for his investigations, though he has actually been embraced by the holders of government secrets.
Where else but ART21 could you find someone who lives in a glass house and spends months collecting pollen from a dandelion meadow to create sifted works so ephemeral they could be sneezed away? Art’s effect can be that of a strange dream land, and documentary video is the closest you’ll ever get to being behind the scenes because you can’t go visiting a bunch of famous artists. Wolfgang Laib is the pollen artist, and he also uses beeswax and milk, other timeless materials.
I was most excited to see Katharina Grosse create her huge, sculptural forms covered in piles of pure pigment. They are explosions of color. She says colors are like the voice of a singer, and her work has a very loud and lyrical impact. She calls herself a trickster, and though ART21 has an incredibly serious tone, the lighter sides of artists’ personalities are subtly revealed. I loved seeing Grosse in a tie-dyed sweatshirt reminiscent of her work. Even trivial details like this contribute to the story of a creator’s life and persona.
Here is a long list of more things that grabbed me this season: Arlene Shechet’s desire to create structure from mush; Elliot Hudley reinterpreting his own thoughts, and his ideas about collage as an ancient and populist art form; Leonardo Drew discovering his voice when he saw a Pollock painting and abandoned his highly advanced drawing skills, which were actually getting in his way; Tania Burguera’s assertion that today’s art should happen outside of museums; Katharina Grosse’s statement that defining your work by medium (sculpture, painting, etc.) doesn’t make it any clearer; Graciela Iturbide’s resonant words, “A camera is a pretext for knowing the world;" Thomas Hirschorn’s mantra, “Energy yes, quality no.”
This season of ART21 was just as inspiring and educational as all the others. It’s important television. Only a true art nerd has made it this far into the article, and to you, I say thanks for reading, and consider your next four Friday nights booked. Catch Art21 11pm on November 2, 9, 16 and 23 on KQED Life and November 12, 19, 26 and December 24 on KQED Plus.
This article is dedicated to Susan Sollins, ART21 founder and executive director, who passed away earlier this month. She set the gold standard for arts media production in the PBS community, and her leadership will be missed by all of us who looked up to her. Read more about Susan Sollins at art21.org.