You Don’t Have to Fly Halfway Around the World to Find the Art You’re Looking For

Claire Fontaine, 'Foreigners Everywhere (Arabic),' 2005. (Photo by James Thornhill; Courtesy of KADIST)

I recently flew to Europe to look at art. The main draw was documenta 14, the 14th iteration of a once-every-five-years exhibition (a quinquennial, I learned) that takes over the German city of Kassel -- and this year, 47 additional venues in Athens -- with site-specific projects, major installations and work by over 100 artists, both living and dead. I flew to Europe because scarcity and the allure of art historical import are powerful motivators. Plus, I had the vacation time.

I’m not sure what I expected, but documenta 14 wasn’t it. “Where are all the objects?” I kept asking, as I navigated the exhibition's baffling way-finding system in search of Kassel’s Neue Neue Galerie (not to be confused with the Neue Galerie, which also exists). Also largely missing in the installations: color, sumptuous aesthetics or any sense of humor at all.

I flew back confused and a bit demoralized. Were my hopes for contemporary art -- that it could be engaging, informative and aesthetically compelling all at once -- so out of step with the international scene? According to documenta 14, the preferred way to address the complex social, political and economic situations of our times is through overtly didactic video treatises on the evils of capitalism. They might have been informative, but engaging and aesthetically compelling? Not so much. (I also don't think artist-made videos do much to fix the aforementioned situations.)

Installation view of 'What We Know that We Don't Know,' with work by Nicolàs Consuegra in the background, work by Nazgol Ansarinia in the foreground.
Installation view of 'What We Know that We Don't Know,' with work by Nicolàs Consuegra in the background, work by Nazgol Ansarinia in the foreground. (Courtesy of KADIST)

On June 21, still jet-lagged, I took a much shorter journey for the same purposes, walking a few blocks to the San Francisco art space KADIST for the opening of What We Know that We Don’t Know. It was everything my European sojourn was not, in no small part because it cost me nothing to get there and I already knew the way.

But for other reasons, too: an exhibition of just eight works spaced out across three galleries, one nook and a street-facing window, What We Know could also be described as a show addressing the complex social, political and economic situations of our times. Yet instead of heavy-handed diatribes, curator Arash Fayez organizes What We Know around the poetic concept of the paradox. In each work, opposing interpretations coexist, prompting thrilling experiences of cognitive dissonance throughout the carefully arranged show. And once the search for double meaning begins, the viewing experience is no longer passive: it becomes a puzzle of seeking out multiple ways of “reading” each piece.

Miljohn Ruperto, film still from 'Janus,' 2013.
Miljohn Ruperto, film still from 'Janus,' 2013. (Courtesy of KADIST)

In the darkened nook, Miljohn Ruperto’s Janus helps illustrate just what a paradoxical visual art object might look like. A looped video plays on a flat-screen monitor laying face-up on the floor, showing what appear to be the dying breaths of a blue cartoon duck, or a blue cartoon rabbit, depending on how you see this variation on the optical illusion made popular by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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“I wanted you to identify with something you can’t identify,” Ruperto says of the impulse behind Janus. This is the sole representation of a physical body (albeit an animated mystery animal), but Janus is not the only work in the show that attempts to understand the unknowable, encouraging empathy for lives and experiences beyond one’s own.

Installation view of 'What We Know that We Don't Know,' with work by Trisha Donnelly at left, work by Walid Raad on the right.
Installation view of 'What We Know that We Don't Know,' with work by Trisha Donnelly at left, work by Walid Raad on the right. (Courtesy of KADIST)

In the gallery’s window, Claire Fontaine’s Foreigners Everywhere (Arabic) is just as it is titled: a piece of yellow neon reading “foreigners everywhere” in Arabic. In the context of President Trump’s attempted travel bans, a xenophobic interpretation is inevitable. But a secondary, more personal experience also emerges: We are foreigners everywhere that isn’t our home, and many don’t even get to enjoy that level of comfort, their identity and right to inhabit a particular space repeatedly questioned.

Inside, Nicolás Consuegra’s Nadie sabe de la sed con que otro bebe (No one knows the thirst with which another drinks) embodies the curatorial conceit and empathetic impulse with the simplest of materials: one floor-to-ceiling mirror and one vertical half of a water glass, positioned just so against the mirror’s surface to create the illusion of a complete glass. As you get closer, your own reflection becomes part of the piece, a poetic reminder that a version of you -- a person with unknowable needs, facing unknowable difficulties -- exists elsewhere in the world. Consuegra's piece, made at a residency in the impoverished and environmentally deteriorated city of Honda, Colombia, effectively asks why we would consider members of a distant community any differently than we would the members of our own immediate community.

A.K. Burns, 'Unknown Unknown,' 2016.
A.K. Burns, 'Unknown Unknown,' 2016. (Courtesy of KADIST)

Both the show's name and A.K. Burns' piece, a gray-painted steel gate called Unknown Unknown, draw their titles from Donald Rumsfeld's koan-like 2002 quote about the search for weapons of mass destruction. Fifteen years later, Rumsfeld's words remain strangely resonant, perhaps because the universally agreed-upon "known knowns" steadily disappear, replaced by ever-increasing numbers of "known unknowns" and the mysterious dark-matter-like "unknown unknowns."

The question at the core of Consuegra's piece is a known unknown. They're hard but important questions. Presented open-endedly, without presuming to offer any easy solutions to the complex difficulties of our times, the works are a reminder of what art can do: open windows to other places and experiences, challenge preconceived notions, bridge seemingly impossible divides.

'What We Know that We Don’t Know' is on view at San Francisco's KADIST through Aug. 19, 2017. For more information, see here.

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