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"Abandon your expectations" can be solid advice when viewing art, especially contemporary works. Doing so frees you to give way to the process of untangling meaning and allows you to fully embrace the context of a work.
Quality contemporary work requires this. In return, the viewer is gifted with logical underpinnings of surprise and a frustration that births accomplishment. It’s the work you never expected, the work that makes you feel small upon first encounter and bigger than a building when you walk away.
It's the kind of work I’ve come to hope for, and yes, perhaps even expect from places like Site:Lab and UICA. Both organizations are known for quality year-round exhibitions and each have unique histories of successful ArtPrize endeavors.
This year, both venues created exhibitions that explore themes of place and time. The UICA’s “Somewhere Else” (2 West Fulton) and Site:Lab’s “The Dream Before” (54 Jefferson) seek to immerse viewers in new worlds, yet only one managed to make me forget where I was.
“Somewhere Else” is described as “inspired by the way ArtPrize annually transforms Grand Rapids into a festival of visual curiosities” and aims to “transport viewers to another place” through the “immersive installations, aggressive escapism, and panoramic perspective," but yet somehow also argue that there is "no place like home."
The exhibit itself borrows too much from the "chaos without value" ArtPrize phenomena with many of the works having no connection to one another. Additionally, given the opening of the 4th and 5th floors and the terrace, the use of the architecturally beautiful space was underwhelming and at times wasteful.
“Song of Lift” by Martijn van Wagtendonk played well with the black box theatre; however, the work was no more than a jazzed up version of his 2010 ArtPrize entry “Surge” (shown at the UICA’s former location on Sheldon): bigger, louder, with more pretty colors. A crowd pleaser in every sense, but ultimately just an old idea in a new space.
One of the most unique features of the UICA's building is the large vertical gallery space that runs parallel to the main stairwell. The expansive area begs to be toyed with. The exhibit that occupies that space is Bryan Leister’s “A Message for Survivors,” which has plenty of toys, but comes off as a brash use of too much technology. Its post-apocalyptic context resurrects visions of zombie takeovers and though the updated take on a message in a bottle is promising, the reliance on public participation creates an end result devoid of meaning.
Conversely, Site:Lab’s “The Dream Before” took on the task of making an old space new again, and succeeded in ways that were at times dizzying and completely mesmerizing. Stephen Hendee’s “The Ice Next Time” also addressed a type of post-apocalyptic world. Described as “an exhibition at the Grand Rapids Public Museum in the year 2439 [that] looks back at the dramatic historic period when electricity ceased to flow for over two centuries,” Hendee’s piece, a collection of fictional artifacts, used the space itself to convey what once was, what is, and what could be.
One of the best uses of the former Public Museum was by Alois Kronschlaeger, whose “Habitat” transformed the mammal dioramas into an interactive, synthetically-charged strange, strange place. Kronschlaeger’s “Spire” was featured in Site:Lab’s 2011 ArtPrize venue, and though aesthetically similar as smaller-scale pieces were included in “Habitat," the new use of space conveyed a completely different meaning altogether.
The juxtaposition of old and new in Site:Lab was frustrating, but with each exhibit the contemplation of time, place and things, specifically what happens to things as time and place change, became deeper and more jarring. “The Dream Before” creates the opportunity to be a child lost in a museum, completely consumed by where you are and blissfully ignorant of the ticking clock.
Each organization had a lot to live up to for this year’s competition and are in unique positions when it comes to ArtPrize in general. Both must aim to create quality exhibitions that draw in the public and potential year-round supporters right when they’re paying the most attention. They also have to maintain a certain level that has come to be expected from such organizations.
This year, the UICA’s pendulum swayed too far into the realm of public vote and consequently the exhibition risks being forgotten along with the rest of the city's temporary installations. Site:Lab created an experience that will have people near and far talking long after the competition’s winners have been announced.
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