FRONT 2022: Can Art Heal Cleveland?
After Charles and Ray Eames, What is Design? (1969). Exhibition view: FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Cleveland (16 July–2 October 2022). Photo: Field Studio.
Can art help us heal? And if so, what creative paths should we take towards wellbeing? The second, pandemic-inflected edition of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art (16 July–2 October 2022) responds to such timely questions.
Titled Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, the exhibition pays homage to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes by making a salutary nod to his 1957 poem, 'Two Somewhat Different Epigrams'.
Hughes lived in Cleveland during his youth, where his early creative trajectory was shaped. Accordingly, the poet's concerns for community and the restorative power of art take centre stage at FRONT 2022.
Curated by Artistic Director Prem Krishnamurthy and Assistant Curator Annie Wischmeyer, with an artistic team consisting of Murtaza Vali, Evelyn Burnett, Courtenay Finn, Tina Kukielski, Emily Liebert, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Tereza Ruller, the exhibition features over 100 local, regional, and international artists, from Seuil Chung to Julie Mehretu and Sarah Oppenheimer.
Presented across more than 30 venues throughout Cleveland and its surrounding cities, the curatorial grapples with the region's 'past and present scars, from the environmental degradation caused by industrial production to police violence and urban fracture' to explore new routes to healing.
Responding to past criticism of relying too heavily on international artists, FRONT 2022 makes a point of showcasing a sizeable cadre of local talent.
Included at multiple sites, among them, Akron Art Museum and Cleveland Institute of Art, is the work of Cleveland artist Dexter Davis. A collage-based woodblock print titled Midnight (2006), uses colour-streaked found paper and other materials to create striking self-portraits inspired by African mask imagery, reflecting the physical and psychological violence that has permeated the artist's life after being shot two years ago.
Local artist Charmaine Spencer, one of four inaugural recipients of the FRONT Art Futures Fellowship, presents several works across the exhibition, including the freestanding sculpture Choir (2004), located at Quaker Square.
Installed by the artist using an intuitive process that led to the sculpture's eventual shape, bound and twisted materials—wood wall lath, jute, and burlap—sourced from demolished homes around Cleveland form a large floor-to-ceiling labyrinth-like structure, powerfully representing the fragile stasis in the artist's community.
As part of FRONT 22, Cleveland-born artist Renée Green presents an expansive, contrapuntal debut show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland titled Contact (16 July 2022–1 January 2023).
Among discursive and poetic artworks on display is the installation Partially Buried in Three Parts (1996–1997), which includes two single-channel videos examining memory and the commemoration of the 1970 Kent State University massacre, illuminating ideas about relation, accreted experience, and the possibilities of both knowing and unknowing.
In line with Green's commitment to collaborative practice, Contact also includes works by artists Pedro Zylbersztajn, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Jessica Sarah Rinland, and Laura Serejo Genes—all Green's M.I.T. students—and contributions by established artists like John Akomfrah and vocalist Derrick Green, the artist's brother.
Artists outside the region also contribute to the enormously fertile subject of healing, as with Hong Kong-born artist Wong Kit Yi's hypnotic, karaoke-style video installation Inner Voice Transplant (2022), which invites viewer-listeners to think about the spiritual and cultural dimensions of healing.
Presented at the Emily Davis Gallery and the Samson Pavilion, the work ruminates on seemingly disparate connections between the Chinese legend of the jiangshi (hopping zombie, or vampire), ancient Egyptian dream interpretation, voice-box transplants (first performed at the Cleveland Clinic), and the artist's story of caring for her mother, who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis.
Moving beyond galleries and into the community itself, is New York-based artist Jacolby Satterwhite's permanent public installation. Dawn (2021) is a multimedia project, installed as an interactive-reality arcade inside the Cleveland Institute of Art and as a freestanding sculptural screen outside Cleveland Clinic.
Comprising, among other things, a two-channel video installation, layered graphic wallpaper, and a painting of Black youth dancing around a maypole, the project includes animations and drawings by residents from Cleveland's under-served Fairfax community, foregrounding a utopian vision that includes renewed interactions with health providers with whom the community has had a fraught relationship.
Within the same neighbourhood, artist Abigail DeVille transforms the public park, Quincy Gardens, into a field of dreams. In The Dream Keeper (2022), the artist uses 13 face casts of community members to create semi-figurative, abstract sculptures placed throughout the site.
Can art help us heal? And if so, what creative paths should we take towards wellbeing?
Each sculpture presents materials and stories from the city's Indigenous and Black histories, and responds to Hughes' poetry, which informs a new and pressing question: 'Who are the dream keepers in Cleveland?'
The poignancy of The Dream Keeper's location is made clear in its proximity to Karamu House, an arts centre where Hughes staged his early plays, and the brooding Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, a stark reminder of the criminal justice system's readiness to defer the dreams of Cleveland's children.
The region's environmental landscape, devastated by decades of economic and industrial degradation and neglect, is also brought into FRONT 2022's theme of restoration.
London-based collective Cooking Sections' fountain installation on Lake Erie, To Those Who Nourish (2022), addresses both the hypoxia that is presently killing the lake and the urgency of drawing attention to its surrounding ecosystem; the work's title honours local farms that have committed to moving away from fertilizers that runoff into the water.
Lake Erie features again in Asad Raza's public sculpture located at the park Wade Oval, Orientation (2022); this time through sediment mixed with crushed zebra and quagga mussels that form a large, child-friendly slide with wings.
Other takes on the environment include Haseeb Ahmed's site-specific sculptural installation at SPACES, a local non-profit art centre, where Jumana Manna's film Wild Relatives (2018) explores the fevered politics of seed preservation in the wake of the Syrian civil war.
Ahmed's Vanquish the Void! (2022) uses a nearby weather station and automated aeoliphones to produce real-time sounds that score a film about the impact of wind on our existence.
If some semblance of healing can be achieved within noxious social and environmental contexts, then tenuous holds on wellness must be protected. This comes through in Turkish-born artist Ahmet Öğüt's monumental installation Bakunin's Barricade (2022) at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin.
Inspired by Prussian-era anarchist Mikhail Bakunin's idea that opposing armies wouldn't dare destroy prized art if it was placed before them, the installation gathers artworks from the Allen Memorial Art Museum's collection, and items like road signs and chainlink fencing, into a riotous mountain of objects that forms a structural guard.
Such notes of protest, noticeably muted in an exhibition located within an economically depressed, racially segregated city, permeate Tony Cokes' video work, Evil.16 (Torture.Musik) (2009–2011). Appropriately installed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the single-channel video shows excerpts of Moustafa Bayoumi's reportage and scholarship, which revealed how the U.S. military used music as a form of torture during the Iraq War.
Incorporating precise playlists, the work features animated text on brightly coloured digital backgrounds accompanied by loud and timed sounds, creating provocative juxtapositions and different registers of meaning.
At FRONT 2022, the sonic also offers pathways to pleasure. Whether in Cory Arcangel's algorithmic compositions, played on carillon bells daily at the Alexander McGaffin Memorial Tower and Carillon and throughout the region, or Austrian-born Martin Beck's nostalgic long-form film Last Night (2016) at Bop Stop.
Beck's film shows 11.5 hours of unbroken recorded music through a close-cropped image of a vintage turntable, detailing the final playlist of New York D.J. David Mancuso's infamous Loft party at 99 Prince Street.
At the stately Cleveland Public Library, interdisciplinary artist Jace Clayton's participatory sound installation 40 Part Part (2022), invites visitors to transform personal audio files via Bluetooth devices. Sound is positioned as a collaborative and soul-gratifying source of inspiration.
But among artworks on view, it is those that highlight the everyday practice of craft and making as a form of therapy that strike the most salient note.
At Akron Art Museum, an array of works reference concerns for materiality and interconnected webs of experience, resulting in felt energy reminiscent of what political theorist Jane Bennett calls 'vibrant matter'.
La Wilson's Retrospective (2004–2006) is a wood box containing an assemblage of found objects the artist meticulously collected over the years. The patient, slow power of the work provides an example of a kind of ritualistic sense-making that comes from the careful gathering and presenting of items that adorn our consumer-driven lives.
Similarly, Trinidad and Tobago-born artist Allana Clarke's magnificent wall-to-floor sculpture, At a Depth Beyond Anyone (2022), uses hair-bonding glue, which the artist transforms into a tar-black, waxy substance. Veined and creased, it is suggestive of the products associated with Black femininity, while hinting at their toxicity.
Staying with the quotidian, Dominic Palarchio's quiet and resonant Untitled (2022), brings white and red stitched soiled rags into a textile work that calls attention to the artist's family history and the artistic value of craft and domestic labour.
Accompanied by powerful contributions by Theaster Gates, Robert Reed, and Audra Skuodas, among others, these works stand out in their muted, yet moving ability to evoke the spirit of FRONT 2022.
Even still, the show's overall curatorial focus can, at times, feel too detached from the urgent needs and demands of this troubled region, which is still visibly reeling from the impacts of the pandemic and the recent police shooting of Jayland Walker.
Even when, and where, there are clear attempts at relating the exhibition to its social setting, the curatorial seems inclined towards a gloss that doesn't adequately address the deep reservoirs of pain being experienced here. —[O]