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'The Dissolve'
at SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Review by Alex Ross

'The Dissolve' is a selection of artists who colonize the digital domain without eschewing the individuality of their gestures.

“The Dissolve” surveys an emerging, yet historically-rooted, impulse within contemporary artistic practice. Offering contemporary animation as a point where “the homespun meets the high-tech,” this Eighth International Biennial is a fully moving-image-driven edition of SITE’s lauded program. The idea here is how the human body plays a role in countering the dehumanizing agencies inherent in contemporary modes of vision. Implementing an exhibition design greatly assisted by collaboration with architect David Adjaye, co-curators Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco present a selection of twenty-six contemporary works. Standout recent pieces result from new commissions by Bill T. Jones, in partnership with OpenEnded Group, and Mary Reid Kelly. The new works are constellated with four historical animations that trace the lineage of what the exhibition’s catalogue essay terms a “collective, yet uncoordinated aesthetic.”

Departing from the content-driven principles of previous Biennials organized by such renowned curators as Francesco Bonami, Dave Hickey, Rosa Martinez, and Robert Storr, “The Dissolve” is distinctly process-oriented. Traces of the hand embed themselves within the preserve of time-based media, and animation is used to reanimate discarded technologies. Establishing a consonance between these artists’ exploration of time and its own presentation of history, the exhibition is zoned into three discrete environments that recapitulate film’s technical development over the course of the twentieth century. Color-coded according the additive primary hues of digital reproduction, Adjaye’s expertly-realized design leads us through the shadow-suffused private spaces of the nickelodeon (blue), the enveloping, communal experience of the cinema (green), and the primacy of solitary viewing in our post-cinematic encounters with web-based video (red).

Among “The Dissolve’s” most noteworthy accomplishments is that its pedagogic bent serves to intensify  the emotional and conceptual amplitudes. Case in point: Edison Manufacturing Company’s humorous stop-motion animation of a lightning sketch artist interacting with a caricature in “The Enchanted Drawing” (1900). The piece emphasizes the fluid temporalities of cinematic spectatorship by initiating our empathy with deliberately homespun human figures. The charm of this early film serves to heighten the immediacy of the brutal nineteenth century narrative portrayed in the shadow puppet theater-like space of Kara Walker’s “Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road” (2009). Establishing this linkage between works divided from each other by 109 years of aesthetic and technological development, Lewis and Belasco underscore the past’s pervasive presence and alert us to the constructed aspect of imagination.

“The Dissolve” interrogates the standard paradigm of the video screen as a liminal site of tensions between the immobility of its spectators and the mobility of its images. To this end, George Griffin’s “Viewmaster” (1976/2007) is presented as a digital mutoscope – permitting viewers’ bodily involvement by hand-cranking its digital images either forwards or backwards to determine the work’s direction and duration. Similarly, Joshua Mosley’s “A Vue” (2004), which merges hand-drawn, computer-generated, and stop-motion techniques, is displayed in conjunction with a 24” bronze maquette of George Washington Carver – materializing the video’s principal virtual landmark. In the 15 screens comprising “Douche Bag City” (2010), Federico Solmi’s drawings have been animated by 3-D designer Russell Lowe. This work appropriates the first-person-shooter video game format to present the gruesome torture of their protagonist Dick Richman, an embodiment of today’s rapacious corporate mentality. The viewer instinctively hankers for control even when presented with dystopian landscapes. Here, our curtailed impulse to command others compels the physical realization that abstinence from desire can prove more intense than its actualization.

In its seemingly endless collisions of concepts and materials, “The Dissolve” offers an exemplary model of contemporary curating. Attendant to artists’ increasing impulse to colonize the digital domain without eschewing the individuality of their gestures, and honoring the spectator as a collaborator in the generation of art’s embodied meanings, it offers us a more personal relation to the creation and reception of contemporary virtualities. In its physical manifestation as well as its accompanying online component (thedissolve.net), it effects what few biennials have heretofore accomplished – what art historian and critic Eva Diaz recently suggested is the united pursuit of art historians and curators: “parlaying the knowledge of history into a better-informed horizon for the future.”

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