- Rites of Passage and Radical Departures
My spirit bears to speak of shapes changed into new entities.—Ovid
Extreme in scope with works by ten artists and a range of interactive installations and performance works, some of which take place over an extended period of time, the exhibition Bodies of Knowledge at the New Orleans Museum of Art requires a particular level of stamina. The curators, Katie Pfohl and Allison Young, have had an amazing track record working together since Young became the appointed Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at NOMA. With Young’s departure in fall 2019 for her new position as assistant professor of contemporary art history at LSU in Baton Rouge, the pair of ingenious and innovative curators have developed an exhibition that is both complex and transformative. Pfohl, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at NOMA, has often commented on her dedication to expanding the traditional scope of American art, and with Bodies of Knowledge she merges the global with the local in dynamic and charged juxtapositions.
With works by Manon Bellet, Wafaa Bilal, Garrett Bradley, Adriana Corral, Mahmoud Chouki, Zhang Huan, William Kentridge, Shirin Neshat, Edward Spots, and Wilmer Wilson IV, Bodies of Knowledge covers multiple continents and a myriad of formal and conceptual approaches. But the question remains, what do any of these artists have in common and why group them together in an exhibition? While Bodies of Knowledge claims to be about the role that language plays in archiving and asserting cultural identities,1 language and writing are not the takeaway here.
While paper, books, post-it notes, and text are referenced in many of the works, it is the actual ritual inscription, the mark making and the temporal presence and absence of the body as it moves through space, that ties these works together. These works are primal. They evoke a complexity in their role as intermediaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. These works [End Page 519] sit at the crossroads of our culture, and to view them is to look at a shadow dancer, a cruel mirror of nihilism and despair. There is not much uplifting here, and there is simply no reason why there should be. Instead, the interplay between the curators, the artists, and the works of art is a comment on the cathartic potentials of art as ritual and a call to community action.
The exhibition offers a transnational global perspective, yet it is jarringly site specific as an American exhibition, revealing much about the zeitgeist of our current continental situation. While works in the exhibition focus on issues of human and civil rights in places such as Mexico, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, those issues are never more relevant than here in this place, America, where dialogue between body and art reveals both a great divide and an alarming intimacy with current global human rights issues. What ultimately ties all of these works together is language, yes, but not words. It is a global communal language echoing that of our most ancient ancestors, and it is varied and not at all easy to decipher. It is as much tonal as it is reflective, guttural as it is silent. It involves the language of the body and of the song, of the space and of the object, of the mark and of the place. With an emphasis on inner ritual extended to the public sphere, this exhibition is a living breathing beast, a burning man in an ivory facade. The edifice cannot contain it. And we are its heartbeat.
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Manon Bellet’s Brèves Braises is an expanse of an interior wall affixed with the burnt remains of...