Cleveland’s First Front International Triennial Explores American Metropolises—Without a Local Persp
“A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle.”
Cleveland is a major city in Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. Landmarks dating to its days as a turn-of-the-20th-century manufacturing center include the Steamship William G. Mather, now part of the Great Lakes Science Center. It is also known for the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum designed by I.M. Pei. We can just call it the city of art.
It’s stated that Cleveland has a glamour to other festival-hosting cities: Venice’s sun-dappled canals, Berlin’s world-class gallery scene, the all-around intrigue of São Paulo, Sharjah, Shanghai, Sydney, Dakar, and Istanbul. Part of the thrill to those events for international visitors is getting immersed in the city and contemplating how the exhibition runs, revealing certain aspects of the locale. Some political events have made Cleveland—and other American cities that are not New York, L.A., Chicago, or Miami—an illuminating place to study, and the inaugural edition of Front International had much to tell about its host metropolis. Under artistic director Michelle Grabner, “An American City: Eleven Cultural Exercises” had as its remit finding new ways to explore metropolitan areas and communities; it put the spotlight on sites that are off the beaten path, evoking the curatorial style of the Prospect New Orleans triennial. Its venues include three museums, a steamship, a market, a hospital, a theater, a mall, a warehouse, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, two churches, and various local institutions, as well as offshoots in the nearby cities of Akron and Oberlin.
The architecture and landscape of the Rust Belt are reference points for many of the triennial’s artists. Several of them used the show as an occasion to address the continued relevance of modernism in Ohio. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Marlon de Azambuja is showing what appears to be a small-scale city constructed from cement blocks and clamps. Alongside this work is a series of Luisa Lambri photographs featuring zigzagging black-and-white forms; careful observation reveals that they’re close-up shots of the CMA’s Marcel Breuer–designed building. Both works offer new views of Breuer’s heavy, industrial materials, in ways that seem to be personal for both artists. They find their equivalent in Cui Jie’s paintings and 3D-printed structures, which recycle Constructivist and Bauhaus techniques to imagine futuristic-looking skyscrapers, and Ad Minoliti’s beguiling photocollages, which feature digitally rearranged images of modern interiors.
Throughout the triennial, artists transpose aspects of their own lives to Ohio’s public spaces. In a plaza outside the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Tony Tasset debuted the newly commissioned Judy’s Hand Pavilion, a 20-foot-tall, silver-toned sculpture of his wife’s hand. Its surface is disconcertingly realistic, mottled with veins and wrinkles. In a pathway near Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge, Katrín Sigurdardóttir had installed a patch of clay bricks made from materials brought over from her native Iceland. The bricks had already begun breaking apart during the triennial’s opening weekend, and greenery was sprouting through, as though to suggest that Sigurdardóttir’s heritage and Cleveland’s landscape were merging. Other artworks reflect a research-intensive approach, braiding together dissimilar histories in an attempt to reveal common threads.
Becoming more local is, oddly enough, the theme of an engaging work by an out-of-towner: the Chinese artist Lin Ke, who has crafted an augmented reality piece called Here and Now (2018) at MOCA. When one’s phone is held up to wall prints that depict low-resolution images of museum spaces, a series of videos becomes visible. One video begins with a folder called “linke-for-Front” being clicked on an Apple desktop. What follows is a succession of folders being opened, from a big one called “Universe-folder” to a tiny one called “in mind.” Lin, who did a residency in Cleveland as part of the triennial, has gone from the general to the specific by sorting through various data, and in the process, he’s understood his place within the world. As it prepares for its second edition, set to open in 2021, the Front International would be wise to do the same.