Ambiguous Utility

By Su Wu

A curator considers her role in presenting works that straddle categories in spaces that challenge exhibition paradigms. 

I remember when I was first starting out, I went to this arts writers conference at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and I think it was supposed to be an annual thing, but it was such a group of maladjusted people that it only happened once. But I remember Christopher Knight of the LA Times telling a story about talking to an artist, and the artist said, “Well, if it wasn't for artists, you would have nothing to write about.” And Christopher Knight—Pulitzer Prize-winning Christopher Knight—responded, “Well, but then I would just write about why artists don't exist.” And it's something that I've carried with me ever since, this important reminder that no artist or designer ever really needed a writer in order to make their work, or at least they shouldn't. Like, maybe as a curator, you create the space or the means for an idea to be reified in the world. But in general, I'm tertiary to the main event, and I think that's a really lucky place to be.

There's this great Rancière quote about how in every logic of emancipation there has to be a third thing, that separate reason to exist. And, for me, I've been very fortunate to find myself in this third thing, in this space between design and art. And, in particular, what has interested me is this commonplace that when you ask people what the distinction is between design and art, they will very often point to use. So what I try to do is emphasize that even in design objects, or especially in design objects, use is not a baked-in or essential quality; that of course use is constantly being defined and redefined by our relationships to one another, by how we are needed, by how we can be of service. I had a conversation once with a machine learning expert about captchas—the images that ask you to identify all the trains or bridges as a digital security precaution—and he said, almost as a throwaway, that historically the default image used to test machines has been a picture of a living room. That it's very hard for the machine to identify a chair, because of course you can sit on almost anything.

Still, and I'm willing to be wrong, I do think there is a distinction among design and craft and art. But, at least for me, it has been in the space of frustrated utility, of ambiguous use, or sheer laziness, that design and art tend to bump up against one another and enter this space where our knowledge and our ignorance meet, turning one into the other.

When I first moved to Mexico City, I was asked to curate the inaugural 2019 show at MASA—a new exhibition platform and gallery founded by designer Héctor Esrawe and my co-curator Constanza Garza, along with Isaac Bissu and Roberto Diaz Sesma, with some new Mexico transplants, Age Salajõe and Brian Thoreen. They asked me to organize a show of “Mexican design,” and we just immediately set out to undermine the premise.

Ana Mendieta, Silueta del Laberinto (Laberinth Blood Imprint), 1974. Super 8 transferred to digital, color, siltent, 3 minutes. ©? The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong. 2022 / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. As immigrants to Mexico, we were really interested in this long history of what it can mean to define a place through shared longing and shared affinity rather than strict citizenship and borders, and we set out to look for work that had been made by artists who had also sought something in Mexico. Among the pieces, we showed an On Kawara date painting that he made in Mexico in 1968, which is a really significant year in Mexican history, and a large Leonora Carrington painting. She, of course, was helped by André Breton and the Mexican ambassador to leave Europe after World War II and went to Mexico, where she spent the rest of her life. And we got permission from Breton’s daughter to reprint the first “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art,” which he co-wrote with Diego Rivera, and Allen Ginsberg’s estate gave us an unpublished recording of Ginsberg reading all of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which we played in the bathroom.

I guess, in retrospect, it was a show about friendship and how optimistic we were that we could create a new sense of place, including work of ambiguous utility. There were pieces by Pedro Reyes, and by Jose Dávila, Alma Allen, and Francis?Alÿs, a painting of a person lifting the floor to put on their shoes. And I remember there being so much explaining that we had to do about showing art and design together in this dilapidated old mansion that had been the site of a famous double murder and daring to call it an exhibition. In this small way, it felt like proof that art and design could be in conversation with one another without that being the explicit topic, and that no one’s career would be ruined because of it.

But it was a recent MASA exhibition that felt like the closest I've come to a reconciliation — that a design exhibition doesn't need to be about design history, or about use per se, but that design can be capacious enough to encompass other ideas. Called Elementos Vitales, we presented the work of Ana Mendieta, the late, great Cuban-American artist who was sent by her father when she was 12 to live in the United States, where she grew up in group homes and foster care. Mendieta didn't return to a Spanish-speaking country until she was a student at the University of Iowa on a trip to Mexico; she would then spend every summer in Oaxaca from 1973 to 1980, and made some of the most significant works of her life while there, including the first Silueta film work. But her work had never before been shown in Oaxaca. So, we were honored to be trusted by her estate to bring these works for the first time back to the place where they were made.

And I see that exhibition, right? I see the exhibition that talks about Mendieta in Mexico, that looks at Mendieta’s relationship to, say, certain similarities between rituals in Oaxaca and rituals in Afro-Caribbean cultures, and it looks like a beautiful exhibition that I would have been deeply proud of. But that's not my third way, that's not my separate reason to exist. I really wanted to think about exhibition accessibility, about vantage point, and to take those things seriously, to offer a place to rest when you're watching a film work, and not allow exhibition seating to be an afterthought. So we invited five Latina or Mexico City-based artists to make seating installations, conceptual resting places, from which to engage with the film works and to let each medium attempt to enhance the other.

Pia Camil, Bluejeaneando, 2019. Second-hand jeans, dimensions variable. Photo: Alejandro Ramirez.  Pia Camil, who is a Valle de Bravo-based artist, made an installation called Bluejeaneando, from 120 pairs of soft blue jeans, and it was paired with Mendieta’s piece Burial Pyramid, which was filmed at the Yagul archaeological site. Mendieta is buried in stones and similarly, while you're engaging with Pia Camil’s work, you're buried under this pile, you're brought low to the very ground that Mendieta had buried herself in. And of course, jeans are also a silhouette, this way of implying the body when the body is absent. 

Another piece was by the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, who was recently selected to design the new modern and contemporary wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Escobedo responded to Mendieta's Creek, in which Mendieta lays in San Felipe Creek in Oaxaca; Frida was very interested in the movement of the water and in the reflectivity of the water, the sound of metal. Also, as an architect, a lot of her practice centers on how underlying structures can change human behavior. In this instance, she takes a material that is more commonly associated with bondage—these are chains—and by giving them a frame, she creates an object of cradling, of support.

I think there is a tendency, or maybe an impulse, to talk in design about works that fail, or that are gross or wacky, in terms of these noncathartic feelings: of frustration or disgust, and surprise, of novelty. And I completely agree with all that. But I also think that works of frustrated utility add an important ethical rejoinder to notions of use. A lot has been written about the racist and sexist implications of wanting things that are pure or devoid of ornament. But I mean even these aspirational notions of fewer, better things—as though objects that complicate our lives or are haphazard, or that are disabled or broken, or bad and bewildered, are just not worthy of existing, or not worthy of our care. I think that they can become important spaces of double meaning. You know, it’s just not that human to be good at life, not really. And I think that in some writings around craft and design, craft has done itself this disservice and backed itself into a sort of sentimental illogic by trying to map onto notions of the well-made.

I don't want to implicate anyone here, but that's my last point. I think that we might all agree that there's no implicit good to things made by hand, or the well-made; that of course terrible people can make beautiful things. 

This text is excerpted from the talk Nasher Prize Dialogues: The Uncanny Politics of Objects presented on April 2, 2022, in Dallas.

TOP: Brian Thoreen, Black Rubber Collection. Mexico City: Collective/Collectible at MASA. Photo: Brian Thoreen, courtesy of MASA.

MIDDLE: Ana Mendieta, Silueta del Laberinto (Laberinth Blood Imprint), 1974. Super 8 transferred to digital, color, siltent, 3 minutes. ©? The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong. 2022 / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

BOTTOM: Pia Camil, Bluejeaneando, 2019. Second-hand jeans, dimensions variable. Photo: Alejandro Ramirez.  

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