There's a small dark room at the North Carolina Museum of Art that has the potential to radically expand your knowledge about contemporary art. From now through the beginning of June 2013, you might consider getting over to the museum every two months and devoting about an hour and a half to sitting in that small dark room. I know I plan to.
The tremendous scope of the artists and curators represented in the video exhibition Project 35 is enough to induce jet lag. It's a rare opportunity in the Triangle to experience the global reach of contemporary art at a single venue, in a single dark room. The exhibition is a sampler of 35 videos created by 35 artists, from Antwerp to Soweto, Caracas to Ho Chi Minh City, chosen by 35 equally far-flung curators. Project 35 is the brainchild of Independent Curators International (ICI), an entity that organizes traveling exhibitions, and the museum has acted wisely in hosting it.
Beyond the value of the exhibition's international scope is its focus on video. Project 35 provides an overview of the sheer variety and elasticity of the medium. Because of its economic feasibility and technological ubiquity—these days, a cellphone and a YouTube or Twitter account is all one needs—video has evened the playing field of art making on a global scale.
As we sit in the room watching the wildly disparate uses that the artists have imagined for the medium, we are also hit with the notion of ourselves as audience. Who are these videos designed to speak to? Who are we when we watch them? Are we changed in the process? Both intimate and expansive, the small dark room is a portal through which we encounter a global kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives—those of the artists as well as our own.
"Selections From Moment" (2007–08), by the Berlin-based Japanese artist Yukihiro Taguchi, begins inside an empty gallery space: white walls, gray floors. Without apparent intervention, the gray wood slats of the floors rise up and begin to move. They reconfigure themselves endlessly, forming sculptural abstractions and functional figurations. Seemingly adrenalized, the slats morph into a badminton court, a screening room with a rapt audience, a DJ booth with pulsing partiers and a candlelit dinner table with elegant diners, among other imaginative repurposings. Taguchi takes up the primitive animation method of stop-motion photography, a technique used in the earliest days of cinema by pioneers like Georges Méliès, but he keeps the form vital, leaving us breathless as we reimagine the very nature of gallery space.
At 2 minutes, 10 seconds, "Lennon Sontag Beuys" (2004), by the San Francisco-based German artist Kota Ezawa, is notable for its brevity, particularly because it encapsulates not one but three historic moments at the intersection of aesthetics and political activism. Wielding a clean, cut-out method of depiction à la Alex Katz, Ezawa's animated portraits capture a flat, stylized version of his subjects, which he derived from documentary sound and footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's notorious 1969 "Bed-In For Peace" in Amsterdam, a 2001 talk by Susan Sontag about her book Regarding the Pain of Others and a seminal Joseph Beuys lecture at the New School for Social Research in 1974. Ezawa seems to be going for a kind of essence, suggesting that these significant cultural moments, even in their most abbreviated form, are able to convey a revolutionary (or evolutionary) impulse.
It is difficult to reconcile the appeal of Colombian artist Edwin Sánchez's "Clases de cuchillo (Knife Lessons)" (2006-07) with the raw violence of its subject matter. In a series of "lessons," Sánchez interviews an acquaintance from the Bogotá streets, a drug addict/ criminal who is also portrayed as an artisan or aesthetic practitioner. He works in various "media," as he draws diagrams of the knives he makes, demonstrates his mode of production (heating a loose saw blade with the molten drippings of a plastic cup) and performs an impromptu lecture on how to win a knife fight. This intersection of art and documentary is unsettling: The young man displays scars of the numerous knife wounds he has sustained, calling to mind the devastating scars of another charismatic artist, Andy Warhol.
Project 35 is a heady world mix of at times challenging and at times entertaining work. Look for Robert Cauble's appropriation of Disney's appropriation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by way of Situationist Guy Debord; The Propeller Group's phantom graffiti overlayed onto Vietnamese cityscapes; Dan Halter's unnerving images of Soweto uprisings set to an electronica soundtrack and juxtaposed with white raves; Zhou Xiaohu's "Utopian Machine," which lays bare China's propagandistic newscasts in chilling, gray-toned Claymation; and Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, in the guise of her alter ego "Chuleta," explaining terms like "white box" and "identity politics" in a Spanglish-inflected patter.
There is much to be gained in NCMA's small dark room, with lots of value-added extras (extensive interviews, bios of artists and curators, and even the Project 35 touring schedule from Senegal to Mongolia) on the ICI website for those who find themselves wanting more. And remember, a whole new batch in this four-part series is due Nov. 4.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Global adventures in a little room."