IN ORGANIZING this year's SITE Santa Fe Biennial, Klaus Ottmann made two decisions that stood as curatorial provocations, both for this show and for big, pulse-taking exhibitions more generally. First, he pronounced that no peremptory theme would get in the way of the art itself. Second, he disallowed the dizzying glut of work typical of today's endless biennials and fairs in which no piece is given the contemplative space it needs. In fact, there are so few artists in Ottmann's exhibition--thirteen in all--that it's possible to list them swiftly and savor his sense of curatorial modesty. They are Miroslaw Balka, Jennifer Bartlett, Patty Chang, Stephen Dean, Peter Doig, Robert Grosvenor, Cristina Iglesias, Wolfgang Laib, Jonathan Meese, Wangechi Mutu, Carsten Nicolai, Catherine Opie, and a musical collaborative from Norway, Thorns Ltd.
Ottmann's challenge to the hegemony of concept-heavy global shows plays itself out in the thicket of philosophical quotations and literary allusions that pack his elegantly written catalogue essay. The very title of the exhibition, "Still Points of the Turning World," borrows from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and Ottmann is clearly sympathetic to its emphasis on paring away the distractions of the world and concentrating on the meaning beneath the patterns of the quotidian. He bolsters this notion by citing Susan Sontag's famous admonition in "Against Interpretation"--"We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more." He could just as well have quoted another Sontag formulation--"Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself"--because his familiar, if not unjust, premise is that we've lost this transparence, along with the ability to see, hear, and feel enough. Curators who strong-arm viewers and artists with their big-bang themes, he implies, have only added to our sense of removal from the essence of pure experience.
It's hardly surprising, then, that he also quotes Robert Smithson's grievance that "artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories." But his logic is faulty in asserting that curators must abandon all categories (and therefore themes) to avoid fraudulent ones, or that a selection of objects based only on a curator's taste is any less mediated by biases and interpretations. Still more, it is by no means clear that the pure, feeling experience of art is finally superior to a more analytical approach to its content--or that we can or ever do segregate feeling from interpretation. The ability to value the grain, the succulence, the weight of various aesthetic experiences, and to assess the consequences of their affinities and disagreements, is what enables us to illuminate the thing in itself and the thing in the world. This is what curators can do for viewers--or should.
Inevitably, Ottmann's celebration of the haptic, the momentary, and the direct excitation of the viewer attracts him to kindred artworks, so themes take shape, whether he names them or not. For example, there is a dialogical thread, at once solipsistic and devout, expectant and melancholy, between Chang's video Condensation of Birds, 2006, in which various spiritual seekers speak of the invisible energy of unified Being, and Balka's Sza (Shhh), 2006, in which newspaper obituaries are folded and linked in chains draped from a gallery's ceiling: life's stories glimpsed, yet always partially obscured. …