THE CARNEGIE INTERNATIONAL is the oldest contemporary art exhibition in North America--second in age worldwide only to the Venice Biennale--so it seems apt that its fifty-fifth incarnation is ambitious in scope and duration. Not only does this year's installment, "Life on Mars," take over almost the entire square footage of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, but it also has an unusually long run of eight months, through January 2009. Scope and duration are not virtues in themselves, however, and here they may in fact accentuate many of the problems critics regularly find with such large-scale shows, particularly as these exhibitions increasingly share an all-inclusive, globalist, and even "heterochronic" approach. Forty artists are too many for even the most intrepid viewer to fit into a comprehensive thesis; there are too many predictable names (Doug Aitken, Thomas Hirschhorn, Wolfgang Tillmans); and there are too few non-Westerners to warrant the weighty term international. The bulk of the exhibition's installation is composed of an endless succession of white cubes that--though painstakingly designed by Californian architectural firm Escher GuneWardena to reflect the Fibonacci sequence in their dimensions--create much the same impression as generic art fair booths. Finally, and most disconcertingly, the show's concept is packaged in the simplistic rhetoric of art as a magical mystery tour, with repeated references to the artists' expressive use of "humble materials" and their "transformation of everyday objects," as if either were novel (let alone ipso facto valuable). In fact, as a "metaphorical quest to explore what it means to be human in this radically unmoored world"--in the wording of the show's curator, Douglas Fogle--this Carnegie International risks generalities familiar at least since Edward Steichen's 1955 "Family of Man" blockbuster at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Of course, Fogle's thinking about humanity is framed quite differently, taking up three key questions in what he calls a "poetic gesture": "Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exists? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?" More than tropes of space exploration, science fiction, or pseudoscientific leanings in contemporary art, and certainly more than any notion of extraterrestrial life forms, it is this final question that anchors the exhibition. Indeed, the very title "Life on Mars" is intended less as a thematic pointer than to evoke the related notions in David Bowie's eponymous 1971 song. For the curator, the track is less about escapism in a world spinning out of control than it is about "the human desire to connect."
Such an interpretation may overemphasize the smattering of optimism in Bowie's lyrics, but Fogle's project depends upon the most hopeful reading possible. And though one might think that his essentialist language--about human desire, and our "collective whisper in the dark: 'We are here!'"--sounds (in Bowie's words) like "a sadd'ning bore" we have heard "ten times or more," Fogle's dogged attachment to such phraseology should perhaps give us pause: Do the complaints we typically hear about biennials and other such large exhibitions--which are perhaps as generic as the shows themselves--mask the possibility of his language bearing real meaning? Fogle's exhibition aims--ambitiously, perhaps even nobly--to reinvigorate the vocabulary of grace, tenderness, and poignancy for a contemporary-art public. In his catalogue essay, right alongside Bowie, actually, he also invokes Gaston Bachelard and his concept of "immensity ... within ourselves."
It is, in fact, only in two works that the otherworldly is explicitly evoked. In one of them, Paul Thek's delicate unfinished painting on newspaper, Untitled (Earth Drawing I), circa 1974, Earth, seen from space, hovers in an expanse of black ink that fails to fully overrun the trivialities of the everyday: Stock and commodity prices, comic strips, and advertisements refuse to be occluded by the vastness of outer space. …