Wide Angle

A Site for Thinking Outside the Box

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

SANTA FE, N.M. What would happen if you created a big international art show according to the following rules?

· You refused to choose any artists you had ever heard of.

· You even let others do most of the choosing for you, asking curators from as far afield as Istanbul and Seoul to let you work from a shortlist of their favorite local talent.

· All the work had to be new -- conceived, ideally, to respond to the nature of the city where the show was held.

· You gave each artist only $7,500 for materials -- probably one-tenth of what many major artworks cost to make -- and ruled out further contributions from their dealers or collectors.

· All the works had to be immaterial (made of sound or light, performance or pure idea) or ephemeral (bound to get eaten or painted over, to crumble or otherwise disintegrate or disappear). Or, if they were painting or sculpture, they had be disposed of in some noncommercial way after the closing of the show. In other words, your unique exhibition would be designed to fend off the art market instead of feeding it.

The result, it turns out, would be an impressive show full of tension and suspense.

That's what organizer Lance Fung achieved with "Lucky Number Seven," the seventh biennial at the Site Santa Fe art center.

Fung says the show is about the 25 artists who participated, but that's a bit like a scientist ceding credit to the rats who run his mazes.

What makes the exhibition compelling isn't these artists' work -- which ranges from pretty good to almost bad -- but the series of twists and turns and obstacles that Fung put in their way. Fung has forced himself, his artists and even his viewers into peculiar situations they've never encountered before. Those situations and encounters are this show's true art; its objects and installations, good or bad, are a byproduct. That makes this exhibition unlike almost any other you could name.

In the end, "Lucky Number Seven" asks the question "What would happen if . . . ?" rather than "What objects would be nice to see and buy?"

The Site art center occupies a huge white-cube warehouse near the rail yards on the southern edge of downtown. It was founded in 1995 to bring contemporary art -- especially in the form of a major international survey -- to the city. And in the past 13 years, the Site biennial has made itself into one of this country's most anticipated art events. That's partly because of its outsize ambition. It doesn't simply survey the art scene. It asks notable thinkers -- including big names such as curator Robert Storr, now head of Yale's art school, and Dave Hickey, a bad-boy essayist with a radically conservative streak -- to come up with a strong argument about which art should be seen, and how. And then, for each show, Site entirely reconfigures its empty space to suit the art on view, often with the help of leading designers.

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