"Mastering the Millennium: Art of the Americas" is an unwieldy, incoherent exhibition, organized and displayed by the World Bank and the Organization of American States, that purports to examine how changing concepts of time, space and velocity manifest themselves in the work of contemporary artists from Latin America, Canada and the United States.
Unfortunately, the show, which features works by more than 50 artists, most of whom hail from the nations of the Caribbean and Central and South America, utterly fails to live up to the mishmash of dime-store physics, metaphysical platitudes, art jargon and New Age psychobabble that is its thesis.
Here's one of the more lucid passages from the exhibit's essay, written by Ana Maria Escallon, the director of the Organization of American States' Art Museum of the Americas: "The key concept which integrates the approach to the exhibition is that the physical equation, Velocity = Space/Time, is changing. Cybernetic velocity is the conduit that alters the manner in which we connect with reality. This is the motivation for examining the work of artists who are investigating the concept of space and developing theories of time and memory."
In other words, we're looking at work by artists who are investigating some of the same things that have always intrigued artists: space, time and memory. What their concepts or theories might be is never explained. Neither is the connection to cyberspace. The only conclusion seems to be that, thanks to technology, things move a lot faster these days, making the world a smaller place.
Strip away the pretentious title--"mastering" seems to refer only to one of the exhibit's corporate sponsors, MasterCard International--and the muddled conceptual framework, and what's left is a compilation of art, most of it from south of the U.S. border. Much of it is quite good. Almost all of the artists are known quantities, the kind of people who show up in big national and international shows. For example, the United States is represented by Chuck Close and Nam June Paik. Regina Silveira and Ivens Machado of Brazil, Haiti's Mario Benjamim and Ernest Breleur of Martinique participated in the 1998 Sao Paulo Biennale, one of the world's premier art events.
But because the works are shown at two separate venues, the World Bank and the OAS Art Museum, there is little flow or interaction. Even a clearly elaborated and executed exhibition would find it hard to overcome the physical separation of the two buildings.
Physical separation is also a problem within the World Bank's vast, bustling lobby, where 14 pieces are scattered about. It is a horrible place to show art. Space abounds for big works. But a bank is a place of business, and the art gets lost in the crush.
People don't go to the World Bank to look at art. Based on an hour of observation, most people who work at the World Bank have neither the time nor inclination to look at art. And for visitors, just getting at the art is difficult. Two of the marquee pieces, Close's 1990 portrait of photographer William Wegman and Paik's "WAIS Station Tower" video sculpture from 1996, with 57 monitors spewing out imagery, are displayed in the atrium lobby, which is closed to the general public. One has to get permission from bank officials to enter.
A visit might not be worth the trouble. Paik's piece, a 17-foot pyramid of TVs--WAIS stands for "Wide Area Information System"--is surrounded by circuit boards, speakers, tangled wires and flashing lights. It is one of the least captivating sculptures he's produced in recent years, a vapid, painful caricature of his own work. Close's painting is nice, but given the fact that the Hirshhorn Museum recently hosted a Close retrospective, why bother to see this particular one?
There are, however, some wonderful pieces in the section of the lobby that is accessible to the public. Analee Davis's double-sided mixed-media painting "Contemporary Middle Passage (here) and (there)" from 1997 is a beautifully painted, evocative and touching look at the cultural and economic dichotomy that affects many people from Caribbean nations. To the north, in Canada and the United States, are jobs, educational opportunities and adventure. But for Davis, a native of Barbados, the islands will always be home. One side of the painting depicts a young woman floating above a tropical setting, searching for her roots. The other shows her being swirled away in a tornado with a suitcase and an airplane.
At the Art Museum of the Americas, where the bulk of the show resides, there's more to like, although how it all connects to the millennium is no clearer. Although the show's promotional material says, "Don't expect to see the political art often associated with Latin America in this exhibit," socio-political themes are to be found in every room. "Caribbean Sea" is an installation first executed in 1996 by Tony Capellan, from the Dominican Republic. It consists of numerous pairs of worn-out flip-flops neatly arranged on the floor in one corner of the room. The sandals are various shades of green and blue, evoking the tropical sea and the beaches, sun and tranquillity that draw hordes of tourists. But the straps of the sandals have been replaced with barbed wire, and they've been worn so long that some have gaping holes in their soles. That calls to mind the pain, hard work, low pay and tough lives of many of the island's people.
In this small, fast-paced world, that's still an important point to make, especially in the halls of international institutions.
Mastering the Millennium: Art of the Americas, at the World Bank, 1818 H St. NW, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Sunday, 202-458-0333; at Organization of American States Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, 202-458-6016, through Aug. 9.
CAPTION: Nam June Paik's "WAIS Station Tower" video sculpture, with 57 monitors.
CAPTION: "Caribbean Sea," by Tony Capellan, consists of worn-out flip-flops with barbed-wire straps.