Shape Shifting at Transformer Station: The Cleveland Museum of Art takes its turn


À Mon Seul Désir (detail), by Martin Soto Climent

Documentation is a dodgy businesses. You gather your sources. You arrange them in the way that makes sense to you. But you hardly take the first step down that road before you’re making choices and judgments about what to use, and what it means.

That innuendo between facts and the stories people tell with them is well familiar to journalists and writers of memoir. The shifting shape of reality also plays prominently in the work of contemporary artists, and in the interpretation of them, too. It’s a subjective, thoroughly human dynamic that the youthful curator Reto Thuring has taken as the organizing concept for The Unicorn, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s first exhibit at Transformer Station.

The new museum’s founders, photography collectors Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell have taken their first turn. Now it’s time for the region’s most prominent visual art institution to take a crack at contemporary art programming in the new Ohio City gallery.

No, The Unicorn has nothing to do with one-horned fantasy animals–nothing, that is, except for their provenance–that the idea of the unicorn exists because a lot of people in a lot of different cultures told stories about what they saw, or thought they saw, or wished they saw.

“We tend to look at the past as a specific, fixed entity,” Thuring says. But it’s not. What we regard as the past–even what we might have experienced personally–is actually made up, pieced together, put the way we think it should be.”

The show takes its title from a book of the same name by the noted German author Martin Walser, whose work commonly addresses the way human memory and storytelling re-shapes the past. Walser is perhaps most famous for criticism of the way Germany has institutionalized its memory of the Holocaust. While not denying that war crimes were committed, Walser–in his 1998 acceptance speech for the most prestigious German literary award, the Peace Prize, for example–lamented the burden of Holocaust guilt on the German people, and called for its removal from the national memory. In that context, art that examines the impact of documentation and memory is a very big deal. But it doesn’t take genocide to understand the impact the shape shifting past has on the human experience.

Book #24 from the Infinite Library, by Cramer and Epaminonda

Indeed, Thuring says it’s not at all necessary to be familiar with Walser’s work to appreciate the works in The Unicorn. The exhibit comprises four installations from five artists, which he chose because all of them deal in their work with themes of memory, documentation, and the stories that unfold as result.

One of the installations is a collection of books taken from an ongoing project, The Infinite Library, by the German artist Daniel Gustav Cramer and his Cypriot collaborator, Haris Epaminonda. In book arts parlance, these are “altered books,” meticulously crafted by disassembling other books, mingling pages from several volumes in one, and re-binding them. Fans of the celebration of books known as Octavofest ought to stop here.

“What we do when we read is to put the story together with other things we know, by association,” Thuring says. “This is a very post modern idea rendered in a retro way, in book form.” Indeed, he says, the intermingling of book texts is a low-tech analogue to the internet, with its infinite web of clickable links that can take a reader on an endless path of associative discovery, from one document to the next.

The whole of the infinite library is currently about 70 volumes, a dozen of which will be exhibited in vitrines at Transformer station.

Another of the works in the exhibit is an untitled 2010 film by the French artist Neil Beloufa. The 15 minute film, playing in a continuous loop, documents the efforts of people who once lived in a grand villa in Algiers as they try to describe what happened there while they were absent. Of course they don’t know what actually happened, because they weren’t present to see whatever transpired after they abandoned the property in the nineties. The story they construct is of a band of terrorists who apparently used the house as their base for three years. They look at what evidence they find–for example an enormous marble table broken in pieces–and attempt to piece together a history from the scant evidence.

That kind of conjecture is exactly what Los Angeles-based artist Shana Lutker has been trying to eliminate from her understanding of infamous fist fights that occurred among surrealist painters in the early twentieth century. The fighting began July 6, 1923, at the Theatre Michel  , in Paris: Hot headed Andre Breton took offense when he perceived that Pierre de Massot had insulted Pablo Picasso, and retaliated by striking de Massot with his cane. Mayhem ensued. Could the art-historic significance of such an incident ever be fully understood? For nearly two years, Lutker has conducted scholarly research into this and related altercations, visiting the sites where fights took place, digging up newspaper stories, and other accounts of who said what, and who struck whom, and what were the implications of the fracas. Her work has several outlets, including a book on the subject, and previous exhibits (The Bearded Gas in Los Angeles, in April, and The Blowing Nose, in Zurich, in June). At Transformer station, she’ll represent the facts she’s gathered in a sculptural installation of the stage at the Theatre Michel, the site where the painters first came to blows.

The Bearded Gas, Installation, by Shana Lutker

Thuring says the last work in the exhibit–by the Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent–is still in progress. Clement is also dealing with the juxtaposition of images from book forms, mingling them in an associative way.

Thuring is well familiar with the challenge of presenting conceptual art to a broad audience: It’s risky, the prospect of giving viewers more to think about than to look at, and therefore to fall short of inspiring the audience to actually do the thoughtful searching and appreciate the ideas that give soul to the artistic flesh. He hasn’t shied away from the challenge, and the objects that make up The Unicorn seem –with just a little background–to speak for themselves.

No matter what its content, Cleveland Museum of Art’s first exhibit at Transformer Station is a momentous occasion: It’s the beginning of a significant commitment to contemporary art programming, and therefore an appeal to an aesthetic almost entirely new to the conservative institution. It’s also an outreach effort geographically, programming west of the Cuyahoga, in a neighborhood most known for a revival based on fresh produce, historic homes and bustling nightlife. It looks like they’re off to a compelling and promising start.