At first glance, art has little to do with geography. The boundaries and limits of real-life places represent limitations, anathema to the creative process.
This season at the Queens Museum of Art, however, geography is front and center. Two current exhibitions — “New York States of Mind” and “Reconciliations” — use the reality of place as a way of sparking imaginative possibilities. The works on display turn location into a matter of interpretation, contingent upon artist and viewer.
By far the larger of the two exhibits, “New York States of Mind” comes to Corona Park from the House of World Cultures in Berlin, Germany, where it ran between August and November of this year. Curated by that institution’s Shaheen Merali, the collection of photographs, paintings, installations and film all work to frame New York and its art scene from an outsider’s point of view.
The German perspective is not as foreign as it might be, Merali pointed out. Since World War II, strong cultural and political ties have bound the U.S. with Germany — indeed, the House of World Cultures is situated on a road named after former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Already, the idea of a New York-centered show has held enough interest to attract roughly 27,000 people to “New York States of Mind” in Berlin.
But New York is only a conceptual starting point. “Part of the idea of the show is how the city affects the artwork,” Merali said. Also important is how its artists transform the city. As an “arterial point of arrival” as bustling and diverse as any, he said, “New York is mediated by all these people with different backgrounds.”
In other words, “New York States of Mind” is not just about the pieces on display. It’s also about the individual artists selected, and it presents glimpses of New York over the past several decades through their works.
Marcel Duchamp, the man behind some of modern art’s most enduring symbols, came to New York from his native France. His “Brown Paper Bag” strikes a quintessentially Gothamesque chord, as it originally contained a deli bagel. By autographing the bag, Duchamp turned it into one of his signature “ready-made” pieces, art by virtue of context.
In such ways, the New York artists included in the show have recast the everyday details of city life as moments of resonance. Perhaps the most extreme example comes from Tehching Hsieh, whose “One Year Performance 1981-1982” is documented here. A Taiwan-born performance artist, Hsieh spent one calendar year living on the streets of downtown Manhattan, never once entering a building or vehicle. Posters, clothes, and photographs serve as relics of the early ‘80s event, their inert arrangement in implicit contrast with the boundlessness and unpredictability of the actual performance.
Hsieh’s feat is startling, and many of the works in “States of Mind” arrest the viewer with the suggestion of unmediated, visceral experience. In “Rat Piece,” artist Kim Jones set caged rats alight on a stage in 1976; a video of the piece is featured in “States of Mind,” along with an off-putting display of plastic rats piled high.
In a separate piece, a series of three photographs by Mary Ellen Mark follows a pregnant teenager from the merriment of a carnival to the stark pain of the delivery room.
It’s a far cry from the aspects of New York addressed by last year’s Queens Museum exhibit, “Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Road to Recreation,” noted museum director Tom Finkelpearl. While that show examined a utopian vision of an ordered, supremely organized society, this one “conveys the messy vitality of the city,” Finkelpearl said.
New York City is only one piece of a global puzzle photographer Jaishri Abichandani pieces together in “Reconciliations.” This exhibit, too, expresses the multiplicities contained in any given location. Abichandani — who left India for Queens at the age of 14 and describes her life as “nomadic” — has manipulated images of world cities to create dreamlike, amalgamated metropolises.
Her works have both political and personal import. Of particular interest to Queens audiences, WilletsPointDharavi, showing for the first time, draws parallels between class struggles of the poor in India and illegal immigrants in New York. LaPazCaracasHavana emerges from the anti-U.S. trade pact signed by the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. RamallahJerusalem imagines a communion of warring neighbors.
Yet, as one with deep ties to more than one city and country, Abichandani also wants to evoke personal responses to radically different surroundings. She spoke of the sense of déjà vu and conflated memories that can make a sense of place slippery. “Reconciliations” gives form and shape to a fantastic ideal, she said. “It’s this mythical land of unity which never exists anywhere, really.”
“New York States of Mind” and “Reconciliations” are on display at the Queens Museum of Art, in Flushing Meadows Park, until March 23. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Suggested admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for seniors and children.
For more information, call (718) 592-9700 or visit www.queensmuseum.org.