PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — It’s big, it’s sprawling, it’s relentless, and at times, it’s vexing, gross, disturbing, and tiresome in the often anti-American politics espoused by its artists.
Forget all of that. Go and see the 58th Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The show’s flaws and shortcomings are more than made up for through the sheer exhilarating sweep of the work on view, the breadth of viewpoints on display, and the underlying decency of its humanitarian spirit.
Established in 1895 by industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie, the museum aimed to put Pittsburgh on the map for global art as well as steel. Carnegie conceived the international, inaugurated in 1896, as an annual survey from which the museum would acquire works and build its collection.
Held every three to five years since 1982, the show is North America’s longest-running exhibition of international contemporary art.
This year’s iteration, the first since 2018, is titled “Is it Morning for You Yet?’’ — a clever way to convey the idea of a de-centered globe in which all perspectives are fundamentally local.
Organized by a team led by Sohrab Moheddi, a native of Iran named last year as director of the SculptureCenter in New York, the show surveys work by more than 100 artists from around the world. A precise count is tricky because the exhibition includes large batches of work from several collectives and overseas collections, each of which constitutes an exhibition within the exhibition. It’s like a geode cracked open with facets within facets.
These internal shows include a collection of Iranian art produced by artists working under the country’s repressive Islamic regime and selections from a museum of modern and contemporary Chilean art launched in 1971 when Salvador Allende was elected as the country’s first Socialist president.
The big ideas
The main thrust of this year’s International is to dethrone the United States and Europe as epicenters of culture and to elevate and promote viewpoints from countries adversely affected by American power, or by global power in general.
Overall, the mood is somber and grim, especially in the show’s major site-specific installations, all commissioned for the exhibition.
The big centerpiece, installed in the museum’s neoclassical sculpture court, created by Turkish artist Banu Cennetoglu is comprised of clusters of shiny, gold, balloons shaped like letters forming the words in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in the wake of World War II.
Scrambled in heaps that can’t be read, like undeciphered code, the tethered clumps of helium-filled balloons floated above the floor when the show opened in September, but as they slowly deflate, they’re sinking to the marble floor and gradually getting squashed.
It’s a visual metaphor for the international community’s inability to live up to the declaration. The work also appears to nod to the Pop Art of Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol, whose shiny airborne pillows, titled “Silver Clouds,’’ are on view at his eponymous museum across town. Cennetoglu’s adaptation of a Warhol-adjacent idiom is a reflection of the vast reach of America’s soft, cultural power, evident in the arts as well as in Hollywood films, TV shows, and music.
Lest viewers miss the fundamental point about human rights in Cennetoglu’s glittery installation, the walls surrounding it are hung with stark black-and-white photographs by Japanese photographer Hiromi Tsuchida that catalog seared clothing and other personal items recovered from civilians after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima to convince Japan to surrender in World War II.
Even when the show offers moments of apparently transcendent beauty, a political point is usually lurking. A series of vast, abstract murals painted on walls on the upper level of the sculpture court in lilting tones of grayish blue by Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran, seems to riff on Claude Monet’s placid waterlily murals and paintings.
But, no: They were inspired by the colors of “Rainbow Herbicides” dropped by U.S. forces on 4.5 million acres of forests, rivers, and rice paddies during the Vietnam War, including Agents Orange, White, Pink, Green, Blue, and Purple. Mix them all together, and you get the lovely tones of Tran’s bravura paintings.
Dependence on labels
The Achilles heel of such works is that without reading the show’s labels, gallery guide, or catalog, you’d have no way of knowing that Tran’s beautiful murals, specially commissioned for the International, are an indictment of American war-making. As abstractions, they don’t convey such content. They need the crutch of the written messages that frame the show, shape the viewer’s perspective, and specify the political messages it contains.
Another example: The floor in one of the show’s galleries is covered with a massive scale model of bomb-shattered precincts of Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, molded in polyester resin by London-based artist Dia al-Azzawi, a native of Baghdad.
One might suspect that like Tran’s murals, al-Azzawi’s piece is critical of American imperial overreach or nation-building. But that’s not the case. As the label states, Al-Azzawi’s target is “fanatical factions” that in his words recruited young men in Aleppo and Mosul to engage in “endless political and sectarian conflict.’’
In other words, he’s bashing Bashar-al-Assad’s Russian-supported troops, who bombed civilians and rebel forces in Aleppo into submission in 2016. He’s also speaking of ISIS forces who held Mosul for three years until they were pushed out in 2017 by the Iraqi army, various militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and U.S.-led international allies.
What’s unsaid here is that al-Azzawi’s image of a Middle Eastern hellscape — mesmerizing in the vast destruction it evokes — is an appeal for empathy for the people who once lived in earthen dwellings reduced to the rubble he depicts.
Moments of beauty
Not all is doom and gloom. The show includes lush abstractions painted in lacquer on wood by Vietnamese artist Truong Cong Tung, and surreal, cartoonlike, and delightfully raunchy portrayals of sexual pleasure by Indonesian artist I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih, known as Murni (1966-2006).
Sanaa Gateja of Kampala, Uganda, is represented by a series of colorful, vibrantly patterned wall hangings made with paper beads on barkcloth. One of them is appropriately called “Seeds of Joy.’’
Amid these and other outstanding works, there are some truly disturbing moments. One is a machine-like installation created by Korean artist Mire Lee, based in Amsterdam and Seoul.
Her construction resembles the blades of an agricultural combine that’s slowly grinding up dripping viscera of slaughtered animals, or perhaps human beings. In truth, the messy “organs’’ in the work are made of silicone, glycerin, and resins.
The work could be read as a condemnation of meat-based diets, or perhaps the danger that machines might run amok and butcher us all. Mostly, though, the sculpture is repellent and hard to look at.
Running throughout the show is a sense of advocacy for the downtrodden, overlooked, disenfranchised, and disregarded, and an insistence that such people should be heard, respected, and valued.
For example, one of the show’s internal exhibitions focuses on several dozen works by Kustiyah, (1935-2012) a native of Java in Indonesia who is little known in the West. Kustiyah’s beautifully painted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes are pervaded by a soft, lyrical expressionism. The display encapsulates the International’s main thrust, which is to open the viewer’s eye — and heart — to perspectives beyond a Euro-American focus.
Sense of place
Critics have noted that the International has little to do with Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. Despite its global scope, it doesn’t bring its viewpoint back home to show how the trends it explores relate to the U.S.
The one outstanding exception is an installation by Chicago-based photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, a native of the industrial Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, located just upstream along the Monongahela River.
Commissioned by the International, Frazier made a “monument’’ in 2021 consisting of photographic portraits and transcribed interviews depicting community health workers, clergy, and doctors in Baltimore who performed outreach services across the city during a critical phase in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Produced in collaboration with Frazier’s subjects, the photographs are pervaded by compassion for essential workers on the front lines. The accompanying interviews give the installation weight and personal impact.
Alas, the vast amount of text in the accompanying interviews makes it difficult to grasp the work in its entirety within a two- or even three-hour visit, given the enormous amount of art on display throughout the show. Frazier’s piece should be published as a book.
Given its heft, It’s no surprise that the installation earned Frazier the Carnegie Prize, the show’s top award. Her work links the global and the local, giving the 58th International a rock-solid point of connection between the show’s broader themes and an American community similar to Pittsburgh.
It’s a shame there isn’t more work like it in the exhibition. The International’s vast scope is thrilling. It would have benefited from having just a bit more of a sense of place to anchor it more firmly in the community that’s hosting it.
What’s up: “Is It Morning for You Yet?” 58th Carnegie International.
Venue: Carnegie Museum of Art.
Where: 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh.
When: Through Saturday, April 2.
Admission: Adult tickets, $25. Call 412-622-3131 or go to cmoa.org.