This interview is the third in a series exploring the current state of major survey exhibitions. Queens International curator Larissa Harris discusses the challenges and opportunities of working with artists from the most diverse county in the world. Check back for the final interview tomorrow, and click here for the previous installments.
How was the theme established for this year’s biennial?
The theme emerged as we did the studio visits and selected the artists. It was interesting to see such commonalities become clear. As with every Queens International, all participants live or work in Queens, which of all the boroughs is notable for its cultural diversity. So many people across national and generational categories were pursuing the idea of the journey to inner and outer worlds, using narrative and abstraction, drawing on Eastern and Western traditions.
From where did the show’s enigmatic title derive?
Once the frame of the journey made itself known, French surrealist author René Daumal’s unfinished 1944 novel Mount Analogue became a point of departure. In that novel, a motley crew search the globe for an undetectable mountain. It’s simultaneously an adventure story and a metaphor for the search, scientific and/or intuitive, for meaning itself. (It’s incredibly funny and also short. Everyone should read it.) The show’s subtitle, Three Points Make a Triangle, sprang fully-grown from Manuela’s head after she read the book, and we found it made sense for many reasons. There were three curators: Jamillah James, Manuela Moscoso and myself. The show has (roughly) three galleries or sections. There’s the mountain in the novel, which of course can be represented by a triangle. There was our own journey through a geographical area, going from point to point. A triangle can be an arrow. Making a shape from elements is what the artists were doing, and what we were doing. Three Points Make a Triangle is about how you navigate through any given inner or outer geography.
In what ways did this theoretical framework affect the arrangement of the show and did you see any additional themes emerging once the show was up?
We shouldn’t say “theoretical framework” because most of what I’m saying revealed itself in the process, rather than flowing from something predetermined. The arrangement of the show had a lot to do with the demands and opportunities presented by the building – which is a crazy combination of intimate spaces, impossibly high ceilings, curved walls, etc. We made an effort not just to group the similar together, but to expand ideas through juxtaposition. In a way, all the galleries are closely related, each with a greater or lesser emphasis on the core ideas in the show: the handmade, psychedelia, and cartooning, the graphic and collage, anxieties pertaining to technology and the environment, the interplay between the future and ancient past, the ritualistic and spiritual, dreams, science fiction, transcendence, the detritus of culture, erosion and apocalypse, as well as the relationship between abstraction and photography, for instance. But wonderful things came up without any of us intending them. For instance, two major pieces at the entrance derive from Queens cemeteries – one a big, beautiful, dreamy, cartoonish landscape by David Kearns and the other a set of six rubbings in acid-colored pastels of individual Jewish gravestones, by Carmelle Safdie. These, paradoxically, seem to be saying: this is where the journey begins.