Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Right On
The Art Gallery of Knoxville is making its own way
LIQUID GLOBALISM: Superflex pitches anti-corporate soda.
by Leslie Wylie
The Art Gallery of Knoxville couldn’t have picked a worse date for its grand opening. Unbeknownst to its proprietors—three starry-eyed recent graduates of the Art Institute of Chicago—it was the same day that the Gay Street Viaduct was slated to be demolished. Located at the north end of the bridge across from Regas, detour signs have since rendered the block a no-man’s land until the viaduct reopens in December.
“Yeah, it’s been a little frustrating,” admits gallery director Chris Molinski. Being First Friday, the disparity between North and South Gay Street is even more obvious on this bitter-cold January evening. On the far side of the dark, post-viaduct chasm, the Emporium is aflutter with the mingling of artists and patrons, and a policeman is striding up the sidewalk, stuffing parking tickets beneath the windshield wipers of illegally parked cars. A roundabout trip to the north side, however, reveals a far different scene. There are a couple parking spots right outside the gallery, and its interior is quiet with the exception of a dissonant drone reverberating within the exhibition room and the echo of a friendly aesthetic debate.
But the inconvenient circumstances don’t seem to bother Molinski. His voice is underscored with idealism as he articulates the details of the new space, founded when Maryville-native Leslie Starritt suggested that her art-school classmates Molinski and Bryan McCullough move back to Tennessee with her after graduation. Starrit had been gushing about the area’s blossoming art scene, and Molinski and McCullough had nothing to lose. “It’ll be nice when the viaduct opens back up, but for now, we’re doing fine,” Molinski says, backing up his statement with a confident smile.
And it’s true. The gallery has fast made a name for itself by picking up where other local exhibition spaces leave off, showcasing the work of smart, progressive, up-and-coming artists as well as groundbreaking artists of decades past.
This month’s exhibit, Global Grove (Nation Building as Art) , pushes hard at the parameters of what art is able to accomplish through a combination of surveillance and direct action. It includes work from young international artists exploring themes of media-driven globalization, borrowing the phrase “Global Groove” from pioneer video artist Nam June Paik. In 1973, Paik coined the phrase in an attempt to replace its catch-all predecessor, “Global Village,” and better describe the phenomenon of social communication after the influence of television.
As implied, audio-visual media factors heavily into the exhibition. A series of video screens depict a variety of documentary scenarios: illiterate children teaching themselves to use the Internet in India, the movement of people performing menial tasks in Peru and Mexico, an interview with two teenage girls asked to share their wishes, lies and dreams with the camera.
In one corner of the room sits a pyramid of soda bottles labeled “Guarana Power,” freighted in from Copenhagen. The project is a collaboration between Superflex, a Danish social-justice art-collective, and guarana-plant farmers in the Amazon, organized in response to multinational corporations that moved into the farmers’ village and drove the price of guarana seeds down by 80 percent. The artists and the farmers teamed up to reclaim their livelihood by manufacturing an anti-corporate beverage to be promoted via a spoof advertising campaign. On a television screen beside the bottles, a Brazilian girl tips her head back and gulps the soda, while a voiceover proclaims, “She can party and do her homework, thanks to Guarana Power!”
Global Grove also suggests that, in order to understand globalization, one must investigate its boundaries. Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 documentary, Land Queens, is a prime example of such investigation interpreted on a literal level; when Matta-Clark found out that New York City periodically auctioned off “gutter space,” unusable slivers of land between the sidewalk and the gutter, he purchased 15 of these lots. The documentary reveals him painstakingly measuring his new properties, a commentary on the fast-narrowing distance between both geographic and ideological borders.
Alternately, in CM von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren’s “The Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland,” the artists claim for themselves the physical space between countries, declaring the sum of all borders a new country independent of any other. In addition to occupying the physical space, the artists claim they are occupying the space between ideas—a concept that recently earned the group a cover story in Cabinet , an independent art ‘zine out of Brooklyn. On display is Elgaland-Vargaland’s flag, national anthem, constitution, map, airline postcards and postage stamps. Visitors to the gallery are also invited to apply for citizenship.
A woman, who’s checking out the gallery after having dinner at Regas, stares into the kingdom’s display case quizzically. “What are the benefits of citizenship?” she asks Starritt.
“Well, you get updates on what’s going on in the kingdom,” Starrit replies solemnly. “And you don’t have to give up your U.S. citizenship, either; duel citizenship is OK.”
The woman cocks her head in thought, and Starritt smiles. To persuade even one random person, who may or may not even be interested in art, to consider a different perspective, is the gallery’s definition of success. In that respect, the space’s disconnect from the rest of downtown seems appropriate; the location necessitates effort, curiosity. Both physically and metaphorically, the Art Gallery of Knoxville encourages its visitors to wander off the beaten path.
Global Grove (Nation Building as Art) • The Art Gallery of Knoxville • Thru Jan. 25 • Gallery hours: Wednesday thru Sunday, 2-9 p.m. • Open lecture w/ Robby Herbst, co-founder of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest , on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 7 p.m.