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The ICA Boston Does it Right

“Super Vision” installation view

MoMA, Albright-Knox, Barnes, Eakins…I’m so tired of being negative. So I’m ready to make nice!

I may have had mixed feelings about the new Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed building for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, but once I made my way up to the art displays on the top floor, they had me from “hello.”

The introductory wall text for the new ICA’s main inaugural show, Super Vision, not only foretold a thought-provoking, engaging exhibition, but also provided the opening chapter for the lucid explanatory text that accompanied every object.

This was a show with big ideas; I’d like to see more of this kind of creative curatorial exercise. Fearing critical disapproval, many museums reflexively turn to one-person shows, rather than going out on a curatorial limb by assembling what the ICA’s director, Jill Medvedow, calls “idea-based shows.” (The ICA’s next high-concept show, she said, would be “The Blues,” examining the “oppression, marginalization and interiority” experienced by society’s outsiders.)

“Super Vision” is a clever play on words that headlines a witty and pointedly topical show. The title alludes to the enhanced vision that various kinds of high-tech devices now facilitate, the “supervision” of our lives by new forms of technological surveillance, the heightened vision of artists, and the striking optical effects of their art, among its intriguing connotations.

The introductory wall text does a better job of explaining these underlying concepts:

The boundaries of vision have never been more fluid. We are now able to see in ways that we never have before, from the cellular to the cosmological, from the digital to the virtual. Superhuman vision—once a childhood fantasy of comic books and cartoons—is fast becoming an everyday fact of life through remarkable advances in technology.
Art has responded to these powerful shifts in the nature of vision. Artists now capture contemporary visuality with dazzling perceptual effects, warped geometries, and seamlessly manipulated images.

Divided into various sub-themes (Activated Vision, Disembodied Vision, Global Positioning, etc.), the show repositions and reinterprets many art-museum stalwarts in fresh ways. Among the artists whose works in this show I particularly appreciated: Hatoum, Mehretu, Akerman, Ono, Turrell, Richter. I was riveted by Harun Farocki‘s “Eye/Machine,” a chilling two-channel video meditation on the ways in which mechanical and technological “vision,” as employed in industry and in the military, have effectuated an eerie global dehumanization.

On a brighter note, seductively reflective silvery objects constitute the show’s unofficial bookends: Dominating the first gallery is an orb by Anish Kapoor, who will be the subject of an upcoming ICA one-person show. If I never see another Jeff Koons stainless steel “Rabbit,” I will not feel bereft, but there one was (above), standing sentinel in the final gallery, bolstered by an over-achieving label:

When our image is mirrored in its faceless head, this coveted possession suddenly comes to possess us, as if we are trapped in a fishbowl or caught under surveillance.

CultureGrrl says:

Sometimes a rabbit is just a rabbit.

Medvedow had told me that when Bostonians encounter contemporary art, their “perennial” reaction is: “I don’t get it.” By the end of this show, no one who looked carefully at the art and read the pithy descriptions could possibly come away feeling clueless. The only downside was that if you didn’t independently peruse an object first, the persuasive label could well inhibit your own response.

A key reason why this show had me from “hello” was the richly deserved credit accorded its curator Nicholas Baume, as part of the introductory wall text. Curatorial bylines are one of my quixotic quests. Kudos to the ICA for a strong inaugural show (to Apr. 29) that gives credit where credit is due.

Gee, making nice sure does feel good! Maybe I should try this more often.

an ArtsJournal blog