EPISODE: "Systems"

From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 (2009)

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Whether through acts of appropriation, repetition, or accumulation, the artists in this episode realize projects both vast in scope and beyond comprehension.

“Trying to figure out who I am and my work is trying to understand systems,” says Julie Mehretu, shown working with her assistants in Berlin on seven large canvases for a show at Deutsche Guggenheim. “The thing that keeps me going is the painting,” she says, “and in getting lost in doing that a language is invented.” Mehretu’s abstract compositions reference modernist architecture, Google Maps, Coliseum-like buildings, and defaced structures. Mehretu is also shown working on the biggest project of her young career: a 21 by 85 foot long mural commissioned by a major financial institution in Lower Manhattan, to be completed during the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. Characterizing the task before her as “absurd,” she wonders “can you actually make a picture…of the history of capitalist development?”

“I’m always interested in things that we don’t call art, and I say why not?” asks John Baldessari. Filmed in his California studio, the artist consults with his assistant on a color-coded group of maquettes for a series of photographic bas-reliefs. “One of the reasons I gave up painting is because it’s all about being tasteful,” he explains, “I just decided to be very systematic about it and use the color wheel.” Throughout a segment that features over fifty pieces, including works in the inaugural exhibition of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, Baldessari assails conventional wisdom about art and meaning. In an installation at Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, Baldessari humorously reconfigures an entire brick building by noted architect Mies van der Rohe. “Aesthetically, I always look for the weak link in the chain,” he says.

Kimsooja’s segment opens with a series of videotaped performances of the artist in crowded cities, her form acting as an unmoving axis on the horizon. Comparing her body to a needle that threads through space and time, she explains that her conceptual “system is very much rooted to the practice of sewing.” The segment focuses in depth on two recent site-specific works: an installation of 2,000 fuchsia lotus lanterns with a soundtrack of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants, and later, an intervention at the Crystal Palace in Madrid in which rainbow-colored sunlight, diffused through diffraction grating film applied to windows, is reflected in a mirrored surface applied to the floor while a pre-recorded performance of the artist's rythmic breathing fills the space. Says the artist on her ethereal and genre-bending work: “My intention is to reach to the totality of our life in art.”

Allan McCollum’s segment begins with his uncle Jon Gnagy’s 1950s television program "Learn to Draw." Crediting his uncle's demonstrations as an early influence, McCollum says “whenever I design a project it’s in my head…that I would be able to show someone else how to do it.” Describing his aesthetic motivation with the paradox of “wanting to try to work in quantities…and make things that are singular and unique at the same time,” the viewer travels with the artist and his team of studio assistants to the 28th São Paolo Bienal for an installation of 1,800 hand-stenciled, graphite pencil works. McCollum describes devising “a system that would produce a shape for everybody on the planet.” To make "The Shapes Project," the artist developed a set of unique forms that, when fully combined, results in 60 billion individual shapes. McCollum later collaborates with four remote home businesses in Maine, whom he only talked to via email and phone, to produce collections of silhouettes, rubber stamps, wood ornaments, and copper cookie cutters.