2014 MFA Thesis

Essay by the curator

Niels Van Tomme

In his text “Interview with a 10,000 Year Old Artist,” Jimmie Durham sardonically states that the artist always works “Before Tomorrow.” Playfully contextualized as an exclusive conversation with the world’s oldest living artist, the claims made by Durham could be easily applied to this figure in the broadest sense of the term. Perpetually occupied with matters and ideas before the crux of formation and beyond official narratives—the exceptional perspective of the free artistic statement can thus be liberated from the restrictive frameworks of most professional endeavors. Through this unique framework, artists hold a position through which they can propose different aesthetic, social, and political possibilities than the ones dictated by the current, historically stratified, and omnipresent neoliberal realm. In exploring this opening, they importantly bypass widespread states of passivity and the idea that nothing can be done to change the current status quo, be it in historically constructed modes of representation, broad socio-economical malaise, or deeper philosophical crises we are faced with today. Instead, they investigate, and act upon the potential to momentarily open up possibilities to transform reality, or seek to establish alternative modes of imagining it, before these opportunities firmly close down again.
In the case of organizing the Parsons Fine Art’s MFA Thesis Exhibition, with works still being developed before this curatorial text is completed and well before any kind of definitive checklist has been made, such claims with regards to diverging modes of how we are to understand the present, past and future, could be further extended and applied to a specific mode of exhibition making. Instead of presenting a well-structured, overarching curatorial statement, with artworks placed and contextualized in order to make an argument, or suggest a specific reading, the exhibition presents temporal clusters of artworks that momentarily disrupt preconceived ideas of exhibition making. Here, individual works still in development crucially contribute to and shape the curatorial voice, suggesting a different kind of experiential hierarchy, which emphasizes fluidity and transformation as key components. Before thus shifts its function from merely serving a curatorial statement to questioning the very foundation of the exhibition, well before it has been finalized.


A first cluster of artworks explores notions of individual and collective memory, and the complex ways in which they intersperse with a wide range of historical, national, and individual narratives. Finding a connection to the field of trauma studies, these works “bear witness to historical events and the visual representation of witnesses to collective [and individual] trauma.” Kai Margarida-Ramirez connects a migratory family history to the construction of memory and the necessity of familial storytelling. In her work she creates an insular and protective environment, echoing the cultural references of Puerto Rico seemingly removed from the displacement experienced in the US. Yet this newly constructed space often becomes as uncertain, constructed, and alien as the “new” environment she inhabits. Similarly negotiating the dialectic state of the migrant subject, Angela Pulido Zorro elicits the complex relationships between autobiography, a radical political past in Colombia, and her current personal transitory state in-between two countries. Reassessing this intermediate state, her work explores the relationship between the official history of Colombia and its present state of perpetual warfare. Instead of negotiating a subjective experience of history, as the artists described above, both Alona Weiss and María Margarita Sánchez U. evoke notions of collective memory and the ways in which conceptualizations of the past relate to complex, and often violent, national narratives. Investigating the omnipresence of war monuments in Israel, Weiss analyzes how their original, commemorative function gets deemphasized, or bypassed entirely, as they become part of everyday public life and the banality of its urban centers. María Margarita Sánchez U., in a chilling and poetic video installation, addresses how accounts of disappearances, mass graves, and acts of terror are obtained and framed in contemporary Colombia, evoking the impossibility of commemoration as a foremost act of violence perpetuated by the different groups of people involved in the conflict.

A second cluster of works deals with multifaceted, playful encounters, which question normatively established notions of interaction and behavior through a series of engaged, performative gestures of varying length and diverging modes of temporal engagement. Jian Yi, in his project Strangers, contacts people through the internet, involving them in a non-participatory encounter through which he documents their daily activities with a series of snapshots. Merging the quotidian with the personal, he returns one week later, leaving a gift on their doorstep. Similarly straddling the spheres of intimacy and alienation, albeit in a different sociocultural context, Alejandro Yoshii gets in touch with individuals via various gay dating websites and apps, stripping the subsequent encounters of any sexual or physical connotation and purpose. Requesting his subjects to collaboratively produce a “social sculpture,” they ultimately leave a physical and permanent archeological imprint of their brief social media-induced meeting. Using the internet as a gateway to personal, intimate encounters that balance the fragile divide between precariousness and dependence, both projects resonate with Judith Butler’s suggestion that our capacity to respond to others “will depend in part on how the differential norm of the human is communicated through visual and discursive frames.” John Lee, in a more politically charged and provocative performance, stages oppositional and critical confrontations, mapping his ambivalent feelings and resistance towards American imperialism onto his own body.

A third cluster of works deals with the emergence, as well as breakdown, of narrative structures. Examining and emphasizing the ways in which narration can create fictional spaces that move away from ”the real,” as well as the supposedly objective mediation of time, they importantly engage tactics of subversion, an idea explored at length by Michel DeCerteau in The Practice of Everyday Life. David Connolly, in a complex multi-channel video installation, investigates speech acts and their cultural and political implications. Juxtaposing actual events concerning a 2011 mining accident in Zambia with corporate speak and management talk, the work suggests an alternative to the official, biased account of the tragedy, while powerfully subverting the meaning of the language surrounding it. Focusing on a different field of narration, Lilly Handley is concerned with storytelling and the emergence of narrative structures, using the audio diary format as a way to destabilize meaning. As the stories she tells are both experienced by her, as well as borrowed and found, Handley complicates a straightforward understanding of first-person narration and memory, enhancing her audio installation with an ephemeral image archive of found scenarios. Whereas these installations address the formation of narrative alternatives, the works by Hala Alhomoud and Cara Nahaul emphasize the breakdown of narrativized constructions. Employing abstract patterns and repetition, Alhomoud shows short, looping animations depicting manual labor, zooming in on a physical gesture of a body working on farmland. Through juxtaposing these animations with text pieces that refer to industrialized food products, as well as the reductive mode of narration, the artist suggests an intricate connection between two habitually separated worlds, the one of traditional farming and that of processed food production. Lastly, in her large scale, colorful paintings, Cara Nahaul confuses the representation of familial identity and ethnic and cultural origins, deconstructing the spatial and formative elements that make up family photographs by recontextualizing them in newly imagined interiors and different time periods. Her staged, theatrical compositions evoke relatable narratives through their generic content, yet are complicated by the formal abstraction of the painted image.

Lastly, a fourth, and final cluster of works evolves around more explicitly open and formal approaches to artistic practices, suggesting a number of transversal links that disregard a clear, upfront thematic determination. In doing so, they explore the formal implications and deeper meanings inscribed in a range of materials and media, as well as the possibilities that emerge from deliberate genre confusions. Within this context, the works of Mark John Smith, Rujuta Rao, and Becca Jane Rubinfeld are bound by an interest in the physicality of sculpture elaborated with a wide variety of media, ranging from photography to video, from sound to printmaking, thus deconstructing the different temporal spheres associated with these modes of artistic expression. Taking a hyper subjective approach to assemblage while exploring the essential yet fragile relationships between objects and materials, they explore a wide range of concepts and approaches, from the notion of ekphrasis, through the translation of an artwork from one medium to another resulting in an altered experience (Rujuta Rao), to the division between knowledge and intuition, fantasy and reality (Becca Jane Rubinfeld), to the removal of individual expression and action (Mark John Smith). In a similarly investigative vein, Matt Whitman uses film and video cameras as instruments of meditation, exploring links and connections to the rich history of structural cinema. Staging durational handheld shots until his hands start shaking, Whitman inserts his own body into the image hors-champs. He does this while filming long takes of empty storefronts meditating a New York on the cusp of disappearing, through increasingly marginalized media from the past. Finally, for Luka Rayski, painting becomes a means to explore doubt and uncertainty instead of presenting the visualization of grand artistic gestures. Embracing failure and unpredictability as a mode of expression, his painterly constellations boldly balance the emergence of catastrophe and love.


Taking these temporal clusters into account, this exhibition simultaneously confirms and renders more complex Boris Groys’ well-known and widely employed dictum that works of art cannot force the visitor into a contemplative mode, as they “lack the necessary vitality, energy, and health,“ needing outside help—an exhibition and a curator—to become visible and fulfill their purpose. Of course, the artworks under consideration would not be visible without the context of the MFA Thesis Exhibition and its particular curatorial and institutional framing, but Before nevertheless suggests a subverting of this notion: what if it is the exhibition and its accompanying curatorial statement that actually lack vitality and health? What if the exhibition’s artworks deconstruct the very structure that allows them to come into being? In this regard, it seems relevant to consider Plato’s early dialogues in the context of the role of the curator at present. Always evolving around a subject who thinks he knows something about a specific matter, he ultimately discovers he does not, a revelation awakening his desire to investigate it more closely. Habitually speaking from an all-knowing, authoritative perspective, in this exhibition framework the curator is subjected to Platonic doubt, opening up a series of thought-provoking questions rather than providing clear, straightforward answers. As such, Before suggests the continuous and multifaceted interplay between past, present, and future, mediating the multitude of challenges and promises associated with graduating from an art academy in New York City.

1- Jimmie Durham, “Interview with a 10,000 Year old Artist” in A Certain Lack of Coherence, Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, 1993: Kala Press (London), p. 80.

2- Francis Guerin and Roger Hallas, “The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture,” http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-3-issue-8-winter-2008/the-image-and-the-witness-trauma-memory-and-visual-culture/, last accessed April 6, 2014.

3- Judith Butler, “Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag” in Frames of War, When is Life Griavable, 2010: Verso (Brooklyn), p. 77.

4- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984: University of California Press (Berkeley), p.79.

5- Boris Groys, “On the Curatorship” in Art Power, 2008: MIT Press (Cambridge) p. 46.