"To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond," by Zhang 
    Huan, C-print.
"To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond," by Zhang Huan, C-print.

Social Studies

It would be accurate to call BLOOD: Lines & Connections, the fall-winter exhibit at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, a bold effort. It would also not be too far wrong to call the show -- or at least parts of it -- outrageous, confrontational and over the top.

MCA director Cydney Payton selected all the entries herself, looking for just those exact characteristics. Not only did she personally organize BLOOD, but she also supervised its installation. "The show," she says, "is intended to give a global perspective on a variety of ideas from the vantage point of artists who specifically deal with environmental, political, sociological and health-related issues in their work and in their daily life."

Considering the often strident tone of the works she selected, BLOOD is surprisingly elegant and handsomely fills the MCA's galleries. Elegance is not something that's ordinarily associated with shows of politically charged art, but many of the individual pieces -- even those that could be described as bold, outrageous, confrontational and over the top -- are also, dare I say it, absolutely beautiful.

The artists in BLOOD hail from around the world and espouse ideas that are, for the most part, left-wing. It's an interesting fact of the art world that liberal politics perfectly reflect the beliefs held by the vast majority of participants -- and not only starving artists, but the millionaire donors, too. Weird, isn't it?

The happy consequence is that the show has generated only a ripple of controversy; really, the biggest ripple was the cancellation of a Christmas party that was to be held at the MCA. The problem was two shocking videos: "Do Not Believe Your Eyes!," by Russian artist Oleg Mavromati, documenting his partial crucifixion in Red Square, and "Reel Time," by Adel Abdessemed from Algeria, which is a short loop of nude couples simulating sex in a gallery setting.

I'd heard about the Christmas-party brouhaha and asked Payton why she didn't relent and turn the videos off during the event. "As an institution, we cannot cave in to censorship," Payton says, "even if it's just pushing a button and turning off a video."

I heartily agree with Payton on this point. Censorship is definitely a bad thing, no matter what. The trouble is, both of those videos are pretty bad things, too.

The show, which Payton sees as a figural exhibit, focuses on what are typically, if incorrectly, called new media: photo-based work, installation and video. Knowing that videos such as the crucifixion and sex tapes would be a major component of BLOOD, I thought I wasn't going to like the show. I think fine-art video faces the same problem as music video: In neither realm are there masterpieces. True, the Mavromati and the Abdessemed are the worst of the lot, but almost all of the videos in the show are boring.

The one exception is "Murmurmurmurmurmur (VeneziaAccademiaRemix)" by Singapore's Herman Chong. Chong has lined two walls with twenty video monitors mounted on shelves at approximately eye level; below, at floor level, are forty red fluorescent lights placed off to one side. On each monitor is the image of a person on a street doing repeated movements. The ethnicity of the people and the international cities they're in subtly add specificity to the otherwise similar performances. Interestingly, from my point of view, the Chong is saved not because it involves video, but because it has an architectonic presence that makes it an installation -- a so-called new medium that I think has panned out.

"The Colors of Berlin," by German collective Stadtblind, is another notable installation, one meant to address Berlin's inferiority complex in comparison with the other great European capitals. The piece looks like a planning study -- well, except for the fact that it's sensitive and intelligent, which planning studies never are -- and is made of cut-up foam core mounted with digital prints, color chips and maps. One of the best things about "The Colors of Berlin" is its minimalist quality. Its placement in a passageway is great, too, because visitors are forced to walk through it as they would down a street.

Another artist collective, South Africa's Art for Humanity, is responsible for a group of pieces that are actually parts of a portfolio of billboards and posters that have been displayed as a single installation. The portfolio, titled "Break the Silence," has the most clearly stated objective of anything in BLOOD: the elimination of AIDS.

In addition to videos and installations are many photo-based pieces. Among the standouts in this group are those by two Chinese artists, Zhu Ming and Zhang Huan, who have been riding a tide of popularity during the past year or so. Both are represented in BLOOD by photographic recordings of their staged performances.

One series by Ming documents a stunt in which he rode the ocean in an inflatable balloon, using toxic paints to coat the inside. Huan's C-print photographs are considerably smarter, like the stack of corpulent female nudes in "To Add One Meter to Anonymous Mountain," or the men standing chest-deep in water in "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond."

The Ming and the Huan, as well as the pieces by Chong, Stadtblind and Art for Humanity, all derive from New York conceptualism of the '60s and '70s, as does nearly everything else in this show. There's even a representative of that period: Yoko Ono, one of the pioneers of conceptualism. This content makes the ultimate message of BLOOD not that art has become international, but rather -- and here's that unsettling specter of imperialism -- that American-style art has.

BLOOD is definitely mind-expanding, but MCA director Payton has also been looking to expand a lot more than our heads. She's added more programming this fall, and she ultimately wants to build a new museum facility.

In the area of programs, the MCA is not only presenting BLOOD, installed in the smallish museum at Sakura Square, but is also sponsoring two exhibits mounted elsewhere.

The first off-site exhibit is The Dikeou Collection, which is installed in a 5,000-square-foot space on the fifth floor of the Colorado Building, an art-deco confection on the 16th Street Mall at California Street. This show highlights the private collection of contemporary art assembled by brother and sister Pany and Devon Dikeou.

The second off-site exhibit, middle ground: Stephen Batura, will open November 14 in a converted warehouse at 3002 Walnut Street. Batura is a prominent contemporary representational painter whose recent pieces have been based on historic photos of Denver found in the Western History/Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library, where he used to work.

As for that new museum building, Payton says it's full speed ahead, although in truth, it's still pretty early in the process. For example, a formal capital campaign has not even been launched yet -- a fact that makes it hard to judge whether the MCA will be able to raise the money.

The idea for a new museum started with Mark Falcone, managing director of the development firm of Continuum Partners, which last spring offered the MCA a prime piece of land in the Platte Valley, at the corner of 15th and Little Raven streets. Worth about $800,000, the land would be given outright to the MCA if the institution agreed to erect a museum on the site. Then an anonymous donor gave the MCA a grant of $50,000 to study the feasibility of undertaking such an ambitious project. The results of that study have not been released, but it seems clear that the conclusion will be that this project is feasible; the MCA has already issued a formal Request for Qualifications aimed at architects, with a deadline of November 3.

More pressing than coming up with a designer for the building, though, is coming up with financial donors to pay for it. "We're offering the cheapest naming rights in the country," Payton says. "For three or four million, a donor could have the museum named after him or her." Or, presumably, after it, as would be the case if a corporation bought the naming rights.

When you think about it, that does seem like a modest amount for such a plum. After all, Frederic Hamilton put up $20 million to get his name on the Daniel Libeskind-designed building that's now going up for the Denver Art Museum. And don't forget the more than $100 million Invesco paid to have its name plastered all over Mile High Stadium.

Now, there is a cautionary proviso that I must put forward at this point: Plans for new museums have a tendency to evaporate over time. Consider the examples of the Museo de las Américas and the formerly joined Mizel Museum of Judaica and Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. Each had plans to build new facilities that were much further along than the MCA's are now, and the projects still fell apart.

Just last spring, a financial crisis at the Museo forced the abrupt cancellation of a multi-use museum complex that had already been designed by nationally famous California architect Michael Rotundi. Even more recently than that, the Mizel Museum split with the Mizel Center, and their plans for a joint museum were scuttled, even though Denver architect David Owen Tryba had already designed the building. I hope the MCA's dreams don't wind up in that same dustbin of good but discarded ideas.

Though she knows the effort will be tough, Payton is optimistic. "We're going to build a museum, definitely," she says emphatically.

And you know what? I think I'm tempted to believe her.


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