LA Contemporary – Virginia Shore: Chief Curator, Art in Embassies – an Excavation of site and citation – a Question and Answer Interview. How did you get involved with Art in Embassies? I started out as an intern. Within a few months, they put me under contract as a ‘research assistant’ and my job was to assist Andrew Solomon, who was contracted to write 10,000 words on the history of Art in Embassies (AIE) for a book. Over the years, I have held almost every job in the Program. They allowed me to go to graduate school while working on a flexible schedule, as well as do an internship at the National Gallery of Art. When I began, we were a tiny staff of five overseeing loaned exhibitions for approximately 100 posts. Now, we are a team of 18 and have grown the program in numerous ways. Some of the most relevant and compelling changes involve globalizing our mission to include artists from the host country; having oversight of all acquisitions for the new embassies and consulates; and expanding the cultural exchange/residence program. All three progressions have enabled AIE to become a leading Program of cross-cultural exchange through the visual arts.
What is the role of art in American diplomacy?
Let me start by quoting former Secretary Clinton, who wrote the following in the February 2013 issue of Vanity Fair: “In my line of work, we often talk about the art of diplomacy as we try to make people’s lives a little better around the world. But, in fact, art is also a tool of diplomacy. It reaches beyond governments, past the conference rooms and presidential palaces, to help us connect with more people in more places. It is a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity. That’s why Art in Embassies is so important… Just think about what an exhibition of American and local artists means to someone across the world yearning to express herself or himself. Artists push boundaries and show what the human spirit is capable of, forming bonds of understanding with people they may never know. For over 50 years, Art in Embassies has showcased the best of this talent. I am grateful, as it promotes creativity, ignites collaboration, and builds on American diplomacy.”
AIE has played a vital role in our nation’s public diplomacy through a culturally expansive mission, creating temporary exhibitions and permanent collections, artist and cultural exchange programming, and publications since 1963. . The Museum of Modern Art first envisioned this global visual arts program a decade earlier. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy formalized it as an office of the U.S. Department of State, naming the Program’s first Director. Now with over 200 venues, AIE curates temporary and permanent exhibitions for the representational spaces of all U.S. chanceries, annexes, consulates, and embassy residences worldwide, commissioning and selecting contemporary art from the U.S. and the host countries. These exhibitions provide international audiences with a sense of the quality, scope, and diversity of both countries’ art and culture, establishing AIE’s presence in more countries than any other U.S. foundation or arts organization.
It’s interesting to make work for a US embassy: to reclaim works that are exhibited in contemporary society but avoiding transforming them into mere political or aesthetic signs.
Do the works fall in a place where politics and art try to understand each other?
In most instances, I would say so, but the art is not always at the forefront of the conversation but it provides a backdrop to issues that are relevant and critical between the US and the host country. Take the wall sculpture by Sanford Biggers at our Embassy in Madagascar, which simultaneously evokes transcendence and suffering. The work is in the form of a lotus flower, a large metal flower that hangs in the atrium. The petals of the flower are laser cutout rows of figures resembling paperdolls and based on diagrams of slave ship hulls.
In war torn or “hostile” countries, have there been instances where artists need to reflect on their right to create, to see, to think, to absorb, to interpret, and to translate?
I believe the visual arts programming is relevant in every country but can be more critical in hotbed countries where there is unrest, instability, or conflict exists between us. The art humanizes these buildings and becomes a common denominator. Sometimes these buildings look like bunkers. The objective of the art program is to highlight the similarities as well the differences between our countries. While the art may not ultimately change the outcome, it helps on a humanitarian and emotional level. Yes, at times it can be tricky for artists from the host countries at times to work with AIE. Recently, I have been working with Shahzia Sikander, an internationally acclaimed artist from Pakistan who is a miniaturist and video artist. Sikander lives in the US. The initial concept was for her and a classmate of hers from the National College of Arts in Lahore to collaborate on a sites-pecific commission for the new Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. However, the local politics in Pakistan came into play. Heated debates on her role in the history of contemporary art emerged, and a critic questioned her contributions as a leader of Pakistani art, as well as her allegiance. Ultimately, we decided that any type of collaboration would be fraught with issues and might be interpreted as having messages of propaganda. So, we are working on site-specific.
Can you discuss any works that transform historical moments into a kind of collective epiphany?
Another transforming moment led by my colleague, Camille Benton, was for the new Embassy in Mbabane, Swaziland. Entitled Unheard Voices, it involved sending artist, Mari Gardner to Mbabane, Swaziland, to do a project on HIV/AIDS and genderbased violence—both issues are significant social problems in Swaziland. The exchange was for her to facilitate a photography and audio project in a rural village both. She worked with seventeen men and women from the AIDS Support Center to record their personal audio narratives and photograph selfportraits. (The participants were given cameras and asked to photograph themselves and each other.) At the end of Mari’s visit, the photographs and recordings were publicly exhibited at a space in
the U.S. Embassy. The installation consisted of three 11 x 9 foot suspended white cloths onto which the participants’ images flashed at varying intervals. Their audio recordings were played simultaneously and consisted of the participants telling their stories in both SiSwati and English.
In the words of the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer: “We believe that the handson approach with the group taking their own portraits to express how they felt was hugely successful. It allowed the participants to be able to talk and express how they felt. They talked about how fear was eroding their life and self esteem, their need to talk about it, and how the other participants could become a support group. Importantly, they talked about how they could find strength in expression.”
And Mari notes: “This screening allowed for an immediate impact as well as an unusual opportunity for Swazi artists to interact with rural women. The advancement of democracy and human rights in Swaziland is a key priority. Gender based violence continues to erode this tiny country.”
In the words of Constance Parker, wife of then U.S. Ambassador Maurice Parker: “Mari’s video was truly a profound experience for all of us, but especially for the dignified people whose photos were displayed in the show. It changed them and their perceptions of their place on this earth forever. They left the Embassy with their heads just a little higher.”
Has humor been used as a mechanism or approach to face any problems/issues in order to create an idealistic sense of moving forward?
Here’s a twist. The 37th president ordered the removal of pieces of modern art placed in embassies during the Kennedy administration. Calling such pieces “little uglies,” on January 26, 1970, Nixon issued a memo calling the examples of modern art and architecture in government offices “incredibly atrocious.” No immediate examples are coming to mind but internally we use humor daily as an aid in our division of the State Department to keep us all sane, or insane as it may be. Although there was no “issue” being addressed, one of the recent commissions for the Embassy in Dakar by Northern California artist Mildred Howard will hopefully bring some joy. The piece, entitled Switchin in the Kitchen; from Detroit to Dakar, is an installation of twelve works with gesturing bronze hands in white gloves mounted onto vinyl records with labels in the colors of the Senegalese flag and musicians names from Detroit and Dakar.
John Baldessari’s sculpture Camel (albino) Contemplating Needle (Large) highlights a confluence of belief from several different cultures. References to the camel and the needle appear in the Quran, Bible, and the Midrash. A lifesize dromedary with its neck extended inquisitively eyes a supersized needle in a way which makes the viewer think it could actually pass through needle’s eye. The colorless beast with striking blue eyes is simultaneously intriguing and peculiar especially when stripped of its pigment and fur. As an indigenous creature to Afghanistan this camel has found a home in our new Embassy in Kabul.
Have there been any works exhibited that disguise their revolutionary language and attitude with formalism?
A few…one that comes to mind is Last Days before the Flood in the Beijing Embassy collection, an incredible work by Yun FeiJi, from his series on the “Three Gorges Dam”. . FeiJi uses traditional painting techniques to address a range of issues that would have caused enormous hardships for the people and environmental damage. The Dam would have displaced up to 4 million people as well as destroyed historical and religious artifacts. At first glance, the artist’s work recalls atmospheric landscapes, using large, scrolllike works on paper. However, the real meaning of the work is embedded; the veiled and the metaphorical have strong political resonance in China, where reading between the lines is its own art form.
Does the art work serve as a social sculpture to function on cultural, conceptual, and psychological levels? Monuments to human action?
Yes. Two examples of commissions which functioned on the “cultural, conceptual, and psychological levels” were the pilot projects we did with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) with lead Mexican artist Pedro Reyes for the American Consulate in Tijuana and the second is underway for the new embassy under construction in Rabat, Morocco, which will include a commission with the Rhode Island School of Design and lead artist Jim Drain.
The border between Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest frontier in the world with an average of 20,000 people crossing between the two cities. Pedro and the students at SFAI created a sculpture entitled Ear, which mimics the form of the inner ear to convey a message of cultural diplomacy. “I was looking at sources of inspiration in nature, and that led me to anatomy. And in anatomy I found the organ that allows us to communicate. Inside our body (pointing at a replica of the inner ear) this is about 8 millimeters long and the sculpture is 8 meters long. That means it is 1000 times amplified,” Pedro explains. Commenting why the piece is important, he adds that it is: “Not only what you have to say, but also what you ought to hear. Art is something that should allow people to talk, but not about the piece, but just like talk about larger aspects of life. It’s not about this piece of metal here; it’s about other discussions that are yet to come.” At the time of installation we expanded the piece to include trees from Pedro’s “Palas for Pistolas” (PXP) Project. This work is part of a campaign to curb the trade of small weapons. The artist organized a voluntary weapon donation in Culiacán, a city in western Mexico, where 1,527 guns were melted and made into 1527 shovels to plant 1527 trees. Currently they are working to replicate the project in more cities.
For the Rabat project, we approached the Rhode Island School of Design using the Tijuana/Pedro/ SFAI project as a model. The project has been designed to promote cross-cultural exchange, and to recognize and nurture the talents of the next generation of professional artists. Jim Drain (a RISD graduate) was selected by AIE and RISD to be the lead artist. He focused the students by examining Morocco’s visual culture and history. There were 15 students from various disciplines all seeking to understand the evolution of cultural diplomacy, the impact of borrowing symbols from another culture, and the symbolic significance as well as complex logistics of creating a work for a U.S. Embassy. The commission resulted in an emphasis on the materials and culture. We were able to identify an amazing textile artist working with recyclable materials from Morocco, Soukaina Aziz El Idrissi, whom we sent on an
exchange to RISD to work with the class and Jim.
Monuments to human action?
Yes! Too many to list. Here are two.
The work by Alexis Rockman for our embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar reflects his time spent with the Lemur Conservation Foundation located inTampolo within Analanjirofo, a small reserve in Madagascar. There he created a series of watercolors documenting a handful of the thirtytwo species which are indigenous to the island. For the Consulate in Mumbai we worked with Indianborn artist, Subhankar Banerjee, who calls himself an ecocritical photographer, artist, educator and activist. His images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other Alaska wild lands have received attention globally. His landscapes document the changes in the migratory patterns of the animals as a result of climate change and oil drilling in the Refuge. These are examples of the ways the art can inspire conversation about issues and concerns in our country and the host country.
What is the timeline for launching all these newly commissioned ART in Embassies?
Within the State Department, AIE falls under the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO). OBO oversees the design, development, and completion of all new State Department facilities globally. Approximately five new buildings a year are completed. We are constantly launching new collections, temporary exhibitions and conducting exchanges worldwide. Between the loaned exhibitions and the permanent collections we average about 60 projects a year. Since 2005, we completed over 50 permanent collections for new buildings abroad.