Updated: September 19, 2010, 5:24 PM
On Thursday afternoon, 23 stories above the streets of downtown Buffalo, a lone figure will step out onto a steel wire strung between the two towers of the Liberty Building.
With that daring walk across a wire suspended between two replicas of the Statue of Liberty, the French artist Didier Pasquette will usher in a region-wide art exhibition known as Beyond/In Western New York. The three-month event promises in no small way to send out shock waves about the vitality of our region’s visual arts throughout the Rust Belt and beyond.
The interlinked series of exhibitions, grew out of a tradition of regional survey shows that stretches back more than 100 years. In 2005, as the local arts community banded together in the face of shrinking arts funding, Beyond/In was born. It repeated, with a larger footprint, in 2007. And now, in its third and most ambitious incarnation yet, the little biennial exhibition that could is ready for its close-up.
The exhibition will feature curated shows in some 23 venues by more than 100 artists, selected from more than 700 proposals from cities across the Rust Belt region, including Cleveland, Syracuse and Toronto. Unlike past versions of the exhibition, it will also include the work of 10 invited artists, including Pasquette, Do Ho Suh and Andy Goldsworthy. Many of those artists will create site-specific installations and, in many cases, leave lasting marks on the artistic landscape of Western New York.
Goldsworthy, an environmental sculptor based in England, has produced an installation of electrically heated glacial rocks that will remain permanently on view outside the Albright- Knox Art Gallery. A mile or so away, at Main Street and Jewett Parkway, a 6-foot-tall owl with glowing LED eyes, by the Toronto-based art collective Fastwurms, will perch ominously atop the roof of the historic First Niagara Bank building.
Reinhard Reitzenstein, a University at Buffalo professor and participating regional artist, created a snakelike public sculpture that will live in perpetuity at Smith and Exchange streets in Buffalo’s emerging Larkin District.
Other exhibitions are more ephemeral but no less eye-catching. Millie Chen, a Taiwanese-born artist based in Ontario, will transform the interior of downtown’s Lafayette Hotel with projected silhouettes that evoke a more glamorous time in Buffalo’s history. Kim Adams, an artist working out of Ontario, creates “hilariously pimped-out vehicles” that double as light sculptures. He has created just such a vehicle that will be stationed outside of Babeville on Delaware Avenue.
“We always hope to ensnare more people into our lair of art and culture,” Massier said of the exhibition’s expanded public footprint. “But that’s not its sole purpose.”
The exhibition aims simultaneously to shine the spotlight on artists living and working in the Rust Belt region, to pin Western New York’s identity closer its vibrant arts scene and –not least of all –to focus the eyes of the international art world ever so briefly on the once-gleaming cultural hub of Buffalo. As such, it ranks as the largest collaborative visual arts project the city has seen in decades.
The exhibition’s title, laborious though it may seem, is a pretty good indication of its organizers’ desire to set the evolving show apart from similar projects –known as “biennials” –that have sprung up with increasing frequency over the past couple of decades.
To the ranks of established events like the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, the Whitney Biennial in New York City, the Venice Biennale and long-established shows in Sao Paolo, Brazil and Kassel, Germany, the international art scene now boasts any number of “destination” contemporary art shows in cities from Istanbul to New Orleans. These days, it seems you’re just not cool unless you have a biennial – Toronto and Los Angeles are discussing launching their own at this moment.
Many of these shows are organized for cities by rotating teams of outside curators. Others, like the fledgling but already highly successful New Orleans biennial known as Prospect, have been spearheaded by one or two local curators in hopes of importing internationally celebrated work.
But Beyond/In is something different, a fusion of the two models that keeps its feet firmly planted in the fertile artistic soil of Western New York and Southern Ontario but reaches out a hand to the international art world.
The theme for the exhibition is “Alternating Currents,” a term that references the history of the region as a center for the birth of electricity in the 19th century and also the back-and-forth between glorious past and unhappy present that West-ern New Yorkers feel so acutely.
“In my mind, it’s very much a natural evolution,” said Louis Grachos, director of the Albright- Knox Art Gallery and one of the exhibition’s original organizers and fiercest champions. He gave credit for the idea of drawing international artists to co-organizer and Buffalo Arts Studio director Joanna Angie.
Consultant, curator and biennial expert Bruce Ferguson was tapped by Grachos to advise the project. In his introduction to the nearly 200- page catalog that accompanies the show, Ferguson characterized Beyond/ In Western New York as a region’s attempt to assert its importance even amid so much doubt about its future.
“In spite of the idea or threats of globalization flattening the world to a single point of view,” Ferguson wrote, “an exhibition like Beyond/In instead rejects the idea that geography or place is destiny.”
“We wanted to be very careful that the internationalism doesn’t consume what we think is so beautiful about this project, which is that it really embraces a region that in itself has some great diversity,”Grachos said.
The show’s 14 core organizers hail from 12 art galleries and museums, each with a vastly different mission. Together, they made 136 studio visits and strategized, with Ferguson’s help, a way to integrate the work of internationally known artists into the show.
A 2009 symposium in which international art experts (among them 2010 Whitney Biennial curator Francesco Bonami) argued fiercely over the wisdom of infusing “international” elements into a “regional” art show, was held at the Albright- Knox. However intense the conversation and warnings from Bonami, a consensus emerged that inviting artists from outside the region would be the logical next step.
The possibility that their work might overshadow that of regional artists’ (literally, in the case of Pasquette) appears to be a risk they were willing to take.
“ ‘International’ is not necessarily the best term, because it sort of implies that we’re flying Jeff Koons in on a private jet to parachute in and do something,” said Massier, referring to the superstar neo-pop sculptor whose works adorn public spaces in richer metropolitan areas.
We won’t be seeing the second coming of Andy Warhol in parachute gear (though, for shock value, Pasquette’s tightrope walk isn’t half bad). Rather, the infusion of international names –in concert with underexposed regional artists –is meant both to raise the international profile of the event (this has already paid off with prominent mentions in the Toronto press and the Wall Street Journal) and to establish a conversation between regional artists and those whose work has become known around the world.
Bruce Adams, an oil painter who will exhibit his recent series “Divine Beauty” in a converted exhibition space above the Starlight Studio and Art Gallery on Delaware Avenue, is a prime example of the way projects like Beyond/In Western New York can affect artists’ work. Were it not for an artist he met during the first version of the exhibition in 2005, Adams might not even be in the show.
Adams’ conversation with an artist known as Sadko about the male figure eventually launched him on a series of paintings that fuse images of fashion models with religious iconography.
“I engaged in a dialogue with somebody I probably would have never met or known about, and it sort of triggered the next three years of my work,” Adams said, “so that’s a very concrete example of the effect Beyond/In can have.”
For Grachos, though the exhibition may be attracting more eyeballs from far-flung places than ever before, it is just as much about the artist toiling away in a Buffalo studio as it was in its previous incarnations going back the 1930s and before. It’s now just a bit grander, a bit sexier, and a good deal more in tune with what’s happening in the world at large.
“We really want the heart and soul of this project to be a real look at our region, and I think that’s something that this project has done very well,” Grachos said. “And we’re very proud of it.”