Wolfgang Staehle

By now, most of the art world's major players have departed New York for Kassel, Germany to attend Documenta-a once-every-five-year exhibition that takes the pulse of contemporary art. If you believed the word on the cell phone during recent weeks, most of
these frequent flyers were skeptical about this year's show, feeling that it would be big on ideas but short on visual pleasure. But, according to Documenta's organizer, Okwui Enwezor, such grand scope is inevitable, considering the worldwide cultural transform-ations that have weakened our ideas of nation states and personal identity alike; to his mind, art must look at its own shaky foundations and "pursue the possibility of cracking the kernel of globalist discourse."

As alternately heady and vague as Enwezor's statement may seem, the sentiment behind it has become a core subject for younger artists and curators. While previous underground generations got themselves stoked on Sartre, today's big tome on students' book-shelves is Empire, a critical analysis of globalism by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Still, you don't have to go to Germany to get a lock on this view.- For starters, visit "Empire/State: Artists Engaging Globalization," a group show at the CUNY Graduate Center curated by the Whitney Independent Study Program.

Clearly, the curators have based their show on Empire. A wall text resonates with the book's proposition that numerous convergent, or separate but parallel, economic and political forces are superceding national boundaries to reformulate culture and people, rich or poor. Among the first works on view is a series of photographs by Sergio Munoz-Sarmiento of massive building complexes constructed in Mexico to house corporations that migrated from the United States
after the passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The buildings' facades, which bear no logos, are vaguely reminiscent of Frank Stella paintings and Donald Judd sculptures. Elsewhere, a large drawing by Mark Lombardi is titled "Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Bush, Thatcher and the
Arming of Iraq c. 1979-1990." Gathering information from public news outlets, the artist constructed a mainframe of curving lines in which well-known individuals like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissenger are enmeshed within a larger network of people and agencies responsible for the rise of the Iraqi military and the fall of a major Italian bank. A few raw images by Martha Rosler are among her strongest. Taken from her "In the Place of the Public" series of the 1980s, they depict scenes from airports in which, for example, a Wall Street Journal advertisement declares, MAYBE THERE IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE. The images were made at the start of a period in which emotional values would be attributed to branded architecture--first, in such environments as airports and, later, in stores such as Niketown.

Most other selections here are unfortunate. Fatimah Tuggar's "Working Woman" and Allan Sekula's "Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]" amount to little more than didactic journalism.

By far, the best work is by Wolfgang Staehle, who presents a real-time, 24-hour-a-day webcast image of the Empire State Building. Projected onto a gallery wall, the piece invokes Andy Warhol's film of the structure, yet is aligned with the contradictions of our time: While Internet-based, the work can only be seen in a gallery setting--much as our "free" press is being limited in its coverage of the current war. Strikingly, the image is of a building that stands only a few blocks from the exhibition. The radical divide between the building's iconic status in a mass medium and its physical presence is stunning, if not entirely unfamiliar to New Yorkers whose architecture has been regularly appearing on CNN since September 11.

It is precisely this component of reality, of art itself as a circumstance of culture, that is largely missing from the show. But other New York exhibitions have offered plenty to consider in this sense: The signs of identity-driven introspection amid fragmentation are seemingly everywhere. The Whitney Biennial certainly reflected a fractured art scene, with different regional and aesthetic sensibilities butting against each other. At the Studio Museum in Harlem, "Black Romantic" similarly looks beyond the gallery circuit in an effort to reformulate "black art." Arguably, even Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince look inward to explore the idea of masculinity in their current exhibitions. The sense that the personal and local are being revisited and redefined amid overwhelming and abstract global forces infuses all of these shows.

Still, the most concrete example of these tidal forces is only now set to appear. In 1997, Swingline, the Queens-based stapler manufacturer, joined the queue of companies that left the city for Mexico after the passage of NAFTA. Some 400 people lost their jobs; many of them had worked their entire lives for the company. On June 29, 2002, the Museum of Modern Art opens its interim exhibition hall in one of the corporation's closed factories.

"Empire/State: Artists Engaging Globalization" is on view at the Art Gallery of the Graduate Center City University of New York through July 14.