Twenty-three MacArthur "Genius" Fellows were announced yesterday. Many deserve a closer look, no doubt. But I want to point out three in particular.
First, Ethiopian-born novelist Dinaw Mengestu, whose first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, is a simple, devastating story about a refugee in D.C. He owns a corner store. He's the loneliest imaginable character; the whole book is an echo chamber for this one isolated soul. He has two friends from the Old World, Joseph and Kenneth, who are also stranded in their own ways.
"Look at those buildings," Joseph said once. "I would have..." He stopped there, stuck in midsentence. It was one of the few times in all the years I have known him that he has ever been speechless. We rarely talked about the buildings explicitly, but I know that Joseph and Kenneth both spent hours standing in front of Lincoln's massive, imposing figure, seated on his throne with an indifferent gaze cast toward the city. During his first few months in America, Joseph had memorized the Gettysburg Address off the memorial's walls, and spent several nights watching the sun rise from its steps. It's been years since either of them has gone near those buildings, and how could you blame them? Reality has settled in, and they're both still waiting to recover.
Then, there's German-born, LA-based Uta Barth. Twelve years ago, UW's Henry Art Gallery organized her first museum survey, and published a book with an interview by Sheryl Conkelton. Since then, Barth's work has gotten more attention, more exhibition, more publishing. But everything important about it was already present in the 1990s. Barth often seems to take pictures in which a subject that should be in focus is missing—and all that's left is the blurry background. It's as if the subject were somewhere in the room between you and the gallery wall.
"The images lack focus," Barth told Conkelton simply, "because the camera's attention is somewhere else."
It's that ghostly elsewhere you find yourself trying to locate when you look at her work. Frieze reviewer Adriano Pedrosa wrote of Barth's photographs, "...they remind me of a vampire's mirror... The subject is gone and nothing is going to bring it back."
And then, there's An-My Lê.
She's a photographer (13-minute Art21 episode) who was born in 1960, lived through much of the Vietnam War, then came to the United States as a refugee.
Her subject is war. But she shoots like a landscape photographer (and an old-timey one, with a large-format five-by-seven Deardorff camera). Two of her series—29 Palms, shot at a military training camp in California beginning in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq; and Small Wars (1999-2002), depicting Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia—were exhibited at the Henry Art Gallery in 2007.
Her pictures feel detached. Their sense of scale is disturbingly impersonal. Tanks are tiny, soldiers are tinier, explosions are unexplained, maybe dangerous, maybe not. Maybe fun. Maybe practice.
But the unreality isn't only a manipulation: it's a reflection of the real situation. Whatever's the real story is off-screen, as in Barth's pictures.
"On my own, I don't think I would ever gain access to the military and learn all these things," she says. "So the camera is a pretext."
She's also explained that she avoids making pictures of dramatic light. "I think I'd rather have something else add that element of drama." The mystery of the meaning of what the hell is actually going on in any given scene, maybe. Below is one.
All three of these Geniuses strike me as artists of absence. The absence takes on very different tones and forms, but there it is, right there.