In 1982, when she was an undergraduate student studying in Wisconsin, Michelle Grabner drove for the first time from the Milwaukee to New York. Cleveland lies halfway between Milwaukee and the Big Apple, and she can still recall how she felt when she stopped there to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art. She was instantly bowled over by the institution’s Marcel Breuer–designed building, and still today she feels a connection to it.
“I always felt like I knew Cleveland, like I had a relationship with the city,” Grabner told me outside the museum last week. She was in town to inaugurate the first Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, which she curated. Its organizers hope the show becomes a regular stop on the art calendar, a zeitgeist-channeling affair like the biennales of Berlin and Venice, though as not a few people have remarked, its location is off the radar of the globetrotting jet set. Grabner was not phased by that.
“I really believe in the Midwest, especially now, as these regions and cities are becoming more hospitable to artists,” Grabner, a Wisconsin native, said. “Centers are important—they circulate ideas, they circulate work—but maybe [cities like Cleveland] are important places for making work and for having ideas that then go to the centers. These cities are starting to thrive. I think they’re the future.”
Grabner’s positivity was inescapable at the triennial’s opening last week, which had attracted people from across the nation. It had the energy of a major event. Scattered across Cleveland, Akron, and Oberlin were works by more than 110 artists, at venues both large and small, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum to unconventional spaces, like the front yard of a church in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, an historic steamship docked in Lake Erie, and, naturally, the city’s famed Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“The hope is that people just bump into this art and get intrigued,” Fred Bidwell, the triennial’s CEO, said the morning after the first preview day, at Transformer Station, an art space that he and his wife, Laura, run in Cleveland’s gentrifying Ohio City neighborhood. He explained that he’d modeled the Front International on Documenta, the quinquennial based in Kassel, Germany, and that the triennial’s budget was around $5 million, a fraction of the more than $40 million allocated to the 2017 edition of that quinquennial, but a full $1 million more than the most recent edition of the Prospect New Orleans triennial had.
Front’s list of contributing artists has helped build its cachet—included in the show are Candice Breitz’s Love Story (2016), a critically lauded seven-screen video installation about forced emigration that also appeared in South Africa’s pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, and Gerard Byrne’s In Our Time (2017), a piece about a radio station that debuted at the 2017 edition of Skupltur Projekte Münster. Many of the works were newly commissioned or reformulated for the triennial, however, and most had something to do with local history.
Milwaukee-based artist John Riepenhoff crafted a delectable work titled Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst special sausage, which is precisely that. Working with Ohio City Farms and Jeremy Umansky, the founder of the local sandwich shop Larder, Riepenhoff produced a sausage that refers to Cleveland’s ethnic makeup—the city was, at one point, a hub for Central and Eastern European immigrants, many of whom were Jewish. “Through my research, I learned that, during the ’70s, people in Cleveland didn’t know what a bratwurst was,” Riepenhoff said. “We’ve evolved so quickly that, 50 years ago, it was a foreign food, and now it’s an American food. I wanted to think about the same things in terms of new waves of immigrants who, a lot of times, people feel are very different.” The sausage, he said, is also a metaphor. “It’s just a simple link that connects people to a community.” You can buy Riepenhoff’s sausages at Cleveland’s West Side Market for $6.49 a pound; they’re also available at the market’s café in the form of frittatas in the morning.
One of the most-discussed works during the opening festivities was Dawoud Bey’s elegant photo installation Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017), which was on view a few minutes from Bidwell’s Transformer Station, at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Above the church’s pews hang a set of dark black images of branches, trees, and fences. They refer to the history of the Underground Railroad, which had stops in Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, where Bey took these pictures. But they are not documentary photographs, Bey cautioned. “I didn’t want to do a documentary project, just document Underground Railroad sites—that kind of work has already been done,” he said. “I wanted to make . . . something that would be a reimagining of that history.” In doing the project, Bey said he was “trying to imagine the experience of navigating these spaces and making photographs that were analogies to that experience, and also printing them to give a sense of this movement under cover of darkness through the landscape.”
Other works took the form of dramatic gestures, whether large-scale sculpture or ambitious conceptualism. Tony Tasset, who was born in Cincinnati, unveiled a 20-foot-tall sculpture titled Judy’s Hand Pavilion—a metallic-looking, gargantuan version of his wife’s hand—in a plaza outside MOCA. “She thought it could’ve used a little moisturizer,” Tasset said of his wife’s reaction to the piece as people took selfies beneath the sculpture’s mega-sized palm. At the organization Spaces, for a project called A Color Removed, Michael Rakowitz attempted to remove from Cleveland all orange objects, which the Chicago-based artist, citing various writings by color theorists, believes are associated with safety. And at the city’s public library, Yinka Shonibare MBE debuted The American Library, a shelf filled with more than 6,000 colorful tomes, each of them dedicated to an immigrant or a person who’d spoken out against immigrants.
Outside Transformer Station, A. K. Burns debuted the sculpture The Dispossessed, a pair of fences that look as though they were crushed by heavy machinery. Standing next to her sculpture, Burns explained that she was fascinated by fences she spotted throughout Ohio City, which she said “appear around construction sites and empty lots, as markers of ongoing gentrification.” She thought that the fences could be metaphors for borders, and she wanted to break them down. “I got so frustrated, and I was like, ‘Ah, I want to crumple these fences!’ ” she said. With a laugh, she added, “You’d think it would be more fun. It’s actually not easy to crush the fence.”
At the the apartment-sized installation Let It Bee Ark Hive, which is open by appointment, Julie Ezelle Patton paid homage to her artist–mother, Virgie, through what she called “a living and breathing historical Glenville sanctuary.” In the apartment space she intermingled her own art and that of her mother, who died in 2015. Figurative canvases by Patton’s mother were assembled in clusters in bathrooms, closets, and living rooms, and these pictures—self-portraits, pictures of flowers against stark backgrounds, and more—conjured the ghosts of the neighborhood’s past for present-day audiences.
Local narratives were threaded throughout the triennial, thanks to Grabner placing an emphasis on showing Midwestern artists, and at the Cleveland Institute of Art, she organized the exhibition “The Great Lakes Research,” a group show featuring 21 artists from Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, and other cities with whom she had personally conducted studio visits. On opening night, the exhibition was packed.
The festivities continued a few blocks away at MOCA, where a celebration was held for VIPs. Amid mini-exhibitions by Josh Kline, Martine Syms, and Johnny Coleman, curators and artists milled about, snapping Instagrams and donning 3-D glasses to watch Cyprien Gaillard’s film Nightlife (2015), which recently screened at Gladstone Gallery in New York. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston chief curator Eva Respini, ArtPrize artistic director Kevin Buist, and SculptureCenter director Mary Ceruti were among the attendees.
Amid the opening proceedings, some could also be found trying out Lin Ke’s piece Here and Now, an augmented reality work that can be accessed by downloading the app LayAr and holding one’s phone up to prints mounted on MOCA’s walls to view videos by the Chinese artist. (Getting phones to register the codes needed to access the piece proved to be a challenge. Many visitors had to fumble around for a few minutes before they could get the videos to start.) One shows a series of computers being opened by an unseen user who mouses over each one—they are titled after things like the universe and various planets, and get smaller and smaller in their scale, until they culminate in the artist’s mind. For Ke, who lived in Cleveland while preparing for the triennial, the project is about adjusting to a new culture. “When you leave a place and go to a new city, you always need to learn a local language,” he told me via email.
That is perhaps important advice for out-of-town visitors to Front as well. “I had to invite artists to a place that some of them had never heard of before,” Grabner said. “Some of them had a misunderstanding of what’s happening here, so I really had to work hard and be a promoter.” Bidwell began the fundraising process for the 2021 edition of the triennial during the opening weekend, and before too long a new artistic director will have the job of proselytizing for Cleveland. “If this triennial is successful,” Grabner said, “the future can only be more interesting.”