Oh gods of dust and rainbows
Front International 2022
Cleveland Triennial of Contemporary Art
Open until October 2nd
The planned starting point for the Front 2022 exhibit is Transformer Station, an electrical facility-turned-art-gallery in Cleveland’s Ohio City borough, the birthplace of Cleveland’s LGBT civil rights movement and a historic haven for queer culture. Following An American city, the inaugural 2018 issue of Front, this year’s edition, curated by Tina Kukielski and Prem Krishnamurthy, is a forward-thinking reflection on the themes of loss and healing, although planning was well underway before the pandemic. His title—Oh gods of dust and rainbows– borrows from the opening lines of Langston Hughes’ 1957 poem “Two Somewhat Different Epigrams” and resonates with the rainbow-hued streets surrounding the attractively stoic venue.
Northeast Ohio has been hit hard by the pandemic, inequality and climate change. And while these issues have ignited art and architecture discourse in general with a charged sense of urgency, they have also raised doubts about the effectiveness of these disciplines, even for Krishnamurthy; But those fears melt away in optimism Oh gods of dust and rainbows. Across the work of its 100 artists, installed across 30 venues in Cleveland, Akron, and Oberlin, Front is a moment of pause—a slow reflection on the scars left by the pandemic and social unrest.
Front 2022 is incredibly ambitious. Its mission is to make Cleveland “one of the world’s premier arts and culture destinations.” Front 2018 boosted the region’s arts economy, prompting some to speculate that the city could be “the next Venice”. Transformer Station was acquired by millionaire collector and former ad executive Fred Bidwell in 2011, and its 2013 opening helped spark a wave of gentrification in the neighborhood. In 2018, Bidwell explained that Front’s premise followed from a question about his project for Transformer Station: If it “could bring people into one neighborhood, could one bring bigger people into town?” He initially expected 15,000 visitors. A total of 90,000 people participated and generated $31 million in economic activity.
The first artworks to be displayed at Transformer Station are three archival reproductions of Hughes’ poem, showing his process as one of revision and transformation; they stand opposite an enlarged reproduction of Charles Eames’ diagram for the 1969 exhibition What is design? in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. This diagram shows design as a triangulation between the diverse interests of designers, customers and society at large. The implicit conversation between these two works is a curatorial preface to Front 2022’s theme of art’s potential to be transformative on multiple levels, from processing personal trauma to reinterpreting the power structures that govern contemporary life.
Entering the main gallery, one is enveloped in the sound of On Kawara’s monumental work A million years. Between 1969 and 1999, Kawara wrote twenty-four sets with ten calendar binders; Twelve extend a million years into the future and the other twelve extend a million years into the past. In 1993 he began recording live readings of these calendars, with readers in pairs reciting the text in turn. As I viewed the work across the gallery, the tone reminded me that the US had lost a million lives to the pandemic earlier this year.
Archival material from Cleveland’s Art Therapy Studio, the nation’s longest-standing independent art therapy center, can be viewed nearby. Founded in 1967 to help people explore art as a tool for healing, the studio continues to provide therapeutic art workshops to thousands of people across the region. As part of Front, Art Therapy Studio hosts a series of these workshops to help build a community among local artists. Nearby is a table full of books on topics ranging from harnessing the brain’s neuroplasticity to heal psychological trauma to climate change as a social imaginary crisis, reaffirming Front’s curatorial intent to surpass the exhibition of art as a representational object and fine art as a resource to use for healing.
The nearby SPACES gallery in Ohio City addresses environmental restoration through a group exhibition that examines the planetary effects of environmental degradation caused by industrial production and war. It shows the film by Jumana Manna Wild relatives (2018) which tracks the variety of stakeholders involved in the repatriation of native Lebanese plants destroyed in the Syrian Civil War using seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Also on display are several of Manna’s collages depicting idyllic landscapes made from fragments of household chemical cleaner labels.
This juxtaposition of chemicals and landscapes is reflected in the work of London-based artist collective Cooking Sections. They worked with local farmers to combat the occurrence of toxic algal blooms and hypoxia in Lake Erie caused by agrochemical runoff. The project, To those who feed themselves (2022), consists of double aeration wells in the north coast harbor. For the 2025 Triennial they are forming a network of farmer cooperatives to reduce and raise awareness of agrochemicals by experimenting with alternative farming methods.
While Front 2018 has been criticized for having almost no projects that represent local people or the issues they face, Front 2022 has numerous local contributors doing work that addresses many local issues, but with one blatant omission. In 2019, Cleveland ranked first among major cities for child poverty — an open wound that desperately needs to be healed. Why isn’t this theme represented at a triennial that aims to deal with change at the structural level of society? And who benefits from its economic activity?
Front’s strength lies in the fact that it exists outside of the fashion centers. The continuation of their project by the Cooking Section beyond the core months of the Triennale is based, among other things, on Krishnamurthy’s concept of “slow” curating, which means that the exhibition outlasts itself and leaves small restorative traces in the civic and cultural infrastructure over a long period of time region leaves. As David Brown’s curation of The available city For the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial, which made permanent installations on Chicago’s vacant lots in underserved communities, Front’s more relevant goal lies in art’s transformative potential to empower and restore local communities, rather than to make Cleveland the next Venice.
Paul Mosley is Assistant Professor of Architecture/Urban Planning at Kent State University.