Melissa Chiu (Ashley Gilbertson)

Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, oversees the Smithsonian’s museum of modern and contemporary art—home to one of the world’s most important collections of postwar artists. In a conversation with Smithsonian Second Opinion, she highlights artwork that uses the power of language, video and imagery to respond to the immediacy of our time. For Chiu, art matters because artists create a personal experience that helps us better engage with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.

Artists: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Artwork: "How Can One Change Oneself"

(Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Cathy Carver)

“How can you make yourself better, more kind and decent is the question,” says Chiu of the Kabakovs’ How Can One Change Oneself, the first of her five selections that resonate in today’s social and political climate. Though created in 1998, How Can One Change Oneself feels even more influential in this age of social media, according to Chiu. “We witness so many moments of incivility, especially online,” she says. “But this speaks to how you relate to and treat one another. It is instructional, but via an artwork.”

Now based in the United States, Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are a married couple whose conceptual art bridges allegory and reality. Poignant and whimsical, their installations often provide hypothetical instructions for viewers to enact the title of the art. Another piece, for example, is called How to Meet An Angel. Not all of their projects are actualized at scale; some exist only as maquettes, which are considered equally significant to their artistic practice. “As a couple who emigrated from Russia, some of their ideas that they grew up with are in a way translated through an American idiom,” describes Chiu. “I think that do-it-yourself aspect is also a uniquely American idea.”

The Hirshhorn’s recent exhibition The Utopian Projects featured 22 of the Kabakovs’ proposals, including How Can One Change Oneself, which comes with a five step, interactive process. First, make two wings out of tulle and attach leather straps. Second, wear the wings and sit in silence and solitude for five to ten minutes. Next, go about your daily tasks. In two hours time, repeat the process for solitude and silence while wearing the wings. Lastly, repeat the ritual for two to three weeks. “By continuing this daily procedure,” Chiu explains, “we are told the effects of the wings will begin to seep into the individual, changing them into the person they hope to become.”

Artists: Gran Fury

Artwork: "Silence = Death"

(Courtesy New Museum New York William Olander Memorial Fund. Photo by Cathy Carver)

“Today we are witnessing a newfound sense of politics,” says Chiu. “[Art collective] Gran Fury’s work has a lot of resonance with how people feel today in terms of their political voice.” As notions of resistance and protest are back at the forefront of a national dialogue, so too the symbols of social movements and collective action.

Since the Reagan-era, the simple equation Silence = Death by Gran Fury has come to define AIDS activism. The graphic first appeared on placards throughout Manhattan as a response to a 1986 New York Times op-ed by William F. Buckley who suggested HIV-positive people be tattooed on their upper forearm and buttocks to protect others from the spread of the disease. Buttons, stickers, t-shirts and posters with the bold graphic about political inaction soon followed. And while art, in it of itself, was not the goal of the image, today, Silence = Death lithographs are mainstays of museum exhibitions and collected by institutions such as the New Museum in New York.

Gran Fury employed a stark, powerful aesthetic of a black background and white capital typeface. The pink triangle evokes the Nazi marker for gay men imprisoned in death camps, but reclaimed in the 1970s by the gay community as a symbol of gay pride. Historically, the phrase speaks to a moment of the AIDS crisis and political organization in the gay community, explains Chiu. Like the Kabakovs’ piece, Silence = Death is a creation of late-20th century that now feels she believes, just as contemporary and timely again.

Artist: Ed Atkins

Artwork: "Safe Conduct"

(Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo by Cathy Carver)

“This computer-generated video work is all about the artist’s experience going through airports,” explains Chiu. “Safe Conduct is very much about this new world we live in, where surveillance and security are prevalent and it may sometimes feel as if we are stripped bare.”

British artist Ed Atkins is known for hyper-realistic, computer-generated films that feature a signature avatar, known as “the figure” or “model.” In Safe Conduct, Atkins presents an animated series that mines the post-9/11 airport protocol we endure every time we board a plane. Both literal and metaphorical, Safe Conduct considers reductio ad absurdum the societal ritual of methodically placing our life’s belongings in a TSA tray.

Using a digital surrogate of himself— a bruised, battered version of Atkins’s own face— the avatar peels layers of his facial skin and places various body parts in the airport security bins as they float away on the conveyor. The repetition of sound and visceral imagery is both unsettling and slapstick quality. But Atkins poses a serious question about the human condition: What is lost in our submission to mandated security and surveillance checkpoint procedures?

“His whole practice is about how you make computer generated graphics and imagery more real,” says Chiu. “But if you take the Kabakovs, Gran Fury, and Ed Atkins, they are all about the moment of today."

Artist: Zoe Leonard

Artwork: “I want a president”

I want a president
Zoe Leonard, I want a president…, 1992. A High Line Commission. On view October 11, 2016 – March 2017 (Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line)

“Zoe Leonard’s poem embodies the idea that voting for a president is a democratic act,” says Chiu. “And in a way, we should have the expectation that the president represents the people, and could also speak for those who are minorities in our country.”

Leonard is a New York-based photographer and sculptor. Like Silence = Death, this selection wasn’t intended for the museum world per se. Writing In 1992 for a now-defunct LGBT magazine, Leonard’s manifesto-essay I want a president begins: “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with AIDS for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, in October 2016, a month before the United States presidential election, the Whitney Museum of American Art installed a massive, 20-by-30-foot version of the poem at a street-level entrance to New York City’s High Line. I want a president has long held cult status among artists and activists. But it’s potent text has found new fame on Instagram and on Youtube as a kind of protest performance, an undercurrent of our political and social climate for a new generation.

“Even though this was also done decades ago, it really has a resonance today that is kind of remarkable,” explains Chiu. “What I’m trying to do is think about the past but also how the present is different, how these issues have resurfaced in their importance.”

Artist: Charline von Heyl

(Charline von Heyl, Bluntschli, 2005. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 82 x 78 in. ©Charline von Heyl. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Collection Ira G. Wool and Barbara Mirecki)

Chiu’s final selection is an upcoming solo exhibition Snake Eyes by Charline Von Heyl at the Hirshhorn this fall. Von Heyl uses acrylic, charcoal, oil paint and crayons. “In some ways, it’s harder to be a painter than ever before,” says Chiu. “I think it takes a lot of courage today to focus only on painting with singularity and to really push that medium, and to develop your own iconography within that genre.”

Snake Eyes is the largest U.S. museum survey of contemporary painter Charline Von Heyl, covering more than 30 large-scale of her abstract, graphical work, created since 2005. Born in Germany, Von Heyl moved to the United States in the 1990s, living between Brooklyn and Marfa, Texas. Of her Friedrich Petzel show, critic Jerry Saltz wrote: “Von Heyl is not a good artist because she’s a female who paints but because of how she paints...She’s painting something in a feverish, hardcore way while using her entire body as a reference.” Unlike the other selections, viewers are face-to-face with the maker’s hand; Von Heyl’s labor is evident in each of her densely visual artworks.

“In contrast to a lot of the kind of installation practices and technology practices we see today, this is a painter’s painter,” explains Chiu. “So many artists today walk within a diverse range of media. Charline Von Heyl has a great sense of singularity and focus on her own artistic concerns.” Painting, according to Chiu, is a different way of viewing art— a perspective especially salient in our digital and technology saturated age.

(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)