Notes for Tomorrow, the current exhibition at Parallax Art Center, makes it clear that there are many possible futures that we, in the present, have the ability to shape. A large, international group exhibition, Notes for Tomorrow is a collaborative effort organized by members of Independent Curators International (ICI). The nonprofit organization’s values of collaboration, exchange, and inclusivity are demonstrated in the curatorial style, in which 30 curators from 25 different countries chose works and wrote accompanying labels to give the overall show multiple authorial voices.
In the exhibition’s introduction, the curators write: “Notes for Tomorrow understands that no singular voice can guide us forward. Instead, it presents a network of overlapping solutions.” It’s a thesis that is made visible through the diversity of works on view, the wall texts that present complex ideas like decolonization, healthcare access, and climate crisis as fundamentally intersectional, and something else that’s hard to put into words.
The show is hopeful. This isn’t a doom and gloom situation in which humanity has just one shot to turn it all around but instead that “network of overlapping solutions.” The exhibition explores what our collective skills, dreams, and energies can positively contribute.
Notes for Tomorrow is a slow burn; the curatorial team asks viewers to slow down, to listen, look and think very carefully, and to search for nuance over facile understanding. It is a show one excavates a bit at a time, and probably most effectively over more than one visit.
Thematically, Notes for Tomorrow is an excellent fit for Parallax’s mission to “amplif[y] social justice and & environmental protection through inclusive art programs, exhibitions, and experiences.” The exhibition is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to think through the issues that such a harrowing event raised. It specifically responds to widespread public outcry about systemic inequity that was highlighted during a period of crisis widely viewed as “unprecedented.” Initiated by ICI administrators Frances Wu Giarratano, Jordan Jones, Becky Nahom, Renaud Proch, and Monica Terrero, the team asked individual curators to choose works that they believe are “vital to be seen today” and “that take on many of the issues that have moved to the fore in the pandemic’s aftermath.”
The pandemic unfolded very differently depending on location, and most of the curators selected work by artists from or working in the same cities where they reside. It is an international exhibition that still values local perspectives as important context. Works did not have to directly reference the pandemic, and in fact several of the works predate it, like Wayne Kamualii Westlake’s hand-stamped print Huli from 1979. Thus while the exhibition is a response to COVID-19, the works are not (or not always). It is in the curatorial framing that the exhibition as a whole speaks to how an event like a pandemic changes the world, not only in its moment and into the future, but also our perceptions of the past.
I’ll admit that I was intimidated on my first visit to Notes for Tomorrow, and I spent a lot of time thinking about why. Although there is photography and some installation art, most of the work is video, ranging in run-time from just over 3 minutes to nearly 40. We live in a culture that is increasingly about short-term engagement; it is the age of social media reels, TikToks, and tweets that all thrive on limiting the length of content. Multiple studies have concluded that on average viewers look at artworks for between 15 and 30 seconds, so easing into longer videos takes a different kind of mindset. Because multiple videos play in a loop on the same projector, one might not be able to see them all during a single visit. Used to wandering somewhat intuitively in gallery spaces, here I needed to move in fits and starts. I also needed to read all of the labels–which are generally long and fairly academic–to be able to understand the context of most of the work. And the work addresses topics that are vitally important, but perhaps intimidating because they are so big and complex. There is a tension between the casualness of the word “Notes” in the title of the exhibition—something quick, perhaps incomplete, unpolished—and the level of intense engagement the show requires.
One of the first works viewers see upon entering the space is La hortua inhospitalaria (The Inhospitable Garden), a series of 28 photographs by Colombian artist David Lozano. In the works, Lozano’s body twists and contorts into precarious shapes, often atop a metal bed frame with no mattress. Although the positions change, what is consistent is Lozano’s precarity; his body appears vulnerable and uncomfortable as he literally bends over backwards, or attempts to balance atop an overturned table set on the bed frame, or is suspended in space, tumbling over the bedframe’s back edge. His vulnerability is underscored by the fact that while he is nude, he is observed by several figures dressed as medical personnel. In most of the images they are seated, facing toward Lozano; it is unclear whether they are meant to be read as passive watchers or silent witnesses, and I think the work asks us to consider how we might draw a distinction between the two.
Curator Luis Carlos Manjarrés Martínez’s wall text describes Lozano’s photographs as a “performative action” set in the ruins of a well known hospital, “a former icon of the public health system in Bogotá, Colombia.” In this context, the precarity of Lozano’s body reads as a metaphor for so much suffering due to a lack of accessible healthcare–in and beyond Colombia–and acts as a single, visible example to stand in for the many instances that remain unseen. The last image in Lozano’s La hortua inhospitalaria is of a field of empty bed frames, each flanked by an empty plastic chair. No one is visible, the scene eerily empty and still. Martínez highlights the politics of Lozano’s work especially within the context of a global pandemic, writing that the work “reminds us that illness, death, and healthcare have become a business in a capitalist system that disregards human life.”
Much of the work in the exhibition is political, whether explicitly so or in the curatorial framing. The works overall engage with serious issues, but some, like the Moscow-based collective u/n multitide’s video procession do so through playful satire. The video shows a merry band of musicians and other revelers wearing paper hats, following a leader whose entire head is covered with an oversized mask. While it has facial features, this mask is–depending on your persuasion–comically or nightmarishly huge. It is deliberately silly as it lolls around to the side, creating a sort of grotesque view and obscuring those facial characteristics. The leader cannot see but gamely stumbles through the landscape, jubilantly waving both hands sometimes at spectators or sometimes at no one at all. We see the leader as a kind of puppet, coaxed and prodded along by handlers and with a great deal of seemingly useless fanfare.
Moscow-based curator Ivan Isaev’s wall text adds to the work’s potency, explicitly linking this masked leader to the real political figures of former U.S. President Donald Trump, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Isaev argues that “global crises and uncertainty lead to the rise of right-wing populism” and that the countries run by such regimes were generally the least capable of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus here, as in many of the labels accompanying the works, the bigger, conceptual matrix of the artwork is addressed in terms of its impacts it has on the everyday lives of regular people.
One of the strengths of Notes for Tomorrow is the diversity of its work. Yes, the topics here are heavy, but there is also great beauty and joy. The mix of humor and critique can be quite effective, and it is at its best here in Nadie aqui es illegal (Here No One Is Illegal), a short video by Mexico-City based collective INVASORIX in which figures wearing bright, oversized clothing and face paint dance around and morph their bodies into playful, sculptural shapes. The movement is set to upbeat music that asks pressing questions, such as “who is able to speak?” and envisions possible futures, noting that there is “a vocabulary yet to be invented” and “forms of alliance are yet to be multiplied.” Strange in its mix of ebullience and provocation, the work seems hopeful that together we can find our way through some of the world’s thorniest problems if we can find a way to balance serious political action with fearless creativity.
Decolonization, understood as both the literal returning of stolen land and the work of dismantling colonial structures as they continue to impact culture and society, is one of the most pervasive themes in the exhibition. Seeing so many different approaches to decolonization has tremendous value, demonstrating that because colonization has had such major global impacts, the work of challenging and deconstructing it must take many different forms.
Joiri Minaya’s The Cloakings consists of postcards showing a statue of Columbus that the artist has enveloped in a brightly patterned, tropical sheet of fabric. This act of wrapping actually draws more attention to the sculpture, to the meaning of its placement outside the Government House in Nassau, The Bahamas, and to the ways that the “discovery” of the Americas irrevocably impacted people as well as the environment.
British artist Maeve Brennan’s series The Goods also considers the legacy of colonialism and its relationship to artwork. Working with the archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, Brennan produces photographic billboards depicting artworks that Tsirogiannis has identified as “illicitly traded” items that entered their collections–including those at some high profile museums–through looting, black market sales, or other such practices. Two of Brennan’s works from The Goods are included in Notes for Tomorrow, each a wall-mounted photograph that shows us the stolen objects but does not provide details about the works (Where did they come from? When and by whom were they made? When and how did they arrive at their present location?). The specifics are important to the histories of these objects, but here the larger point is to raise questions about the ethics of collecting
Both Minaya’s and Brennan’s works are tangible ways of exploring what the exhibition’s introductory text refers to as “art’s potential in the construction of collective memory in a global era.” Further, both works offer a starting point for action outside of the gallery space. Visitors can take Minaya’s postcards, and Parallax has provided stamps and a mailbox affixed to the gallery wall. In this way, her artistic intervention can keep circulating beyond the exhibition. For many viewers, Brennan’s work in the gallery might be a first exposure to the issue of looted and stolen artwork and may encourage further research. In other iterations of The Goods, Brennan’s work is even more publicly accessible; she presented the images in Austria as public billboards and is currently working on a digital archive to make public the information about how these items circulated.
With its multitude of curatorial voices, Notes for Tomorrow poses complex questions for which it does not provide clear, simple answers. Instead, it offers, as the title suggests, notes for a possible future, one that is still in the making and, to some extent, in our collective hands. The works of art are pathways for helping viewers consider questions that might otherwise feel completely overwhelming. What does a decolonized world look like? What kind of political systems do we want to help usher in a new future? What is at stake if we do not learn to better care for the planet and one another?
Notes for Tomorrow is an exhibition that asks a lot from viewers, but then, don’t we owe it to ourselves and each other to invest time and attention into working toward better futures? I think this exhibition is best viewed in multiple visits, with time to sink into the works, to reflect on them, and to revisit them. My experience of Notes for Tomorrow oscillated between the analytical, the deeply emotional, and the meditative. Much of the work is also profoundly beautiful, demonstrating how aesthetics play a really important role in communicating messages, including political ones.
The most unpredictable part of any exhibition–really of any artwork–is the viewer’s response. That is especially true in Notes for Tomorrow. More than any other exhibition I have seen in recent memory, this one feels like a truly distinct experience each time, in part because there is simply so much to unpack. What will your experience be? What questions will you discover? What vision of the future will you dream up? Who will you be on the other side of this exhibition? I hope you take the time to find out.
Notes for Tomorrow is on view at Parallax Art Center through August 20. Parallax is located at 516 NW 14th Ave. in Portland, is open Monday – Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is free.