Timely and provocative, SOFT POWER is an exhibition about the ways in which artists deploy art to explore their roles as citizens and social actors. Appropriated from the Reagan-era term used to describe how a country’s “soft” assets such as culture, political values and foreign policies can be more influential than violence or coercion, the title SOFT POWER suggests a contemplation on the potential of art and offers a provocation to the public to exert their own influence on the world.
Organized by Eungie Joo, curator of contemporary art, the works demonstrate what cultural theorist, filmmaker and catalogue contributor Manthia Diawara has called a solidarity between intuitions—a concept that acknowledges the complexity, darkness and opacity from which our reality emerges—the poetry and imagination of our differences. According to Joo, “Professor Diawara’s solidarity between intuitions expresses how specific works can enhance our understanding of others by association and relation, while maintaining their distinct contexts and content.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION//
The majority of works in SOFT POWER have never been presented in the U.S., including the four-channel video installation The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019) by Tuan Nguyen, co-founder of The Propeller Group. Co-produced by SFMOMA and commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the work explores the creation of memory and the agency that affords. Nguyen’s remarkable collaboration with descendants of French colonial soldiers once stationed in Vietnam—tirailleurs Sénégalais—features stories written by three members of the Vietnamese community in Senegal. Enacting fictionalized vignettes that reveal their own imaginings and experiences, his collaborators call forward the unresolved ghosts of history, receiving them with compassion and grace.
The 15 artists’ commissions for SOFT POWER also include five new sculptures by Haig Aivazian that explore the relationship between mythology and nation-building; the installation Who’s Afraid of Ideology, Part 2 by Marwa Arsanios; a site-responsive installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape; a new mural by Minerva Cuevas inspired by the history of Smokey the Bear and the environmental impact of fire; a sound sculpture enveloping the fourth floor by Cevdet Erek; a series of sculpture by Hassan Khan that echoes his concurrent solo exhibition at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid; a performance and video by Tanya Lukin Linklater on encounter as a form of repatriation in collaboration with the Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley; an installation and photographic diptych by Cinthia Marcelle based on the traces of economic instability; a performance by Jason Moran in early 2020, along with a published conversation between Moran, IONE and Jessie Baird about the revolutionary power of the dream state; the first chapter of Carlos Motta’s new project on LGBTQI Dreamers; four large-scale abstract paintings by San Francisco Art Institute alumnus Eamon Ore-Giron; ongoing research into the market potential of gas hydrate by Pratchaya Phinthong; Xaviera Simmons’ enormous painting installation inspired by and responding to Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940–41); and a series of “flat” sculptures based on teepee covers by Duane Linklater. Highlighting the technology of mobile architecture, Linklater’s new canvases patch together distant elements that comprise indigenous reality. Incorporating the ancient geometric patterns of the Omaskêko Cree, a large format inkjet printer and natural pigments that he harvests locally, Linklater produces objects masking their own purpose through their form: nonfunctioning teepee covers, now devoid of architectural purpose, but imbued with new cultural purpose.
SOFT POWER is also enlivened by several existing works, including a changing installation of five massive landscape drawings and tent from the durational performance Drawing a Line through Landscape by Nikhil Chopra at documenta 14; the premier of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s, Flint is Family, Part 2, in which Shea Cobb and her daughter Zion escape the ongoing Flint water crisis and “return” to their inheritance in Mississippi; Hassan Khan’s remarkable video installation Jewel (2010); a series of 15 banners and small abstract sculptures by Dave McKenzie;Pratchaya Phinthong’s “documentation” of migrant bilberry pickers in Finnish Lapland, Give More Than You Take (2010); and a wall installation and sculptures by Tavares Strachan from his Invisibles series. The exhibition features two works by Nairy Baghramian, including Retainer (2013), produced for her first major exhibition in the U.S. and extending her examination of systems of power, context, architecture and the materiality of sculpture. In this work, chromed steel supports large translucent slabs of cast resin and silicon reminiscent of a dental or gynecological intervention in process, but at a scale that confronts the full body. Within the context of the exhibition, Baghramian’s work suggests the temporal precision of physical states of matter, conjuring vast possibilities of adaptation, suffering and survival.
LIST OF ARTISTS //
Haig Aivazian (b. 1980, Beirut, Lebanon; lives and works in Beirut)
Marwa Arsanios (b. 1978, Washington, D.C.; lives and works in Beirut)
Nairy Baghramian (b. 1971, Isfahan, Iran; lives and works in Berlin)
Dineo Seshee Bopape (b. 1981, Polokwane, South Africa; lives and works in Johannesburg)
Nikhil Chopra (b. 1974, Kolkata, India; lives and works in Goa)
Minerva Cuevas (b. 1975, Mexico City, Mexico; lives and works in Mexico City)
Cevdet Erek (b. 1974, Istanbul, Turkey; lives and works in Istanbul)
LaToya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982, Braddock, Pennsylvania; lives and works in Chicago)
Hassan Khan (b. 1975, London, U.K.; lives and works in Cairo)
Duane Linklater (b. 1976, Ontario, Canada; lives and works in North Bay, Ontario)
Tanya Lukin Linklater (b. 1976, Kodiak, Alaska; lives and works in North Bay, Ontario)
Cinthia Marcelle (b. 1974, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; lives and works in São Paulo)
Dave McKenzie (b. 1977, Kingston, Jamaica; lives and works in Brooklyn)
Jason Moran (b. 1975, Houston, Texas; lives and works in New York)
Carlos Motta (b. 1978, Bogotá, Colombia; lives and works in New York)
Tuan Andrew Nguyen (b. 1976, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City)
Eamon Ore-Giron (b. 1973, Tucson, Arizona; lives and works in Los Angeles)
Pratchaya Phinthong (b. 1974, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand; lives and works in Bangkok)
Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974, New York, New York; lives and works in New York)
Tavares Strachan (b. 1979, Nassau, Bahamas; lives and works in New York)