Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Subversive Art Subverted

By Charles Kessler

I wrote before about how the meaning of a work of art can be subverted by the way it’s presented. Well I recently encountered two museum shows that did that very thing.
Installation view, Sherrie Levine: Mayhem, Whitney Museum, November 10, 2011 – January 29, 2012. In the foreground is Bachelors: 1–6 (1991), six sculptures based on images taken from Marcel Duchamp’s painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.  (Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.)
In the early eighties, Sherrie Levine famously questioned the concept of originality in art (a very original idea at the time!). She notoriously plundered the work of such famous artists as Walker Evans, whose iconic black-and-white images of the Great Depression she copied and re-presented. Her work then was raw and anarchistic (and I mean that as praise), but in the Whitney retrospective that just ended, it was boring. That’s not entirely the Whitney’s fault. You can’t repeat that kind of art very often without it losing its edge, and her work had already lost its originality and thus lost its bite.

But in addition, the Whitney's fastidious installation made the work seem over-refined and even arty. And to make matters worse, guards actually prevented people from walking through the various installations (or "gangs" as she called them) even though there was plenty of room (see photo above). As a result, the fussy preciousness was magnified, and instead of being raw and transgressive as it once was, the work ended up seeming like slick Damien Hirst-type commodity art.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (free/still), 1992/1995/2007/2011, dimensions vary (MoMA #225.2011). (I doubt if the signs, especially the sanitary inspection grade sign, were in the original 303 gallery exhibition.)
The case of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work is not as extreme, but it’s sadder because the original motivation seemed so heartfelt. The first time the piece was presented (in 1992, at the 303 Gallery, then a funky second floor space in Soho), it was a delightful surprise. Tiravanija moved the gallery staff out of their office and into the exhibition space, and he converted the office and storage spaces into a kitchen where he prepared curry and rice to give away to people who came into the gallery.

Now MoMA has replicated the work and the surprise is gone. Not only have Tiravanija and others presented work like this many times (at the Zwirner gallery in 2007 for example), but the MoMA installation/performance is very didactic. There are explanatory wall labels, guards telling you where to go (and not go — for some reason we weren’t allowed in one of the spaces) and docents hanging out explaining things. And the artist doesn't even make and serve the curry and rice — it's done by MoMA restaurant staff. So rather than being a surprising and generous gesture, it’s become at best nostalgic, and at worst embarrassingly artificial and contrived.

Of course, as Duchamp knew well, the experience of all art changes depending on the context, but some art suffers more than others (e.g. Fluxus Art). I can’t imagine a way to fix things; it’s just basic to the nature of museums.


Carl Belz said...

I used to think that work like this--transgressive, consciousness raising, institutional critique--had to be careful about getting co-opted by the systems being targeted therein. I'd caution artists so inclined not to underestimate, for instance, the ability of capitalist markets to consume and neutralize their message. Along the lines of your observations, however, I've begun to think the purpose of this art is to beat the system at its own game by packaging its messages as desirable commodities, as if to say the messages they contain are less a call to action of some kind than statements of merely personal opinions. In other words, they're market driven, not content driven as I initially thought; as such, they are highly successful.

Charles Kessler said...

WOW! What an amazing insight.

Mike Kelley,in the interview with John Miller that I just posted, said some interesting things in that regard:

"There were these Utopian ideas being bandied about, “Well, we can make an art object that can’t be commodified.” What’s that? That’s a gift. If I give you this art-thing, it’s going to escape the evils of capitalism. Well, of course that’s ridiculous, because if you give this thing to junior he owes you something. It might not be money, but he owes you something. The most terrible thing is that he doesn’t know what he owes you because there’s no price on the thing. Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe. The commodity is the emotion. What’s being bought and sold is emotion."