Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New Museum, Old Tricks

As you might have guessed from the dead space here, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately. Where does the self-doubting writer turn for a pick me up?

This time a trip to New York City and the conceptual art world did the trick.

I went to the New Museum for their exhibition Younger Than Jesus, a collection of works from 50 artists under the age of 33 from 25 countries. The exhibit promises to demonstrate how the best and brightest are defining the latest generation from atop the shifting foundations of the information age.

A worthy aim, but the execution is lacking. For a museum dedicated to being at the vanguard of the global art scene, the curation of Younger Than Jesus relies on a tired sensationalist formula. Had PT Barnum latched onto Dada, they’d call this show retro.

I understand that an exhibition looking to engage the i-generation must embrace the conceit of making art out of the internet. Unfortunately, the internet inspired art was the weakest link in a suspect show in spite of the reaches made in the curators’ descriptions. The placards were more ambitious, sometimes more interesting, than the pieces they introduced.

Take Gutherie Lonergan’s Myspace Playlist, composed of two side-by-side video screens playing looped clips of teenagers’ video introductions from the social networking site. I was seized by the question off limits to critics of conceptual work. What was Lonergan doing that makes this art?

According to the curator, the work is “based on the appropriation of material that he finds online and reconfigures and re-presents in ways that speak to the issues of identity, originality, and creativity in the digital age.” A squat to the floor revealed that these “quasi-anthropological documents” demonstrate the “world altering paradigm shifts in the nature of self presentation.”

Myspace and Facebook have scrambled the delineations of the social and private spheres, paradigm shift or no. It does not take an artist to make this point. Perhaps a careful observation of the paired teens, using their webcams to project into cyberspace, reveals some clever little ironies unique to the medium. Yet there is nothing in the presentation of this footage that enhances the content or suggests the artist's mastery of this driftwood churned out of the cybernetic sea.

I wonder if an art student could have submitted this work for a passing grade. Maybe so, but there are more appropriate forums for Lonergan’s work than a university or, for heaven’s sake, prime museum space in SoHo. Youtube might have been the better fit.

A rule of thumb for the exhibition: the more suspect the concept, the longer the rectangular placard. Some of the postmodern run-ons stretched down to within inches of the floor.

Liu Chang’s Buying Everything on You was accompanied by an especially long placard. At least the process was evident behind Liu’s work. Liu approached individuals on the street and offered money for everything on their person, purses, keys, cell phones, jackets, underwear. The artist then took these possessions and laid them out on plinths. Absorbed in the curators’ thorough explanation of where to find the art amidst the detritus of faceless hipsters, I fumbled my pen and just managed to bat it away before it fell on the nearest plinth and merged with the exhibit.

Where my eyes saw junk, the curator found, “arrangements that call to mind both taxonomical research and funereal rites…a snapshot of contemporary consumer proclivities in an era when personal and social forces encourage us to define ourselves by the things we own.”

Consumerism wants me to identify with the shit I am buying.


My snickering was premature. The omniscient voice on the placard was just building to the punch line. The artist, it explained “is providing us a portrait with an empty center: while his subjects may be defined peripherally… they necessarily remain elusive.” No double speak here, the hipsters have eluded the display table, we have only their knick-knacks, and knickers, to gawk at.

It’s a pity Liu didn’t collaborate with Chu Yun, Chu took no chances that her subjects stay put—she drugged them. The curator lists the medium for Chu’s This is Danielle as a female participant, a sleeping pill, and a bed. As advertised, a naked woman slept fitfully under a white comforter in a white bed in the middle of an exhibit room.

This piece merited the longest rectangle of all. The placard explains that the work “utilizes an economy of means to evoke a rich panoply of associations… the participants…are less real life, modern day Sleeping Beauties than islands of enviable calm. Unperturbed by the frantic pace of contemporary life, or by the exhibition around them, they seem to exist in a charmed atmosphere. There is an inherent irony in the participants’ supernatural tranquility: That they are only able to maintain their state of sleep with the assistance of sleeping aids, suggests that, perhaps, their state is not one of relaxation, but of withdrawal and extreme vulnerability. Provocative, and slightly sensational, This is XX not only brings up questions concerning the role of the female body in the history of art, but larger ones that ponder the museum as a platform for self-display. Furthermore, in the context of this exhibition, This is XX can be read as a counterpoint to, or even a protest against, the stereotyping of this generation as hyperactive and hyper-aware.”

I was sitting Indian style next to the bed so I could copy the end of that paragraph without my legs falling asleep. As I turned my head back to the bed, where the mattress was now at eye level, XX, in this case a mid-twenties, ivory skinned brunette, elbowed at her comforter so that for a moment I pondered a half moon of nipple and a satellite freckle adrift on a heavenly breast. Provocative, and slightly sensational. I have spent sweet time pondering the role of the female body in the history of art, though perhaps I haven’t given conceptual art a fair shake.

It was almost as if Luke Fowler’s short film, what you see is where you’re at, was included as a preemptory rebuke for the curmudgeons who hadn’t been softened by the throws of the sleeping beauty.

The placard in the dark screening room explained that Fowler, “frenetically pastes together footage- much of which has been exhumed from obscure sources—in a manner that evokes rather than explains, his subjects.” I sat in on the last five minutes of the film, and yes, nothing was explained. There was nothing to explain, no subject, no image at all, just occasional grains that flickered as light passed through the overexposed film. The evocation would follow, my reward for waiting for the credits and through to the next loop of the film. It opened with a shot of a brick building, a dreary London skyline, another brick building, and then a cut into a lecture hall with the conclusion of some sort of presentation, circa 1970. A student came to the microphone placed in the aisle to ask the man behind the podium if he expected the audience to accept his rambling and incoherent presentation as art for arts sake and simply applaud him. The lecturer/artist replied “You have been culturally conditioned for a very different sort of lecture.” This line was met with wild applause from the audience. He then goes on to chastise the questioner for having the presumption to challenge the artist or the art.

I’ll spare the details of four other exhibits--a melted chair, three record players stacked on the floor, a wall sized panel in a single hue of an Adobe Photoshop program, and an Atari-style throwback video game. I liked the video game, though I’m skeptical of the curator’s conclusion that, “the compositional elegance…simplistic objectives and Spartan graphics are redolent of a simpler time.”

One sensationalist in this baffling collection struck a chord with me. Brendan Fowler, a musician and conceptual artist, exhibited a show poster with the text of a back and forth between Fowler and a band called AIDS WOLF. Fowler had made a poster for a show he was supposed to do with the band, where he calls out AIDS WOLF for having a horrendous and stupid name.

The band took offense at this tongue-in-cheek attack, and posted a barely literate diatribe against Fowler and the “edumacated (AIDS WOLF’s spelling) trying to pull one over on the pleebs.” From there it spirals into the ever more ridiculous, with Fowler’s mocking commentary of both AIDS WOLF and himself providing the laughs to the end.

Unlike the curators, one gets the feeling Fowler never takes his own bullshit too seriously.

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