Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not radical II: Ann Hamilton at the Park Avenue Armory

The author, working up an appetite

I just can't get into the radical masquerade that the art world is.

That’s a quote from Walter Robinson. Maybe that’s why I like his paintings so much.

I wrote this on 12-12-12, at 36,000 feet on a Jet Blue flight to L.A. and when I landed, the earth was still there. But even if there wasn’t a galactic shift, perhaps we can create one in the art world—that, at least, is within our control.  My wish for art in the Aquarian Age, is that that we take nothing for granted.

Last week I ranted about Martha Rosler’s garage sale at MoMA. This week I’ll reinforce my curmudgeon status with a non-response to Ann Hamilton’s installation in the vast Parade Hall at the Park Avenue Armory. Like Rosler, Hamilton is somewhat sanctified, protected by an aura of profundity she has cultivated, or has been cultivated for her, over the years.

I won’t describe the installation – this is not a review – except to say that it concerns a long white curtain that bisects the space, wooden swings on chains that cause the curtain panels to move when visitors swing on them, live white doves incarcerated in wicker basket/cages stacked on a table where a man and a woman attired in feathered capes are reading something, and packages twee-ly wrapped with brown paper and twine scattered here and there, containing speakers that emit voices. The real star is the room.

Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Oh I know, I could have made more of an effort. I could have listened more closely to the readings and relayed voices (were they the same?). I could have spent more time on the swings. I could have tried to figure out how the newsprint broadsheet of fuzzy photographs contributes to the whole.

Or I could go to lunch.

No doubt I'll be roundly criticized for dismissing something I haven’t fully explored—except I believe it’s the artist’s responsibility to engage me, not the other way around. I have no compunction about putting down a book halfway through, and if, in the middle of a play or concert, I find myself doing eye exercises or worrying about my bills, I don’t blame myself. I don’t underestimate the power of really great art to sweep me away. I think about how I once had a massive migraine that miraculously disappeared during a performance of Taming of the Shrew in Central Park with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep. Or the time my boy friend and I had a colossal fight on the way to see an early Cirque du Soleil, and went home in love. I could go on and on…Christian Marclay’s The Clock (which I finally left after 2 ½ hours only because I had to pee), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s genius Pandemonium at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at the Tate Modern (in an even more humungous space)....concerts by Sigur Ros…yes, such experiences are few and far between, but why lower the bar? Why should I spend my time trying to figure out what an artist is trying to convey, when I could be eating a splendid lamb tagine at Café Mogador?

As my friend, Roberto, observed so accurately in the taxi on our way downtown: I’m fatigued by the expectation of the system that I’ll play along completely.

I also don’t think that birds should have to suffer for art, any more than I should.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Martha Rosler's Garage Sale: not radical

From Martha Rosler's Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA

When is radical art not radical? When it’s a Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA. No one, including me, wants to get on Martha Rosler’s case, because her intentions are so good. She’s a feminist who’s against war and into exposing the falsities of the gallery/museum system—nothing I wouldn’t whole-heartedly agree with. Except, instead of satisfying an “enduring taste for subversion” (see the New Yorker article), Rosler’s MoMA venture (November 17-30) was just another case of bullshit masquerading as art. “Subversion” would be if I got a cart and attempted to sell used T-shirts on the sidewalk in front of MoMA or, God forbid, in the lobby—an event that would immediately reveal just how tolerant the museum really is of purveyors of second-hand shit on their premises. The only reason Rosler gets to sell stuff at MoMA and Joe Schmo doesn’t, is because she knows how to navigate the museum system—and by doing so blatantly exposes herself as a player in the exclusive milieu she’s made a career of railing against.

“The Garage Sale [says the MoMA press release]…implicates visitors in face-to-face transactions within a secondary, informal cash economy—just like [my italics] garage sales held outside a museum setting.” You gotta be kidding. Rosler’s Garage Sale was as much like a real garage sale as Lindsay Lohan is like Elizabeth Taylor. First of all, it was stylized and artificial – from the giant American flag on the wall to the tags, cutesy signs, and arrangements of goods that were clearly the work of an artist pretending to have a garage sale (for instance if someone bought something that was tacked to the wall, they had to wait until the event was over to collect it, so as not to disturb the display). Further, it was in a museum and the visitors who paid $25 to experience it did not look like people who would normally consider incorporating second-hand items into their lives – in other words, they were slumming.

I get pissed off when the art world plays at – and therefore mocks – the lives of others, especially “suburbia” and the now mythical “middle class.”  If I see one more arty photograph of a supposedly anonymous ranch house I’ll scream. 

However buying and selling second hand-items—i.e. “junk” – is what some people do for a living. They know where to find the stuff, how to price and sell it. It’s how they get by.

Others are forced to sell their belongings in order to raise cash to pay the mortgage or next month’s rent. As for the buyers, there are people out there who wear second-hand clothing not for a lark, but because it’s only way they can afford to cover their backs.

But garage sales as the iconic activity of the suburban not-desperate are about excess, accumulations of stuff that have to be regularly purged.

Therefore, to invite members of the elite to paw through over-priced discarded items seemed remarkably insensitive, not the least because of its timing—immediately following Hurricane Sandy, when the belongings of so many were reduced to just such piles, only logged with water.

But, it was pointed out to me, this exhibition was planned years ago. So what? It’s conceptual art. If Warner Brothers can remake scenes from a multimillion-dollar film in the wake of a theater shooting, why can’t art, especially conceptual art, respond to the times? As I suggested below, Rosler could have donated everything and left the atrium empty, as the hurricane left so many homes empty.

Again, I’m really tired of accumulations of detritus in all its forms pretending to be art, like Karen Kilimnik or Song Dong, the Chinese artist who laid out his mother’s possessions at MoMA in 2009 and recently at London’s Barbicon. Could we please just make something for a change? Or at the very least, attempt to transform it, as Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt does so beautifully in his work, now at MoMA/PS1.

There's nothing about "institutional critique" that a great work of art doesn't do better.    Toward that end, Olafur Eliasson's swinging fan in MoMA's atrium said it all.

Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator, 1997: Photo by C-Monster

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Of tempests and garage sales....

Crescent moon over New York, 11/17/12

Yesterday I saw the final performance of The Tempest, a new opera by British composer Thomas Adès at the Met. The synchronicity was not lost on me that last year Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, about Gandhi and peaceful protest, coincided with the height of Occupy Wall Street, while this, about a hurricane, came in the wake of Sandy. I suggest we look carefully at what the Met has scheduled for next year.

Before heading Uptown, over lunch I read Randy Kennedy’s article in the Times about Martha Rosler’s upcoming Garage Sale in the MoMA atrium, which will be just that—a garage sale. It’s my rule never to conjecture (at least in public) about something I haven’t seen, but just this once I’m compelled to ask: “What can I expect to get from this experience that will make it worth my while?”  
Because the reason I go see art or music, or the occasional sports event for that matter, is not to be entertained (I’m enough entertainment for myself on my own), but to experience human endeavor at its peak. I often find that in comparison with other fields—any other fields—the art world accepts too much that’s half-realized, half-executed or both. It’s not that I’m opposed to conceptual art (hey, one of my best friends is a conceptual artist!) or, after experiencing the tour de force that was Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, even “relational aesthetics.”  But a garage sale in that MoMA space? I wonder how many people could be inveigled into buying tickets for a pickup basketball game at Madison Square Garden?
Not that The Tempest is the best opera ever written—far from it. The abbreviated libretto—what’s left after you eviscerate the wit, drama, and rich language from the original—is like Shakespeare on cue cards. The only funny line comes when the shipwrecked nobles first see Caliban and cry, “A monster! A local!” The music is similarly ho-hum, with no emotional peaks and valleys or urgency; Prospero, as a character, isn’t developed enough to rate even an anguished aria. Yet, OMG, there’s so much wondrous stuff to see: people struggling against the sea, appearing and disappearing through slits in rippling fabric onto which a roiling ocean is projected; a lithe, bejeweled Ariel who makes sounds in an impossibly high register while gamboling in the treetops with the moves of a gymnast; sinewy dancers, opulent costumes, exquisite lighting and sets that never once make you question why a room with baroque balconies should happen to be on a desert island. Not to speak of Isabel Leonard as the innocently voluptuous Miranda, who steals the stage just by being on it.

So back to.…oh, yeah, a garage sale at MoMA. I guess now that I’ve written about it, it’s essential that I see it. But after this could we please have a moratorium on art that depends on accumulations of detritus? I’m so over it. 

Note: As pointed out in the comments, the timing of this exhibition, when so many have lost so much, is extremely unfortunate. I recommend that the whole be donated to Sandy victims and the empty atrium space be seen as a hurricane memorial. If art were truly conceptual, it would be flexible in this way.