Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Kurtz Innocent, Government Still In Power

As reported by the Associated Press, Professor Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble was cleared yesterday of all charges related to the biological material found in his Buffalo, NY home four years ago. The indictment of mail and wire fraud in the improper obtaining of these specimens for his art work, which is critical of U.S. government agricultural policies, was dismissed in federal district court as "insufficient on its face."

This charge was all that remained of a government investigation of supposed bioterrorism, predicated on the entry of firefighters into Kurtz's home, responding to his emergency call when he found his wife dead from a heart attack in May 2004. Seeing some "suspicious" looking test tubes, petri dishes and samples, the first responders notified the FBI, who began their investigation. Agents in Hazmat suits entered the premises, impounded the computer, removed biological cultures for analysis, sequestered the cat, looked askance at Kurtz's library, even seized his poor wife's body from the coroner. It soon became obvious that Kurtz was not a terrorist, was not planning to poison the water system or bring down the government with airborne microbes, but was in fact a respected University of Buffalo professor, one of the founders of Critical Art Ensemble, and as such used harmless biological material in his work. No grand jury would indict on charges of bioterrorism.

At this point the FBI might have backed off and excused themselves for overzealousness. They might have allowed Kurtz to properly grieve for his wife. But to the rabid J. Edgars, this would have meant publicly admitting their error and somehow failing in their appointed duty, recently expanded by the USA Patriot Act of 2001. And so, disappointed in their original assumptions, they retreated to a fall back position: mail fraud and plotting to obtain potentially harmful organisms. If convicted, Kurtz might have served 20 years.

To many in the art world who rallied to his side, signing petitions, hosting benefits and decrying the government's interference in academic and artistic freedom of expression, yesterday's decision comes as some relief. Obviously also to Kurtz himself. An apology from Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Hochel Jr. would be welcome, but hardly expected. We still live in the age of Bush.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Contra Murakami

A recent item in New York Magazine suggested that Takashi Murakami's art (currently in retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum) is so wild and crazy that it defies description. This didn't sit well with me, not only because it disparages the discipline of art criticism and the craft of its practitioners, but also because it smacks of cheap marketeering, hoping to elevate the Japanese artist to the undeserved status of demiurgic uberkunstler.

So I posted this on the New York Magazine site:

To call Murakami's work indescribable gives it too much credit and suggests he is an irresistible force of nature, one we cannot fully understand but to whom we must bow. It gives an added push to his relentless © juggernaut. It is a dangerous deification.

I don't exactly see Roberta Smith huffing and puffing to describe the work. It is well within her powers as a critic. Like Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, she is not altogether sold on the show, but hits many of the same notes in her review: infantilization, jellyfish, nihonga, Hiropon, DOB, parents who drummed art into him, Warhol as market model, anime, manga etc. Both find the Vuitton boutique, with its white-enamel cases and recessed lighting, a visual high point.

Schjeldahl goes on:
"He offers us relief from the worry, if also the odd reward, of thinking and feeling as individuals -- a blissful submersion in mechanical affect, the same for everybody...
Murakami seems temperamentally averse to a cardinal obligation of artists that Warhol, Koons, and Hirst accept: the duty to seduce. But to actively woo the eye and tantalize the mind implies the possible existence of resistant viewers. Murakami assumes — or posits, as a ruling fiction — that we are all already spiritual putty in his hands, whether we admit it or ... not. There is power in this... It invites vicarious identification with the artist’s project — an intellectual rooting interest..."

Murakami's cover-the-earth effort brooks no contradiction, assumes we are all fans, and in fact infantilizes us. His self image is artist as zaibatsu.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Art of Darkness

March 28 - 29, 2008
Presented by Milwaukee International
495 Broadway, 3rd Floor

Considering those aspects of Armory Week in New York which might be remembered in days to come, I predict Dark Fair will resonate in the annals of art history, and not just for the central conceit of doing it off the grid — of using no plug-in electrical devices or overhead lights at its Swiss Institute venue, instead substituting candles, flashlights, battery powered laptops, kerosene lamps and other glow-in-the-dark initiatives — but for its subversive stance as an anti-fair, an event that emulated the form but not necessarily the mandate to sell. It opened on Friday, closed on Saturday, and in the interim attracted an audience that stretched around the block.

To be sure there were certain similarities to the “adult” fairs — exhibitors and rows of booths separated by aisles — but said booths were more in the Joe’s Diner vein, a table and benches fashioned from plywood sheets painted matte black. Four persons (including the dealer) huddled closely together was not just a crowd, it was SRO. And there was art to be purchased, although often of the head shop variety: Spencer Sweeney dressed as a ghost, hawking an edition of dildo candles in black wax at the Gavin Brown booth; lava lamp-like efforts by Sue de Beer at Marianne Boesky; a Martin Creed 7 inch on a battery powered turntable at White Columns. Day-glo drawings, bootleg DVDs, black light prints and limited edition T-shirts were standard fare, available at very low prices.

Dark Fair was the brainchild of the same Midwestern crew (which includes artist brothers Tyson and Scott Reeder, James Riepenhoff, Nicholas Frank, and Elysia Borowy-Reeder) who organized the notorious Milwaukee International in October 2006, a similarly modest but cunning event, in a working class Polish beer hall/bowling alley. By bringing their circus to New York opposite the Armory Show, they have upped the conceptual ante and produced the hippest event of the week, a slacker parody of rampant commercialism, a spoof, a prank, pulling the rug out from under the seriously entrepreneurial fairs that had set up shop all over town.

Their insouciance was their great strength, because Dark Fair was all about hanging out, about sharing thoughts and suds. A good excuse for a party, and yeah, dude, you could also buy some art. As such, it was the perfect end run around the parentals, an irreverent smiley face offered to a worried market, a signpost that marked (and mocked) this uncertain moment in the economy. It hardly matters whether we are in the middle of a recession (or a Recession), whether more homes will be foreclosed, whether the art market will implode, whether we are at the bottom and things will soon improve, or whether the inexorable slide will continue. Dark Fair is (or pretends to be) “unplugged” from doomsday culture and could care less.

(This article is adapted from its original posting on Artworld Salon.)