Friday, August 29, 2008

A New "Sensation"?: Kippenberger's Crucified Frog Condemned by Catholics

Feet First (Prima i piedi) (1990), Martin Kippenberger's four foot high wooden sculpture of a crucified frog in loincloth, brandishing a mug of beer and an egg, has been at the center of an escalating dispute since it went on exhibit in May 2008 at the newly opened Museion in Bolzano, Italy.

Museum officials have insisted on their institutional autonomy and freedom of expression, while various clergy, government functionaries and Vatican spokesmen, even Pope Benedict XVI himself, have denounced it as provocative and blasphemous, and demanded its removal. To support this there have been various actions, including a hunger strike by a local politician, a petition signed by 10,000 citizens, and a protest march.

In response, the frog was moved from the entrance hall to the third floor, and at one point partially obscured by newspaper stories about the controversy. But apparently nothing short of its total removal will be acceptable to its critics.

An letter from the Pope, dated August 7, contends that the sculpture “injured the religious feeling of many people who see in the Cross the symbol of the love of God and of our salvation, which deserves recognition and religious devotion.” Museum curators insist it is a self-portrait of the artist “in a state of profound crisis” and was never intended by Kippenberger as an attack on religion. The artist passed away in 1997 at the age of 44.

Following is a news thread on the controversy., August 29, 2008

An Italian museum rejected a request from Pope Benedict XVI to remove a sculpture of a crucified green frog, Reuters reported via the New York Times. The work, which depicts the frog holding a beer mug and an egg, was condemned by the Vatican as blasphemous. The board of the Museion Museum in the northern city of Bolzano decided by a majority vote that the wooden sculpture, by the German artist Martin Kippenberger, would stay in place for the remainder of the exhibition in which it is included. The Vatican wrote a letter of support in the pope’s name to Franz Pahl, the president of the regional government, who opposed the sculpture. “This decision to keep the statue there is totally unacceptable,” Pahl said. “It is a grave offense to our Catholic population.” Alois Lageder, the museum’s president, said the decision to continue to display the statue was made to “safeguard the autonomy of art institutions.”, August 29, 2008
a one-metre high sculpture of a crucified frog, holding a mug of beer and an egg, on show at a modern art museum in italy has stirred controversy in the staunchly roman catholic country. the frog, with its tongue hanging out is wearing a green loin cloth and is nailed through the hands and feet on a brown cross in the manner of jesus christ and could be perceived as a provocation by the people of the alto adige region, which is 99% catholic. the board of the 'museion' museum in the city of bolzano was meeting today to decide whether to comply with the wishes of the pope, who is currently on holiday in the bolzano region.

curators at bolzano museum of modern art 'museion' said that kippenberger’s work was a self-portrait of the artist ‘in a state of profound crisis’, but their explanation has been given short shrift by local bishop wilhelm egger. ‘the crucified frog has shocked many visitors to the 'museion' and has hurt their religious feelings,’ egger said. the debate about this controversial artwork started when an italian official started a hunger strike.
Artforum, August 5, 2008
Franz Pahl—an Italian politician from South Tyrol—has ended his hunger strike. As Der Standard reports, the politician began his strike one week ago to protest the exhibition of a work by Martin Kippenberger in the new Museion in Bolzano, the capital of the South Tyrol region. Kippenberger’s sculpture features a crucified frog holding a beer in one hand and an egg in the other. According to the report, Pahl suffered a fainting spell during his strike and was taken to the hospital. Although his condition was “not critical,” the politician was kept under observation.
ARTINFO, July 30, 2008
BOZEN, Italy—A debate about a controversial artwork has reached a new level in Italy.
Last week, Franz Pahl, an elected official in the country's South Tyrol region, began a hunger strike protesting a Martin Kippenberger artwork that depicts a crucified frog holding a mug of beer in one hand and an egg in the other, reports Der Standard.
Pahl has said that he'll continue the strike until the work, on view in the new, state-funded Museion Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bozen, is removed. Curator Letizia Regaglia has thus far refused to do so. The work is scheduled to be on display until September 21.
Pahl, who's been camping out in front of the museum overnight, says it's "schizophrenic" to invite the Pope to visit the region while displaying such a "perversion of the Christian cross" in a state-funded museum. The pope is spending his summer in nearby Bressanone.
Andreas Pöder, another elected official in the local government, called the strike hypocritical, pointing out that Pahl had said two months earlier that the work didn't bother him. Other critics have suggested that Pahl is politicizing the debate to boost his image leading up to regional elections in the fall.
Kippenberger, for his part, felt crucified himself during the making of the work, according to Regaglia. He was beginning a detoxification from alcohol and drugs and going through severe withdrawal at the time.

Arcadja, June 10, 2008

Recently Italy has been proving to be a rather “sanctimonious” country towards contemporary art. In short, we are before a nation that is shocked ridiculously by old artistic ideas. For instance, the case of the crucifixion theme: inventing a variation on the theme of the Christ’s death is sure to cause a polemic. History is full of this type of examples. Last in order of time is Maurizio Cattelan’s crucified woman with her back turned to the public, inside a wooden case attached to the external wall of an ex-synagogue at about four meters from the floor. Besides raising objections against Cattelan’s magnificent work, the Italian art system has recently been inveighing against a work by German artist Martin Kippenberger displayed at the Museion, the newborn museum of contemporary art in Bolzano.
It is “Zuerst die Füße” (first the feet), the sculpture dated from 1990, which measures about a meter and represents a crucified frog holding in its right hand a mug of beer and in its left hand an egg. In this work Kippenberger represents a society that appears perfect but is actually hypocritical. A society that at the end of the day stoops to drinking beer in bars and unbends to distasteful cracks about sex and foul words. In short, the frog on the cross represents men reduced to animals, that drink to the point of demeaning themselves, that cannot free themselves from the cross of alcohol lived as a plague. And Kippenberger condemns a society that, on the one hand claims to be Christian and on the other, right under and before the Christ that it reckons to venerate, can only express its worst side. The frog is man demeaned by beer and alcohol, constantly “nailed” by (or with the fixation of) sex, while the egg represents the betrayed perfection. An agonizing and blasphemous work, almost a farce, with a carnival puppet, in an evocative dimension that desecrates and shocks. But the crucified frog has been strongly attacked and has stirred many polemics. Even before the political and religious reactions, visitors protested and asked for information so frequently that the museum staff had to do a sort of improvised mini-course for the gallery personnel with the basic information about the artist and the meaning of the work; as Antonio Lampis sums up “a crucifixion is always an invitation to reflect on suffering” – claiming that – “in any event of contemporary art you will find more or less strong works on religion. It is part of people’s life, it is normal for it to become an ingredient of art. Society is getting used to being hypersensitive about certain themes but nobody can feel offended by a work of art”. However, there are many people who feel offended by all this.
On Sunday 1st June, the Schuietzens native of Alto Adige organized a protest march in Bolzano, in occasion of the Sacred Heart festivity. The crucified frog was attacked by many because it is considered an outrage against religion. Among the people who requested the removal of the work of art (which for now has not happened), there was also province governor Luis Durnwalder who, after pointing out that it is not up to politics to judge art, said that the work “could be felt as a provocation by the people of Alto Adige, which is 99% catholic”. Therefore, Durnwalder proposed putting the work aside and developing careful consideration about it. The event was critically remarked on also by bishop Wilhelm Egger, who deemed the work to be offensive towards religious principles. Objections have also arrived from some parties connected to National Alliance, which recalled recent polemics about a work portraying a flush provided with Mameli’s national anthem as soundtrack.
The case has also been assessed by the ecclesiastic apex. The general secretary of the Cei, Mons. Giuseppe Betori, talked about a work that “offends the religious feelings of most Italian people” and said that “this episode cannot be left unspoken about”. According to Betori, more generally, “the world of art has lost its dialogue with the world of religion”. Even the Executive Committee of the diocesan pastoral Council of Bolzano has taken a stand claiming that the crucified frog is “offensive and humiliating”. “Art needs its space and it is fair that it has it – claimed the Committee in a release – modern art is per se provocative. This, however, must not become an excuse to upset people’s religious feelings, by mocking the cross, which is an important symbol for Christians. Therefore, the Committee hopes that the Museion will become a place where art, religion and culture can dialogue in a constructive and respectful way.

A posthumous exhibition of Kippenberger's work in 2005 at his New York gallery, Luhring Augustine, included a related sculpture from the Fred the Frog series, Feet First (Zuerst die Füße). But certain details distinguish it from the Bolzano piece: variations of color, placement and posture, the tilting of the head, the exaggerated crossing of ankles, a fried egg in one hand and even two additional "eggs" placed in an more provocative, testicular position.

Nicole Davis wrote on the exhibition in Artnet in October 2005.
His self-defacement, while sad, is the humorous and sardonic crux of his work. Kippenberger was an excessive alcoholic, and many believe the poison drove him to his death. Beer mugs and cocktail glasses are regular features of his works, like familiar relatives. The ups and downs of alcoholism are mapped out, too, in his physical appearance, ranging from "Helmut Berger on a good day" to a fat bearded man on the verge of death, each version depicted with his unique but odd combination of self-reverence and irreverence.
Kippenberger's semiology is one part seriousness and three parts humor. His alter ego "Fred the Frog", who appears on canvas and in sculpture alike, is at the same time a comic stand-in for Jesus, and as a spoof on all religious fervor. Luhring Augustine has a version of Kippenberger's frog on a cross (1990), where Fred the Frog is hammered (literally and figuratively) to a crucifix with a beer stein in his hand. The translation of the title to English is approx. "What's the difference between Casanova and Christ, when they get nailed the expression is the same."
Ridiculing as well anti-religious sentiment, The Cross of a Frog is also a satanic ritual outlined by occultist Alistair Crowley's in his book of "Libers." In reference to the frog he orders, "During the day thou shalt approach the frog whenever convenient, and speak words of worship. Also thou shalt promise to the frog elevation fitting for him; and all this while thou shalt be secretly carving a cross whereon to crucify him." The sadism here is transformed to masochism, as the frog is a form of Kippenberger himself. The ritual continues its instructions uncannily "Then shalt thou stab the frog to the heart with the Dagger of Art." Kippenberger's cross is actually made out of the wood used for canvas stretchers. The artist, one presumes, used his art to crucify himself, but at the same time it liberated him and allowed him to engage with the world.

Kippenberger explored the same theme in other work. Fred the Frog Rings The Bell, an edition of seven (plus three artist's proofs), was also completed in 1990. It is less than half the height of the original Feet First, with the egg transposed under the arm and the whole piece finished in a single matte brown, as distinct from the glazed surfaces and detailed coloring seen above.

An infamous Kippenberger sculpture, Martin, go in the corner, shame on you (1989), might also seem relevant at this juncture. A self portrait with humorously abject connotations, the artist ironically acknowledges his bad boy persona with a characteristic mixture of audacity and self loathing. The hunched shoulders, hands clasped behind his back and reverse figuration all suggest a rueful awareness, the acceptance of an unavoidable legacy of misunderstanding, punishment and "crucifixion".


Contrary to reports in the press, Pope Benedikt XVI did not make an official statement against Martin Kippenberger’s sculpture of a crucified frog at the new Museion in Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, Italy. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports, the sculpture has created an uproar — and even led the regional government representative Franz Pahl to begin a hunger strike — ever since the work was exhibited in the inaugural exhibition at Museion. The statement that allegedly came from the pope was in fact a response from the Vatican’s state secretary to a letter from Pahl.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On "The Art Critic" by Peter Plagens

The first installment of The Art Critic, a novel set in the New York art world and centering on a fifty-something critic for a weekly news magazine, recently appeared on Artnet. The book will serialize online over the next 24 weeks. It is written by Peter Plagens, painter, writer and art critic for Newsweek.

This comment was originally posted on an Artworld Salon thread on the book.

Plagens allows his alter ego, Arthur, to disparage a lot of contemporary art as pretentious and laughable. He admits being stuck with a legacy of “high-end formalism” and abstraction from his graduate school days. Employing a habitually rueful and sardonic tone, voicing an almost obligatory impatience with Chelsea, he is “in desperate search of art with feeling rather than strategy at its core” and sick of “all that goddamned storytelling”. He is a sour, world weary pedant who prides himself on being nobody’s fool while remaining oblivious to many of his own contradictions. Ever in denial, he can wryly congratulate his middle-aged sexual persona as “a good, clean, considerate fuck with few if any harmful side effects”.

An elder statesman’s (or aging crank’s) rejection of the Unmonumental, Whitney Biennial aesthetic, which he labels as “Granny’s­-attic­-on­-crystal­-meth installations” or “whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus”, extends to the ponderous self importance and pervasive texts he dreads confronting in so much recent MFA work. He tends to rail against easy targets: a droll send up of an exhaustive (and exhausting) feminist catalog, a chuckle at jargon in gallery press releases, even the well peppered roasting of an academic realist painter revealed as a contentious blowhard.

The Art Critic will please those readers looking for barbed observations of art world realpolitik as well as scandalous insider revelations. Because the ultimate guilty pleasure of any roman à clef is discovering real life equivalents for the pseudonymous roles in the novel. To his credit, Plagens tries to create composite characters, each inspired by a number of actual sources in the New York demimonde. This is a more imaginative and synthetic strategy than thinly disguised, one-on-one correspondences. For example, to identify the “Carol Gascoine” character simply as Laurie Simmons is to miss a lot of subtext drawn from other sources.

But Plagens can also be crushingly direct. When he contemplates “huge Cibachrome prints of exquisitely posed suburban-gothic banalities, produced with budgets that must have consumed whole trust funds in a single gulp”, it seems aimed right at Gregory Crewdson. Similarly, conservative critic “Jonathan Hirsch” is a clear stand in for Hilton Kramer. As for other art world figures who pop up as naughty or nice characters, everyone can start making their own list and checking it twice. Or rather 24 times, the number of weekly installments that will appear in Artnet.

Interestingly, Cindy Sherman is the only figure (thus far) who appears under her own name, and in a fairly benign usage, as an historical marker. She might escape further gouging as the plot thickens. But everyone else, it would seem, is grist for the mill.

Chapter Two Has Been Published

The setting of the second installment: a book party for an anthology of art criticism by Jonathan Hirsch, at the home of "conspicuously short" publisher Ben Greenleaf, a cavernous apartment in a prewar building.

Cast of characters:

Publishing assistant Helen Isaacson, beautiful, pertly intelligent daughter of a famous collector.

Ambitious sculptor Tom Mannheim, a "stocky, thickly maned man" with "a slightly Slavic, chiseled but friendly face ... a forest green corduroy sports jacket and sneakers that looked like the Space Shuttle".

His sassy, sexpot wife Sharon, with "splendid rack, great orange dress, dominatrix hair, and flame red lipstick."

Jonathan Hirsch, who "looked like a bright young English professor at a second-tier college ... in a tweed sport jacket, blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, and small-pattern paisley tie ...octagonal eyeglasses with black metal frames of the sort European architects wore. His eyes were noticeably far apart. Jonathan’s curly brown hair topped a triangular face with a conspicuously broad forehead and small chin." And who is gay. Since this does not match the description of Hilton Kramer, perhaps I need to revise my search parameters.

Also making cameo appearances, and available for conjecture as to their real life equivalents:

"sallow-cheeked, once-famous Earthwork artists with limp, stringy ponytails"

"the Pop artist whose recent eightieth birthday had been cause for more commemorations than D-Day’s sixtieth"

"sullenly scruffy 'emerging' artists"

"Italian-tailored museum executives"

"inferiority-complex’d 'independent curators' hoping to land major exhibition projects"

"university art history professors trying to dust off their mothballed hipness"

"the Falstaffian critic for the larger rival to Arthur’s magazine, a native New Zealander who also contributed regularly to as many glossy fashion magazines (four) as he had ex-wives"

trade magazines such as Art Discourse, Art Intervention, Art Unpacked and Art Scene Now!

the "Perkins Fellowship -- three months in residence at the journalism school at a university known unto itself -- and itself only -- as 'The Harvard of the Midwest'"

the recent "Catalcysm & Cuteness: The Paradox of Late Postmodernism exhibition at the Modern Museum"

Hirsch’s book, "Seeing Is Conceiving, fresh off the press from the Linden Creek imprint at Castle/Cartwright, Inc.", with the slogan "publishers of quality books for quality readers"

a vulgarian collector in pin stripe suit - a "crude ol’ rich bastard ... one of those self-made farts who grew up poor on the Lower East Side, still chews with his mouth open ... He’s got an investment problem and he’s standing in front of a young guy who’s not nearly as tough as he is, and who might be able to help put in the fix, so to speak. He wants service, now." - who is hectoring Hirsch, in effect demanding: "Why the fuck aren’t you writing stuff in that Wall Street newspaper that all my fellow plutocrats read? Why aren’t you doing your bit to pump up the eventual auction prices of all those young, tattoo’d Goth slacker painters I’ve been buying wholesale at bargain prices?"

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Tino Sehgal

Taken from my postings on the Artworld Salon thread Considering “Tino Sehgal”, with the addition of images found online.

First post:

The artist’s refusal to create a physical object, even the photo document of a performance, is an implicit critique of the status quo, a dogmatic assertion of non-compliance. As Andras notes, the significance of this gesture depends entirely on the prevailing power structure, on what in fact is being rejected. It can be a potent argument when aimed at a corrupt, repressive political regime that would be quick to censor the content in any case.

But in our current climate, that of widespread liberal acceptance and a marketplace eager to embrace the sales potential of any work, to eschew the object is to self-consciously identify yourself as pure of commercial taint. This is understood, even if Sehgal “has never voiced any kind of anti-commercial sentiment.” In fact, his avoidance of an explicit subtext is itself a tricky, dandified pose. He is not just disinterested in creating an object, he is divorced from any discussion of the sales thus alleviated. Yet he is amply rewarded with the accoutrements of the international art star, signaled by his inclusions at the Nu Mu and CCA Wattis. As mentioned, “today’s non-physical artist enjoys a hearty welcome into the art world and its academic industries”.

Sehgal’s “liminal status” is not necessarily a new development, just a fine tuning of strategies begun by an earlier generation of performers and conceptualists. They did document their work, but this was not generally felt to be a flirtation with the marketplace. It was for the ages, so that succeeding generations would have some record of their efforts. This was the model: they actually felt they were producing non-collectible work. It was sold, if at all, within a narrow circle of friends and aficionados. The marketplace was much smaller then, and perhaps they were being naive. Because the market has since proven to be hungry, adaptable and willing to absorb even the most anti-commercial gesture, just so long as it produced an object for sale.

Sehgal’s strategy of non-documentation benefits from hindsight. It acknowledges what is by now a given: that the market is able to sell any object. In this sense, by denying us a physical product, he is engaged in an intelligent, rearguard action to control variables of perception and presentation (much like American film director John Ford, who, when he did not have final cut, shot scenes in a particular way, with limited coverage and only certain angles, so that it could only be edited one way.) Sehgal might be a bit of a control freak, attempting to limit or channel the context of his work. Ossian’s citing of contracts tends to support this view.

Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) was a cynical take on, among other things, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and other pared down, non-objective strategies in 70s SoHo. Wolfe, of course, was suspicious of anything not painting-sized, framed in gold and hung above a divan, and he questioned the sincerity of most contemporary art. But he could be entertaining. He slyly addressed the “psychological doubletracking” of many artists, their need to outwardly reject the marketplace while simultaneously looking over their shoulder to make certain their rejection was being duly noted by agents of money or power: collectors, curators, critics or dealers. Wolfe likened this to the violent Apache Dance, in which one partner struggles, rejecting the blandishments and insinuations of the other again and again, before finally succumbing with a cry and a swoon. Has Sehgal’s background in dance inured him to a similar performative dialectic, a rejection of object making that, in its very denial, looks coyly over its shoulder to watch itself being noticed?

That said, I do enjoy the metaphor of Sehgal as an “exfoliator” of art market forces.

Second Post:

Simultaneous with Catherine's post yesterday, I was at the Nu Mu, mostly to view Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness in its 50 minute entirety. The Sehgal piece was, as always, being performed. Instead of allowing some things to rise up to your face, dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), which I have now seen twice, consists of an actor writhing on the floor, apparently re-enacting movements from late 60s-early 70s video works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, when the two were working with choreographers and dancers at Judson Church. As Sehgal states in interview, it functions as both his critique of their aesthetic praxis and his continuance of the "game" they began.
Bruce Nauman put himself in the studio, turned the camera on and eventually brought his videos into the museum. From a certain perspective, he was importing the aesthetic of Judson Church into the museum via video ... From my point of view and from my interest in things like the spoken word or singing or dance, he kind of lost the decisive thing on the way, which is how they produce - this simultaneity of production and de-production. You do a movement and then it's gone. You say a word and then it's gone. This is exactly what Nauman lost on the way because he made the work into a material fixation. Then Dan Graham took the game further by saying: "Yes, Nauman is interesting but he never reflects the use of the camera. I am going to redo his work but integrate the camera into the work so that you can actually see the camera." If this was a game that one could play, I was going to do the same thing again, but take out the material support, the video screen and the video player. To maintain the simultaneity of production and de-production which they were losing in their import, I would have the person immediately there in the space. On the other hand, I wanted to acknowledge that bringing something like movement into the museum had already happened. My point was to do this import again but in a decisive other way.
Sehgal's performance piece, of course, enjoyed the same central AC and lighting (neither carbon neutral), the same physical institutional support as other art on display. So on this basis it does not seem to deserve an ecological halo. But the "dwindling resources" critique is not about acting "green" so much as freeing art from the glut of material overproduction present in contemporary society. I recall a similar argument being made 30 years ago for Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and the appropriation artists: that with a surfeit of images from advertising, TV, movies, even art history, there was no need to create new ones, merely to re-assemble, to create new context from what already existed. Certainly there is a difference between "no new images" then and "no production of objects" now, but I hope the point is taken: of a moral/economic imperative defining aesthetic choices. What seems to interest Sehgal is the incorporation of de-production into production as an inherently simultaneous condition, a sort of automatic sweeping clean. This is the basis of his ecological responsibility. As stated in another interview,
...I'm interested in the transformation of actions and the simultaneity of production and deproduction ... because I think that the appearance in Western societies in the twentieth century of both an excess supply of the goods that fulfill basic human needs and mankind's endangering of the specific disposition of "nature" in which human life seems possible renders the hegemony of the dominant mode of production questionable.
A Google Image search under "tino sehgal" locates the occasional renegade performance shot, but mostly finds pics of the artist in rehearsal, run through, interview and social situations. So while a general interdiction against documentation of performance seems to be maintained, I cannot imagine anyone with a cell phone not being able to snatch an image and post it online. The point is that the artist does not incorporate this practice in his work.

As noted in my first post, Sehgal is positing a critique of the status quo. By eliminating the prop of the object, replacing it with actions that immediately and inherently de-produce themselves, he is creating a model which, as Jonathan notes, "exfoliates" the surface to reveal sub-dermal constructs and supports for the art world and the larger economy. This is intellectually and socially provocative. But the result of this aesthetic strategy, of refusing the object and adhering to transitory, repetitive and ruled-based performance, without documentation, is to throw all validation for the work upon discourse, upon interviews and explanations, and ultimately upon the persona of the artist himself. It places him at the inviolate center, a result he by no means failed to anticipate or desire. An art object can assert an autonomous existence, can be imagined (even if just for a moment) without also conjuring up its creator. By eliminating the object, Sehgal retains ultimate (if playful) control as the single durable point of reference.

Further notes:

When I first heard of Tino Sehgal's work some years ago, four pre-existing art constructs - performance art, institutional critique, documented conceptualism and relational aesthetics - came to mind, if not as precursors, then certainly for comparative reasons.

Sehgal rejects performance or performance art as a comparative or precursor because
as soon as you refer to "performance" in art, there are very clear historical connotations. A performance involves one person or a group of people presenting something to another group of people at a certain, previously announced time, while my work operates in the temporality of the visual-art exhibition. It's always there, like any other artwork. You can walk in, you're included. My work doesn't start and finish. And why I think that this notion is so deadly for a reading of my works is that at the core of my operation I'm trying to use existing conventions and fill them with something else. Whereas performance wanted to go outside of these conventions.
He rejects institutional critique as a comparative or precursor because
my work isn't critical of the institution in the sense of, for example, criticizing its representational power; nor is my work trying to expose or deconstruct the museum's mechanisms, as institutional critique did. I'm interested in the museum as a place for long-term politics. So in that sense I would say I operate totally inside what you'd call the institution. I'm just trying to define the way in which it does what it's there for; so I'm not against the intergenerational function of the museum, I am not against its address or celebration of the individual, but I am against its continuous, unreflected-on celebration of material production.
But by substituting actions for materiality, his work does in fact confront the politics, purposes and usages of the museum as an institution. Sehgal not only appreciates the institutional framework, his pieces are particularly tailored, specifically produced, for their museum appearances. It is a symbiotic relationship.
The museum is a ritual place where citizenship is reflected. The notion of the individual is celebrated both through the works of individual artists and by the fact that you can walk through freely on your own or however you wish. But in its classical form, the museum viewed you as a subject. There was a democratic process that constructed culture and when you entered the museum, you received this culture, just as you would receive orders from the king. I don't think that's the case in our society anymore. We are constantly constructing reality.
He rejects the document in conceptualism because
My produced and it is material, but the difference is that it materializes itself in the human body and not in a material object. I don't make photographic or filmic reproductions of my work, because it exists as a situation, and therefore substituting it with some material object like a photo or video doesn't seem like an adequate documentation. Also, my works take a form that exists over time--as they can be shown over and over again--so they're not dependent on any kind of documentation to stand in for them...
Your reference to this classical discourse of reification connotes a critique of the material object as product, that there is something inherently problematic about something becoming a product. That's not my line of thinking. I criticize the mode of production inherent to a material object but not the fact that it can be bought or sold.
Still looking for interview material on the relational aesthetics connection.

Sehgal fully enjoys (exploits) the museum as an institution, and as the proper theoretical frame for his work, and has in turn been given wide exposure in such institutions, with exhibitions that extend well over the usual three or four months into year long and three year long residencies, the actions allowed to unfold over time: for example at the ICA London and CCA Wattis. He is very precise, eloquent and clever in his embrace of the institution. He is not challenging said institution, merely demanding that his action based work has a place there, just like the materially based work that has been the norm.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The NYC Complaints Choir is Coming. You Got a Problem With That?

I met the Helsinki-based artist couple Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen in early June 2008, during the opening of Arctic Hysteria at P.S. 1, an exhibition of sixteen artists (or artist groups) from Finland. It remains on view through September 15.

I was overwhelmed by Mika Ronkainen's documentary of the Screaming Men's Chorus, a huge screen placed at the entrance to the show with a video projection of exactly what was advertised (men in black trekking over a glacier and screaming), and entranced by the flying saucer-like Futuro Lounge, a streamlined homage to utopian architect Matti Suuronen. But of all the Hysteria, it is the Kalleinen's ongoing project, their organizing of Complaints Choirs throughout the world, that has inspired my most lasting affection and ongoing participation.

While it might seem at first blush like a bit of latter day social sculpture, the Complaints Choir project turns out, strangely enough, to be a natural charmer. It has mined a cathartic nerve among the disgruntled of the Earth, and they are legion. For who can gainsay the most basic expression of civic pride: to be able to insist that your city, yours alone, is by far the most wretched? For example, the citizens of Birmingham, where the complaints project was first realized in 2005, loudly vaunted their burg as the "arsehole of England".

So there is nothing uniquely Finnish about the act of complaining, nor a particular dourness of national character occasioned by the cliche of long winter nights and the massive consumption of vodka. But there is a Finno-Ugric word, valituskuoro, which connotes a general state of public malaise. It translates literally as "chorus of complainers." The Kalleinens advance it as the conceptual underpinning of their project, and have traveled the world, fomenting great bouts of internationally facilitated whining, and accumulating an enviable cache of frequent flier miles. Thus far, choirs have been initiated in twenty cities, mostly in Europe and North America. But as revealed in the map, certain continents still remain untouched by the phenomenon.

Here is the Helsinki chapter of the choir in action

the Birmingham group

the Russians in St. Petersburg

and some griping Chicagoans.

There were also initiatives in Budapest, Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Singapore, and one is currently forming in Copenhagen. But finally, New York will also have a chance to vent, lending a bit of authentic Big Apple attitude to the mix. A marriage made in heaven, you might say. The Village Voice seems to agree.

Since I generally have an ax to grind, and since Alanna Heiss (the boss at P.S. 1) was unnecessarily rude to me at the Finnish opening (complaint!), I decided to add my voice to the general caterwaul. This was long before I considered writing about it here, so my status as "embedded" journalist is only happenstance. But it is one of the pervasive lessons of the blogosphere: always assume that a prospective reporter is present.

I attended a preliminary organizational meeting at Mehanata Bulgarian Bar on June 8, during which complaints were jotted down on Post Its (to augment a list already sent by email), assembled by category, then distilled down to a manageable size (by various ad hoc subcommittees) from well over 600. What made the final cut? A lot of quality of life issues. People who do not enjoy the subway, their cabbies, their doctors, their noisy neighbors, the lack of privacy, bad manners, litter, insufficient city services, as well as (surprise!) money and job worries, family discord, boyfriend/girlfriend problems and personal failures of character. And when in doubt, there was always Rudy to dump on (see below).

I missed several subsequent rehearsals (I mean, what could they do - complain?), but think I will attend tonight's meeting at the CSV Cultural Center, a converted public school building on the Lower East Side. It's only five blocks from my house, and Bloomberg TV will be shooting the session for a video segment they are producing on Muse Arts.

There might be some Complaint Choir parameters which are not immediately apparent. For one, the project tends to think globally but act locally. Although there is a central structure, a modus operandi to kick things off properly, and ongoing support from FRAME, the Finnish Fund for Art Exchange, the choir is ultimately a home grown, grass roots affair. Each city has its own coordinator, in our case the amiable, proactive Marc Nasdor. Each attracts its own participants, all volunteers. For some reason there are usually more women than men. (Is there a gender gap when it comes to the serious business of bitching and moaning? And will I catch an earful of complaints concerning this last remark?) Each group compiles its own list of gripes, creates its own infrastructure, its schedule of rehearsal spaces and times. Each, most importantly, finds its own musical director.

The New York choir is lucky to have secured the participation of guitarist, free jazz aficionado and minimalist composer Alan Licht. He has experimented with popular vocal forms in his ongoing "Digger Chorus" performances at the Issue Project Room in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in which the audience is enlisted as a pickup ensemble. Licht wrote the Complaints Choir song, molding our assembled kvetching into the heart of his libretto. As a member of the choir (although somewhat A.W.O.L.), I was sent an mp3 to play at home.

The music is very Noo Yawk, very old school rock and roll, with a call and response structure and rhyme reminiscent of 1950's Doo Wop. A little Carole King, a little Dion and the Belmonts, the declamation of "Runaround Sue" and Italian-American outer borough stoop singing combined with the lilt of "Under the Boardwalk". In the interest of full disclosure, I considered attaching a music file, but will try to restrain myself. However, for the few select readers of this blog (and you know who you are, even if I don't), a sneak preview of the lyrics follows.

Public performances will occur over the next several months. Keep your ears peeled and consult the New Wilderness Foundation website. I might even post the occasional update here. You got a problem with that?

Here then, ready or not, willing or not, kicking and screaming, is the NYC Complaints Choir, lyrics contributed by a bunch of pissed off New Yorkers, compiled by Marc Nasdor and Alan Licht, song composed by Alan Licht, ©2008 New Wilderness Foundation. Can I get a witness?

New York City is not a part of the USA
New York should be an independent country
People whack my kid in the face with their bags on the subway
Babies—there’s a place for them. It’s called Nebraska!

It’s ridiculously hot and it’s not even June
The person next to me is singing out of tune
My full service building is nowhere near that
All the streets got repaved except for mine

Why can’t I get a taxi in the rain?
JFK Airport is too far away
My boyfriend always gets a little pee on the floor
Construction workers pee right outside of my door

Please wear longer shorts to the gym
I don’t want to know you all that well
Men, please close your legs in the subway
So others can have some space to sit

New Yorkers are always thinking out loud
Why can’t I have a robot clean my house?
People always throw trash on the ground
When there’s a trash can two feet away

I never get to be / home alone
Because my roommate is always there
Drivers don’t care about bicyclists
Everybody acts like they are an expert

Times Square looks like a strip mall
Bleecker Street looks like Palm Beach
Tourists get in my way on the sidewalk
You can’t tell if someone hates you just by looking

There’s so much to do here
But no money to do it with
Long Islanders think they are New Yorkers
But they are not

Doctors in Manhattan
Are much more interested
In my wallet
Than my health

I wanted Harlem to get better
Not unrecognizable
My local market was torn down
To build a luxury hotel

The landlord never makes
Any repairs
But he still expects the rent
To be paid on time

Why is it illegal
To own a flamethrower?
It’s almost 10pm
And I’m still in the office

I hate working
But I hate being broke even more
The prices all go up
But I don’t get a raise

My son’s fake ID
Looks nothing like him
My husband doesn’t like
Any of my friends

People who never
Use deodorant
Always stand next to me
On the subway

The subway platform is too hot
And the subway car is too cold
Only women stand up
And give their seats to the elderly

Why do cabbies talk
On their cell phones throughout the ride?
Rudolph Guiliani
Still exists

Pushcart bagels are the worst
Plastic bags end up in trees
The weather is too good
There are too many trailers before a movie

I am thirty-six
Why do I still have acne?
Whatever I do
It’s never enough

SUV’s clog the city streets
Really? Do you work on a farm?
Are you delivering supplies to a third world country?
Probably not

You pay too much for what should be free
Who started monogamy?
Poor people always get the shaft
How did I ever get so fat?

I can hear bad music from my neighbors
But I can’t hear them having sex
My boyfriend farts loudly when we’re in bed
College students vomit right on my doorstep

A long line of ants crossed my bedroom floor
You can’t buy wine in the grocery store
Cranes are falling out of the sky
Car alarms keep me awake every night

When I open a door for myself
Somebody else always plows right through
No one makes eye contact with me
Or even notices that I exist

“Ok, we know we’ve been complaining for a while, but there’s 12 more things we want to complain about, with your kind indulgence, ready?”

No public bathrooms
Old ladies at Whole Foods
Preachers on the subway
Cars in the bike lane
Cashier tip jars
Anonymous hate blogs
Slow elevators
Global warming deniers
Manorexic hipsters
Yelling on your cell phone
I never got a pony
Rudolph Giuliani

No public bathrooms
Old ladies at Whole Foods
Preachers on the subway
Cars in the bike lane
Cashier tip jars
Anonymous hate blogs
Slow elevators
Global warming deniers
Manorexic hipsters
Yelling on your cell phone
I never got a pony
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Manny Farber (1917-2008)

Although I knew he was also a painter, the Manny Farber I first encountered in back issues of Film Culture and in collected writings like Negative Space (1971) was a brilliant, spirited, clear-eyed, iconoclastic, no-nonsense film critic. Essays like "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" (1962) were lean, mean, superbly on target and amazingly prescient, celebrating B-films and maverick, marginal auteurs long before they became de rigueur among cineastes. He was an early champion of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Val Lewton and Don Siegel, and penned some of the first American appreciations of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Marguerite Duras, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman and other 70s European avantgardists.

His commitment to genre and grit, to economies of scale and purpose, to the joys of pulp and a contrarian, underground aesthetic, were legendary. His prose was pugilistic, hardboiled and decidedly interdisciplinary, setting an example for future cultural critics. He employed references from all over the spectrum, drawing from abstract expressionist painting, comics, photography, performance art, and from a wide ranging connoisseurship of tasty vernacular forms. He was less literary than visual, less concerned with polite plot elements than viscerally engaged in the mise en scene. His best writing seems to come from within the film, not as a critic judging from on high but rather as a fellow artist, intuitively solving problems and thinking on his feet along with the director.

Farber eloquently and mercilessly excoriated the bloated, mindless excesses of "good taste", the hypocrisy and creative pretensions perpetuated by the Hollywood studio system. He was a staunch foe of lazy, acquiescent thinking, of the prosaic and the middlebrow. He did not suffer fools gladly. In support of his "small, mobile, intelligent" strategy, he reveled in language that was dense, rhythmic, pungent and precise as a jewel cutter.

Farber contributed reviews and essays to The New Republic, Time, The Nation, Film Comment, and Artforum, as well as to second tier stroke mags like Cavalier. Starting in the mid 70s, he was professor at the University of California San Diego, and regularly exhibited his work. A retrospective show of paintings, entitled About Face, opened at PS 1 in New York in September 2004 after previously being presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Austin Museum of Art in Texas.

Farber began as an abstract painter but settled on figuration in his mature work, to become a master of the idiosyncratic still life. The painting below, Howard Hawks "A Dandy's Gesture" (1978), is part of the "Auteur Series" (there are also pieces named for Anthony Mann and Luis Bunuel). It employs a scattershot arrangement of objects and notepad drawings (elephant, airplane, speedboat, railroad tracks, cattle, houses, chocolate bars), presented out of scale and seemingly viewed from above, as if they are miniatures on a worktable or maquettes from a set designer, a collection of decontextualized signifiers recalling some of the director's most famous efforts: To Have and Have Not, Twentieth Century, Hatari!, Red River.

Like Robert Frank and Larry Rivers, Farber was the quintessential Jewish hipster, effortlessly inventive and subversive, an inveterately wisecracking wordsmith, a kibbitzer, an elder statesman of the counterculture. Susan Sontag once said, “Manny Farber is the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced … [his] mind and eye change the way you see.”

He passed away in his sleep on Sunday, August 17, 2008, at the age of 91. As obituaries appear online, they will be linked below.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Jeff the First, the new Sun King, and his courtiers

In my previous post on Paul McCarthy's huge, inflatable sculpture running amok, I referenced the rabbit balloon by Jeff Koons that was in last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The original stainless steel Rabbit (1986) that it was modeled after will soon be the centerpiece of a Koons exhibition at Versailles, in both the château and its surrounding gardens, to run from September 10 through December 14.

The show is an expansion of an existing program, "Versailles Off", that has previously displayed contemporary art on the palace grounds for a two day run. But the Koons exhibition is much more adventurous and certainly a more expensive project, lasting three months and requiring many man hours of installation. Over a dozen pieces will be shown. The famous topiary Puppy (1992) that would seem to be a natural for the gardens will not be recreated. A more likely outdoor work will be Split-Rocker (2000), a sculpture which consists of tens of thousands of flower pots, incidentally owned by French billionaire François Pinault (more to come on this association).

Other works will include Balloon Dog (Magenta) and Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold). The latter set the record at auction in 2007, $23.6 million, as the highest price paid for a work by a living artist. What can we mere mortals offer when confronted with such a figure, except to cry out from the audience: "L'opulence! Toujours l'opulence!" And what might Koons say, in emulation of Louis XIV, the Sun King and builder of Versailles, except: "Le prix, c'est moi!"

Will Michael Jackson and Bubbles make the cut? What about an equilibrium tank with basketballs? This digital montage shows how Lobster might look installed in such august surroundings. Homage, homard!

Cries of betrayal, accusations of anachronism and vulgarity, and of the desecration of history, come from expected sectors of the cultural sphere - the preservationists, conservative historians and other Gaullist remnants - who are visibly and vocally outraged, as only the French can be. Typical in this regard is Edouard de Royère, a principal patron of the Palais. "I am not against contemporary art but I am absolutely shocked at its descent on Versailles, a magical, sacred place ... Even for three months, Jeff Koons at Versailles is a mistake."

And even now, in the age of Sarkozy and globalization, when America is no longer supposed to be viewed as a cultural bogeyman, there is still: The Horror! It's as if Eurodisney decamped en masse upon Versailles. (Actually, the two are geographically close, with the House of Mouse just about as far from the center of Paris, but off in another direction). And let's go one step further. Try to imagine the crescendo of outrage were Paul McCarthy to replace Koons, plopping his inflatable merde right in the middle of the precisely manicured gardens. That would be very entertaining.

All this reactionary fuss, and its Ancien Régime advocates, would endear us to Koons, and even place him in an unexpected role of underdog. But then we have to hear his glib apologia offered for undertaking an exhibition at Versailles. Contemporary art, he states, "is so imprisoned in the present that juxtaposing new works with old ones allows you to rediscover a connection between history and the history of art. The baroque is the ideal context for me to highlight the philosophical nature of my work."

Which might lead me to inquire: If contemporary art is in fact "imprisoned" in some era, when would that not be the present? But it seems Koons is already far beyond such temporal constraints, and quite eager to commune with the pantheon, to assume the apotheosis of the ages. I say, if it comes, let it come, but don't rush it. Don't court it so assiduously. Otherwise we might detect an unwholesome whiff of ego, and witness delusions of grandeur no artist should publicly acknowledge.

I enjoy Koons' work, his personal achievement as a bright, shiny object in the firmament, even his devolution (or depending on your orientation, his elevation) to the status of kitsch meister. The institutional imprimatur of Versailles ratifies his position as the embodiment of a baroque impulse in contemporary art: for his inclusive, faux innocent embrace of neo-pop aesthetics; for his exaggerations and dislocations of scale and context; and for the way his celebrity status runs concomitant with larger marketplace issues, with an ever more convoluted and expanding arts economy. He is, if you will, the advent of post modern baroque, combining mass cultural fame and strategies of appropriation to synergistic effect. As with Warhol, we can hardly separate the projected persona of the artist from the actual, physical body of work.

But the star making spectacle, the machinery of patronage clicking into place behind Koons, makes it clear that we are not really talking about art anymore. We are confronting the brute imperatives of money and power. This is hardly a revelation. But consider one piece, Balloon Dog (Magenta), shown below in 2007, wagging its tail outside the Palazzo Grassi, the contemporary art museum in Venice owned by Pinault, and at the time managed by Jean-Jacques Aillagnon. This piece will soon be seen at the Salon d'Hercule as part of the Versailles show, under the management of - guess who? - the self same Aillagnon, who is now president at Versailles. Obviously, the dog just likes to follow him around. I wonder what he feeds it.

Cultural mandarin-ism is not unexpected, and Aillagnon (before Pinault, before Versailles) was culture minister for the whole country. So he is used to wielding aesthetic influence, just as Koons is used to being the recipient of same. Such consensus, manufactured at the highest levels, will inevitably trickle down, and is good for all of us. Because unless we are told what is of value, what to like, and what should command the highest prices at auction, we might be confused, or worse still, think that the appreciation of contemporary art is unduly influenced by a very small elite of the super wealthy and super connected. We might imagine there is corruption or self interest. But, when confronted with such doubts, we have the radiant face and the benign entitlement of Jeff the First to reassure us.

Four Weeks Later

My initial misgivings (posted four weeks ago, on August 15, 2008) about cultural mandarin-ism, the interlocking directorates of the "courtiers" surrounding Jeff Koons, and the various hats worn by Jean-Jacques Aillagon (first culture minister, then François Pinault's employee at Palazzo Grassi, now director at Versailles) were just echoed in reportage from Le Monde via's International News Digest. It seems six of the 17 Koons works at Versailles belong to M. Pinault, who casts a long shadow over this "public" exhibition. The telling comment by M. Pinault to M. Aillagon, about to take over at Versailles: "With all the gardens that you have, you will be able to exhibit my Split-Rocker!" Mais oui! The Artforum text follows.


Jeff Koons’s forthcoming exhibition at the Château de Versailles is not just irritating French cultural purists who would prefer to keep the American king of kitsch off the castle grounds. As Le Monde’s Clarisse Fabre and Emmanuelle Lequeux report, there are now charges of a conflict of interest around the exhibition at the former residence of Louis XIV. The exhibition’s origins go back to Venice in June 2007. “Jean-Jacques Aillagon found himself with his friend the businessman François Pinault,” write Fabre and Lequeux. Aillagon was then responsible for the Palazzo Grassi, where Pinault shows part of his private collection. “Monsieur Aillagon, also the former French minister of culture, was getting ready to take over at the Château de Versailles,” write Fabre and Lequeux. “Pinault then asked him: ‘With all the gardens that you have, you will be able to exhibit my Split-Rocker!’ ” Koons's Split-Rocker, 2000, is one of seventeen works that will go on display this week inside the castle and on the grounds. Although a former employee of Pinault, Aillagon seems to be doing his old job by including a total of six Koons works from Pinault’s private collection in the Versailles show. That’s not the only problem. Elena Geuna, who is curating the project with the Centre Pompidou's Laurent Le Bon, is an employee of Pinault.

“I find this argument specious and discourteous,” says Aillagon in Geuna’s defense. “Koons’s works have obtained impressive prices well before being exhibited at the Metropolitain a few weeks ago and at Versailles today.” Of course, many of those impressive prices have been reached at Christie’s, which is owned by Pinault’s holding company. The director of the Friends of Versailles, Anémone Wallet, would have liked to have had the chance to make one request to the artist: to create a work that would have deferred the costs of the exhibition, estimated at around $2.7 million. At Versailles, the public purse is paying for around $400,000, while the remaining $2.3 million has been provided by partners, most of whom also happen to be Koons collectors with works in the Versailles exhibition: François Pinault, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou, and Edgar de Picciotto. coverage of the Versailles opening here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Turds on the Run

We generally try to avoid stepping in it, and perhaps even talking about it, but some shit is so good it cannot be passed over. It demands our attention, refusing to be ignored. According to a recent news item in, an immense inflatable sculpture by American artist Paul McCarthy, as big as the side of a barn and installed in an outdoor summer exhibition at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, was recently torn from its moorings during a violent storm. Strong winds propelled it over 600 feet, forcing down a power line and breaking a greenhouse window before it came to rest in the front yard of a nearby orphanage.

And here's where fact, once again, proves stranger than fiction. The McCarthy piece, entitled Complex Shit, is fashioned to look like a huge pile of doggie doo. To borrow from the vernacular, you just can't make shit like this up.

Museum officials report a fail safe mechanism was engineered into the inflatable sculpture, to let the air out it in extreme weather conditions, precisely to prevent it from running amok in a storm. But for reasons unknown, and to the embarrassment of authorities, the safety device failed to operate. The piece still requires potty training in a very public way. And since the incident occurred on July 31 but details are only now being released to the press, a moratorium of almost two weeks is evident. Was there some attempt to quietly flush away the offending memory before it started to smell?

If your mind swiftly conjures up images of harried townsfolk running in terror before the rampaging turds, be advised that press coverage, just beginning to accumulate, also tends to the lurid and the hilariously astonished, labeling the incident "Turdzilla" and having a field day with the expected puns: "The Shit Hits the Fan", "That's Some Dangerous Shit" and "Raising a Stink".

With various Chocolate Santas, butt plugs and anally oriented elves firmly established in his repertoire, McCarthy is no stranger to scatological imagery. In fact, one is hard pressed to name another artist in the international arena, a recognized star feted from biennial to biennale to art fair to prestigious curated exhibition, whose work is so closely identified with images of shit and its discontents, with a naughty, transgressive urge to overstep the bounds of fecal propriety. In a brief text on its website, the Klee Center cites McCarthy's piece as "subverting the otherwise harmonious landscape". But even their wildest dreams could not have anticipated what finally went down: renegade turds flying wildly through town, terrorizing hapless pedestrians, orphans and property owners, spreading uncertainty and fear in the generally well ordered environs of Mitteleuropa.

Juri Steiner, director of the Zentrum Klee, is quoted as saying that McCarthy had not yet been informed of the fate of his work, with no decision made on reinstalling it in the center's garden. But the latest news update from the BBC indicates that the sculpture will remain on display as part of the exhibition East of Eden. A Garden Show, scheduled to stay up through October 26. Which is ample time to determine whether the newly controversial Complex Shit will draw more flies.

Jeff Koons has also created large inflatables, notably his shiny, silver Rabbit balloon from last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, itself modeled on a three foot tall stainless steel sculpture executed in 1986.

But this inflatable was intended to soar above our heads, securely handled by a team of wranglers, for the delight of children of all ages. A far cry from dog turds wreaking havoc in a small Swiss city and terrifying its citizens. For reasons of safety, and to satisfy the obvious narrative arc, perhaps the best pairing with Complex Shit, now that it has hopefully been securely pinioned, would be with a more earthbound Koons sculpture: Puppy.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Hasty Pudding: notes and assorted paraphernalia

I Want Candy
Allan D. Hasty
The Proposition
559 W 22nd St
July 1 - August 8, 2008

In his previous photographic work, Allan Hasty has evinced a decided Southern Gothic tendency. His images are replete with tabloid visions of sex, sleaze, sin and death, with B-girls in bustiers brandishing guns, with freaks and geeks. With portraits subjected to the choreographed flash of strobe lights, analyzing motion into a series of post-Eadweard Muybridge smears, tearing bodily into the fourth dimension. With memento mori awash in a sea of multimedia distress, the surface of the photo intentionally dirtied in its development from the negative. A photo from Solicitation, his last show at The Proposition in 2004, is representative of his penchant for the freakish and extreme, for his manipulation of the image, and for his peculiarly gothic obsessions:

Hasty’s stance is cutely subversive, self consciously sexualized, purposefully tawdry, perhaps even an antique (or occasionally hackneyed) take on the demimonde. He is not exactly Joel-Peter Witkin, but they seem to inhabit adjacent workbenches in the same abattoir. Were his Weltanschauung reified into the image of a rock band, we might be looking at The Cramps or The Butthole Surfers. And more than likely he subscribes to that old William Blake chestnut: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

His latest work, though, is a bit of a surprise, and not because he has lost his naughty edge, but rather due to his choice of a new medium. Here are ten paintings, silkscreen ink on canvas, each about four feet square and consisting of a monochrome field overlaid with a dense grid of screened images, logos familiar the street drug trade. Coke and dope, C&D, in their familiar little plastic bags, stamped with iconic brands like Batman, Bubble, Crown, Bulldog, Skull and Superman, representing the marketing efforts of some of New York's most upwardly mobile entrepreneurs. They label their merchandise for the same reasons that influence the “legitimate” commercial world, or the stacking of cans on your local supermarket shelf: for brand recognition; ease of identification and selection; specificity among competing labels; as a guarantee of particular taste or quality or potency; to foster customer loyalty; and to create a lasting, durable persona for their goods.

Hasty is decidedly not judgmental about the mileu he has chosen to depict. If anything, he is perhaps a bit too avid in embracing the lower depths, the lure of depravity. By now it is a given that capitalism is similar on all levels, whether it wears a suit and tie in the boardroom or baggy jeans and bling on the street corner. We all know the Mafia is organized, top down, just like a major corporation, and that corruption and greed are as prevalent (and perhaps even more dangerous, in the long run) in banks and mortgage houses as they are in Columbian drug cartels. Business is business. We are all complicit in its excesses, betrayed by its abuses, victimized by its blandishments, allured by its promises, swallowed up in its ability to co-opt.

A pertinent aside: This summer we seem to be remembering the golden age of East Village punk and New Wave, a decade (or so) from the late 70s to the late 80s, with a show at PPOW inspired by the work of David Wojnarowicz; a brief reunion of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, featuring Lydia Lunch, in conjunction with the publication of a book on the New York No Wave scene; the 20th anniversary of the Tompkins Square riots with the film Captured, centered on photographer Clayton Patterson, longtime chronicler of the Lower East Side. This period was also the flowering of the East Village gallery scene, and back in the day, there was a space on East Tenth Street (just down the block from Nature Morte) called Executive. The name was not a nod to yuppiedom, or a hopeful bid for entrée into a world of corporate polish; it was archly lifted from a local brand of dope.

Hasty was no stranger to the East Village scene. He certainly remembers those days of experimentation and excess, the heady flirtation with drugs and danger. And he has, apparently, been collecting and cataloging these bags of dope for many years, perhaps for curatorial purposes only. Or should we take him at his word: does he really want his candy? In any case, his method reveals a painstaking attention to craft and an assiduously handmade quality. He first photographs the logo off the bag, with all its smudges and imperfections intact, then enlarges the image, creating a single screen, which is used to print each element of the grid. So if you can count 63 logos in “Super”, be assured it required 63 individual pressings.

The regularity of the field suggests the regimen of pattern painting, while Hasty’s cover-the-canvas efforts might indicate an obsessive-compulsive disorder, perhaps even a bit of horror vacui. But we are not here to psychoanalyze, rather to enjoy the product. Each painting incorporates variations of pressure and application, peculiarities of accident and intention. It is these very variations – a lightening of the monochrome background in certain areas (as in Ed Ruscha), a slight torque of the logo from one pressing to the next - that delight the eye and keep it moving over the canvas, alert to nuance. Certainly, these works would be much less effective were they perfectly machined, fully uniform in color, repetitive in density and image. They would degenerate into mass production, mere posters on canvas. A very unsatisfying demonstration of an idée fixe.

In this sense, a comparison to Warhol is unavoidable: the use of silkscreens, of course, and the appropriation of pop imagery, in this case logos, which accesses Warhol's entire oeuvre, from the earliest 50s shoe ads to the Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes to the mid 80s collaborations with Basquiat. But there is also the idea of resolution and registration, or the lack of same, the process of degradation when an image is photographed, re-photographed, screened and then printed. Warhol embraced the artistic possibilities of “bad” printing: the fuzziness, off registration qualities, inexact outlines, uneven coloration and grain, blotches. He took these “errors” and made them the very subject of his art. Hasty is no slouch in this department. Take a look at “Lion” and feel free to roar in approval.

A final word, or rather two. “Demonic” is one useful description of the artist’s mindset (see below), but its close cousin, “demotic”, would not leave my mind. It also felt right, but I could not remember its meaning, so I looked it up. There are two definitions. The more common is “of the people, popular, vernacular”, and this certainly references Hasty’s selection of street corner branding. The second definition is more specific: “designating a simplified system of ancient Egyptian writing, distinguished from hieratic”, the latter being a script derived from hieroglyphics and used by priests in the temple. Now I had what I wanted: a perfect metaphor for Hasty’s new work. His paintings can be viewed as a simplified system of picture writing, built from commercial logos which march across the canvas in ordered rows, much like text on a page. But as they are decidedly secular, they are not hieroglyphs. They are Hasty’s hiply arch demotics.

Monday, August 04, 2008

On Steve Powers' "The Waterboarding Thrill Ride" at Coney Island

Reposted from my commentary on a thread on Artworld Salon entitled "Arts of Torture?"

Are we witnessing the birth of waterboard chic? Can it be marketed as an XXX-treme sport, with designer face masks, bindings and boards? Might there be a dress code, with teams and uniforms? What would the suspected terrorist wear? or the sartorially correct interrogator? Relevant to this, a T-shirt for sale on a "humorous" conservative website has recently engendered intensely partisan commentary on The Atlantic blog. Humor, not surprisingly, retains a red state/blue state dichotomy.

While Steve Powers probably resides somewhere on the (libertarian) left, he also wants to foment cascades of outrage. Creative Time, presenter of The Waterboarding Thrill Ride, would like to spin it as fostering a "dialogue about the implications of waterboarding". But Jonathan's question is a good one: does the piece merely trivialize this debate, piggybacking on a hot button topic for a free joy ride, for an expected jolt of controversy? Or will public consciousness somehow be engaged and elevated? It's the old yardstick applied to obscenity cases: that of redeeming social significance. Titillation without redemption is a no-no.

Art does not have to be polite. It can be outrageous and irreverent. And as this comes with the Deitch imprimatur, its surrender to naughty spectacle at all times is essentially a given. I generally appreciate Steve Powers' work, his post graffiti swagger. He is a prime practitioner of confrontational, wryly subversive agitprop. Subtlety is never his strong suit. And certainly the venue itself, an amusement park, encourages broad strokes. To place a waterboarding "ride" amidst Coney Island's usual attractions merges the vernacular of street signage and performance, of side shows by the sea, with a "message". But can this message rise above the banal? Yes, waterboarding is decidedly "bad". Yes, media images of torture are inevitably flattened, robbed of moral imperative, becoming grist for the infotainment mill. But isn't this something we already know? Been there, done that, what else can you tell me.

I also question the private waterboarding session. Catherine interestingly cites its group aspect (with lawyers! are they planning to litigate afterwards?) as suggestive of certain denominational rites, like baptism. She also references other performance artists who have engaged in mortifications of the flesh. But Bob Flanagan, Ron Athey, Stelarc and Chris Burden appeal to something personal, an internal dialogue with the limits of their bodies, with the transcendence of pain and the transformation of the spirit in extremis. Somehow I don't get the same charge of mind/body/spirit from Steve Powers' prospective performance. Appended to his carny sideshow attraction (which admittedly I have not yet seen), it feels more like Jackass than a Robert Bresson film. All prank, no transcendence.