Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On Creative Time's Democracy In America at the Armory

This text was first posted as a comment on an Artworld Salon thread on Nonprofits.

There are socially conscious nonprofits which feed the hungry, house the homeless, work with runaway or HIV-positive youth, engage in natural disaster relief. And there are arts/cultural nonprofits, generally sharing a left-liberal orientation. The two should be sympathetic and cooperative. Artists, for example, are often moved to donate work to auctions that benefit socially or politically active causes. But as the economy shrinks, there will necessarily be increased competition for fewer dollars, and organizations dealing with subsistence and survival will likely be favored over artistic endeavors. This could endanger the natural affinity between good causes and good art.

The Democracy in America extravaganza is a "big tent" event at the Park Avenue Armory. Creative Time and curator Nato Thompson are to be commended for the ambition and timeliness of this effort, which mirrors the size and clamor of national party conventions in this election year, and gathers a lot of political art and partisan noise under the high, vaulted ceiling of the Drill Hall or off in side rooms and hallways.

This "Convergence Center" revisits public art projects previously done under the CT aegis. It gives Steve Powers' Waterboard Thrill Ride a new home after its Coney Island run, and includes a huge, two-screen projection of Mark Tribe's Port Huron Project, his re-enactment of radical New Left speeches of the 1960s by Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and others. Pia Lindman's Soapbox Event, staged on Wall Street back in April, gives speakers another chance to sound off, for one minute, with a big megaphone.

There is humorless, densely texted, self important post-MFA work here - it seems unavoidable in a group show of political art - but a preponderance of gems makes a visit to the one-week event (it closes on Saturday, September 27) essential. Don't miss Jon Kessler's brilliant, whirling thingamajig of doll torture, video cameras and a barrage balloon; Ken Tin-Kin Hung's Residential Erection, an obsessively layered, savagely funny animation that takes no prisoners in its caricature of the candidates; Duke Riley's aquatic adventure, his reconstruction of Revolutionary War submarine The Turtle, brooding here in lacquered splendor amid the trappings of other wars, but shown in action in a TV mockumentary as it performed an "attack" on the QE II in New York Harbor; the Center for Tactical Magic's anarchist ice cream truck, filled with Fudgsicles, progressive literature and surveillance equipment; Steve Lambert's interactive Pentagon coloring book, the doodled pages tacked onto a long plywood wall; Luca Frei's Bruce Nauman-ish spiral of neon letters that references Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (tucked away in the mezzanine); and the Steve Kurtz/Critical Art Ensemble shrine to the fragility of free speech in our post 9/11 world and his reprehensible persecution by rabid FBI agents. In addition, a full schedule of speeches and performance events is listed on the Creative Time website.

So do go to the Armory. But when you go - and to my mind it's a very big BUT - you will probably be unaware (as most attendees are) that two floors of the building also house a Womens' Shelter. They might as well be living on another planet. The only interface between the privileged art world (which uses the front door) and the homeless (who enter from the side) comes in the elevator to Sharon Hayes' fourth floor installation. I am not suggesting an artwork "using" this homeless population; that would be exploitative and inappropriate. But the opacity, the lack of any acknowledgment that we are interlopers in the building and the homeless women its regular inhabitants, seems a glaring omission in the context of this sprawling, overtly political exhibition. It inadvertently provides a lesson in the gulf between social and artistic nonprofit efforts.

Monday, September 01, 2008

That Old Brown Magic's Got Me In Its Spell ... Again!

or The Shit Just Keeps on Coming.

I did not expect to return to this theme so soon after discussing Paul McCarthy's inflatable turds, but apparently there is no moratorium on the artistic fascination with feces. As already reported in the Village Voice, in New York Magazine and on Artinfo, artist provocateur Andres Serrano will unveil a show of 66 photographs at Yvon Lambert, first in the New York gallery on September 4, then a week later in Paris. Each photo depicts spoor from a different species, often in extreme close up.

The process started as sort of a family affair, with both Serrano and his pet Dalmatian, Luther, donating to the proceedings, but soon branched out into an international search for the best, or at least the most photogenic, shit. And yes, there will be Bull Shit (from Ecuador), Horse Shit and Chicken Shit on display.

The Biblical story of Noah's Ark mandated gathering two of each and every beast and fowl. Serrano seems to have updated this to the number two of each species. Since his international notoriety began with Piss Christ, a piece decidedly committed to number one, we can detect a definite progression in the concerns of the artist.

The photographs are large, blown up as high as eight feet. They are also available as a book, appropriated titled Andres Serrano: Shit. The images are sometimes backgrounded with a psychedelic sunset motif, like murals on the side of vans, a vernacular familiar from surfer and stoner culture, from comics and other "underground" commercial forms (like tattoo art), a conflation of the kitschy, the mundane and the bombastic. A lowest common denominator strategy also defines the titling of the work, ranging from cheesy to humorous to descriptive. Heroic Shit, Good Shit and Bad Shit, Hieronymous Bosch Shit, even a diptych: Burro Shit I and II.

Self-Portrait Shit (the artist's own)

Heroic Shit (because it resembles the raising of the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima)

Serrano's work derives a certain affect from its linguistic underpinnings. Photographing a crucifix immersed in a yellowish medium might not have angered Jesse Helms and the religious right nearly as much as the juxtaposition of the words "piss" and "Christ". Words are literal and brook no contradiction. Showing something is often not as offensive as naming it. Witness Alfred Jarry's play, Ubu Roi (1896), where the opening exclamation, "Merde!", cleared a shocked Paris theater and created a succes de scandale. "Shit" is a big part of our language, and Serrano will undoubtedly mine all the universality and notoriety of the word.

One cannot mention shit in art without a passing reference to Piero Manzoni's Artist's Shit (1961), an edition of 90 cans, each labeled in English, French and German, each claiming to contain 30 grams net weight of the artist's freshly produced, preserved and tinned shit. One was sold to a collector for 30 grams of 18-carat gold, a symbolic assertion of the transformative power of the artist, his ability to turn any material into art by the sheer force of his persona. As in the fundamental example of Marcel Duchamp, art is shown to be anything the artist claims it to be, an alchemical conversion of even the most common, debased bodily function into material and aesthetic value via the artist's travail and theoretical insistence. All this is contained in Manzoni's famous gesture.

Whether Serrano's shit explores a similar dialog with issues of production, consumption, marketing, packaging and the embodied nature of artistic labor - well, you decide after seeing the show. Some critics have berated Serrano for pandering, for courting controversy, for pushing easy buttons, for promoting transgression for its own sake, for adopting the outré as a career strategy. He certainly has no problem tweaking his audience into paroxysms of violence, most recently in October 2007, when a gang of right wing vandals, disguised in black masks, stormed through his The History of Sex exhibition in Lund, Sweden and smashed up some of the work with axes and crobars. They even posted a video of the incident on You Tube, with a soundtrack of thundering death metal music.

The work they were responding to is sexually explicit, including the image of a nude woman stroking a stallion's erection. But although Serrano said he was "shocked and horrified" by the incident, he seems to have taken it in stride. It does not seem to have diminished his audacity or his ambition. From the Voice interview:
My ego as an artist says I can make anything look good, even shit. The show is also very basic—in a way, what I'm saying is that we all think we have the best shit. If you want to see some real shit, check out my shit!" he says, beaming. "I got the best shit in town.
Andres Serrano: Shit at Yvon Lambert, 550 West 21st Street. Opening September 4, 2008, 6-8 pm. Book signing on September 5, 3-5 pm. Running through October 4. A moving experience or just the same old shit?

P.S. Gilbert and George also photographed shit and used it in their photo collages, e.g. SHITTY NAKED HUMAN WORLD (1994), A quadripartite picture, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

and also in their NAKED SHIT PICTURES (1995). Watch the commentator stroll behind the turd and then lean against it. I'd call that interactivity!

Poop and Circumstance

Having now seen the show in NY, there were definite attempts at religiosity and grandeur, of poop and circumstance. Nary a white wall in evidence. In the main room, painted dark, there were 18 large photographs installed, of identical size and framing, and evenly spaced, with the somber intent of a mausoleum. (I was expecting all 66 images from the book. Apparently the others will be on display next week in Paris.) And all alone in a separate room where all the walls were painted dark red was Piss Christ. The gallery, and Serrano, wanted to clearly enunciate his aesthetic progression from number one to number two.