Nostalgic for a Purpose: Failure and EXPO 1 At MoMA PS1
On 21, Sep 2013 | In Uncategorized | By marywp
In 1971 John Baldessari swore he would “not make any more boring art,” stating in his trademark dry wit the unprofessed goal for “contemporary art” since at least, the mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, most of the art being produced today fails here, erring in its very eagerness to be “cutting edge.” Although art has been perennially recycling end-game anxieties since the existential crisis of the post-war years, perhaps never before has art (or life) been so directionless. Our response to having reached this a zenith-less end is not one of existential despair, but disinterested, futile whining.
As opposed to working towards solutions or finding an expression of this wall, the second decade of the new millennium has developed an increasingly debilitating case of nostalgia.[i] New Museum curator Lauren Conrad articulated the question of how to move forward “when we are all so obsessed with the past.”[ii] Our nostalgia for time past is evident in our eagerness to historicize periods still in the living memory of our college students—The New Museum’s NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star being a case in point. This exhibition did more than separate that moment of heightened political awareness in art, when art made headlines around NEA battles and identity politics, and created a marked awareness the changes in the art world within twenty years.[iii] Art makes news now not for its social relevance but rather in instances of orchestrated spectacle, the Los Angeles County Museum’s transportation of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass over 105 miles of urban boulevards and the encyclopedic 51st Venice Biennale come to mind.
The reality is, that in the past decade there has been little in art, in contemporary culture to historicize, to recognize has being important in the grand scheme of history without directly appropriating art of the past.[iv] Conversations can only occur through historical metaphor, we require this veil of history to legitimize issues and images.[v] This obsession with the past acts as a guise for a shameful reality. In the very face of rapidly advancing technologies and the potential for the realization of social goals, we have come to terms with the realities of repeated failure.[vi] Since the mid-1990’s the ideals of artist activism have been de-constructed and re-visited for a non-utopian world, but since 2008, this “f-word” is no longer suggested or re-considered, it is a harsh and inescapable reality.
Failure in 2013 is perhaps most apparent in our failure to define ourselves, to create a narrative, support a cause, or certainly succeed in bringing it to fruition. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the interface for excessing art has consistently broken down from a critical forum to a vacuous cave of spectacle. Curator Paco Barragán has articulated how the art fair has replaced the exhibition, or more recently the biennale, as the venue through which contemporary art enters public discourse. Yet in the face of a near-universal expression of ennui towards the increasingly over-the-top fairs which keep artists, gallerists and curators hoping from one expensive international economic center to another, a new model has yet to serious challenge this model.[vii] Exhibitions, have, overall, remained happily buried in the past. Reasons for this are two-fold; one, the exhibition relies in large part on the institution as its host. The art institution, especially the most traditional form of the museum, has resisted revising the practice of exhibition production, display and subject matter. By repeating a tested formula, the museum of modern and contemporary art repeatedly limits itself to art that can operate within these constraints, the result being art that is increasingly historical in nature. Artists whose work has received critical and public attention in the past decade have done so almost entirely without being featured in a major museum exhibition (other than a biennial) or having been granted a solo show. Abraham Cruzvillegas, Maurizio Cattelan, Ai Wei Wei comply with the expectation of larger, more shocking projects only available for the week-long run of an art fair. This accepted temporality is far removed from the attitude with which artists in the 1970s approached their work with natural materials; Land artists world wide saw in the geological features potential for experimentation beyond the traditionally defined media of, for example, painting or sculpture, in addition to providing a space where one could work unhindered by the expectation of a saleable object.[viii] We should not be surprised that the earthworks’ ancestors at biennials and art fairs act as sites of spectacle, drawing the hovering crowds ever closer to the gallerists’ stalls.
It is not only Land Art that has manifested into a parody of its original potential. In an opinion piece published on Hyperallergic.com, artist and writer Thomas Micchell mused on a recent example of Maya Lin sculpture revealed more about her inability to live up to her introductory success than an evolved practice.[ix] Any potential for art to activate significant change has been institutionally recognized as a fantasy, deconstructed and historicized as an erred judgment of times past. In the last decade, artists approach activism half-heartedly, Olafur Eliasson’s Waste of Your Time (2013), a dramatic installation at MoMA PS1 consists of blocks of 800-year-old glacial ice, cut from a Greenland ice floe and maintained in a frigid gallery in the converted schoolhouse. As Ken Johnson suggested, in his review of the exhibition in the New York Times, the significant resources expended to maintain the piece over the duration of a muggy New York summer undermine any of its power as a well-versed reminder of earth’s fragility. Eliasson’s title suggests an awareness of his action’s futility, and likewise society’s doomed attempts to intervene into global climate change.[x] Comparatively, Paul Kos’ installation of a 25-block of ice in The Sound of Ice Melting in the State of Mind exhibition concurrently at the Bronx Museum of Art, underscored the temporality of the medium, in keeping with the impermanent, bare-bones original exhibitions of west-coast conceptual artists in the early 1970s.[xi] Decades before the national discourse on global warming, Kos’ work has stood the proverbial test of time even in the face of its ticking time clock—the work can only exist as long as the ice is in the state of melting.[xii] Eliasson’s work refuses an honest personal experience—like much of the work being produced by the top artists who define the significant practices of the past decade, its drama and scale comes at the cost of distancing the viewer/visitor. The spectacle replaces that cognitive moment of realization. Preserved potentially for months, years, or even centuries or millennia (if we are to take the glacier’s age as in indicator of its resilience) in its frigid tomb, the work bespeaks not to the fragility and ephemerality of our planet but rather repeats an all-too familiar scenario—the specimen of nature preserved and displayed by humankind, and the unchanging constancy of our present condition.
This reliability is inseparable from the feeling of boredom that permeates contemporary culture. Our expectation that the earth, the glaciers will always be there even in the face of evidence that suggests otherwise, that the ice at PS1 will remain unchanged (if abet slightly soiled by the hands of iPhone camera wielding visitors). In the face of repeated threats to our security and way of life, somehow we never quite believe the apocalypse is near, the unfounded fears of the Y2K scare initiated the practice of the use of fear propaganda and then the ultimate let down when reality did not live up to its dramatic prophesies. Over the past year alone, the United States as a nation aptly avoided a sequence of grazes with financial disaster, each hyped to the potential of the total annihilation of life as we know it and each resulting in nothing more than a late night on capital hill and the suggestion of future taxes increases. The endless cycle of fake panic and release can only be repeated so many times before itself becomes a rehearsed routine.
Acute boredom is a result of the “ghost in the machine” state of being birthed from the industrial revolution. Conflicted with the societally re-enforced goal of increased leisure time and the un-purposed time created by a minimization of working hours, the nineteenth century working class were introduced to states of being formerly suffered only by the ruling classes.[xiii] The sensations of having “nothing to do” initiated, among other things, the practice of tourist photography and the wide-spread popularity of publications such as National Geographic Magazine, expanding the minds and the possibilities for the first of a generation of armchair travelers. The level of mediation incurred by experiencing the world through a series of images from the relative safety and comfort of one’s home creates a direct precedent for the passive ingestion of thousands of images and bits of information scrolling downward on computer screens and electronic devices.
It should not be surprising that within this cyclical cycle of ennui that no single artist has emerged with a truly challenging voice. Duchamp’s ironic genius defined the onset of Conceptualism, yet appropriately there has been no parallel figure of our current time, no artist has stepped forward to seriously challenge the laws of the art world, those that do rely on historical tropes of Institutional Critique or attempt to negotiate a mediation between conceptualism and a re-focused attention to aesthetics, beauty another outmoded stylistic language.
An awareness of the mundane nature of contemporary experience has been an intrinsic aspect of artists’ work since the early 1960s, forming a foundation for the criticality associated with Pop art.[xiv] In these first decades the mass-produced aesthetic of the American supermarket culture became the avant-garde in that it provided a new visual language for art—one that had yet to be used. An acceptance, even an embracing of the everyday, pedestrian and inconsequential moments marked the work of early Conceptual artists, such as William Wegman and Yvonne Rainer’s practices, challenged the status of their media by an inclusion of the most mundane and dry actions as art. Although Fountain relied entirely on the apparent indistinguishably between art and the mass-produced object, highlighting, among other things, a aspect of intrinsic sameness to all objects. Yet honest surprise, the a psychological response upon which Duchamp relied in order to enact what were the first works of Conceptual art almost a century ago, is an emotion too often enacted through emoticons to hold any aspect of honesty.[xv] Klaus Biesenbach’s EXPO 1 at once challenges and underscores this aspect of experience, from Meg Webster’s Pool (1998-2013) to Random International’s Rain Room (2013), it tries to challenge expectations of the museum exhibition experience and increase the level of participatory engagement. The experience of the exhibition relies more on the immersive installations of Art Basel, Documenta or biennales. Like the tiresome routines experienced at these international art fairs, the wonderment implied is suppressed, the rain, trapped in the dark room in midtown seems removed from the joyful spontaneity of getting caught in an natural rainstorm (unrealistic expectations built up after hour 8-hour-long wait times do not aid in detaching the experience from spectacle). Formally striking, the work as a whole carries a sobering message of the futility. Adrián Villar Rojas’s La inocencia de los animales (The Innocence of Animals) monolithic installation at once ancient and futuristic imagines a pre/post human world, but instead of machines, or the utopias of an advance society, the work is presented in the visual language a civilization in ruins. The massive of forms of concrete and clay, instead of inspiring, as do the sites of Mediterranean antiquity act as a macabre indication of the ultimate fate of our own ways of life and a reminder of our inability to surpass the achievements of the ancients.
While ready to recognize the limits of Institutional Critique (and eager to historicize the movement), the art world has little to show for its history of forwarding activism. Repeatedly, the history of the art world over the past 20 years reads as a series of potentialities never fully acted upon and the slow realization that nothing had inherently changed for the better. The Internet has provided the art world with the extra-institutional structure it had sought, only, once gained it has lost its desirability. The potential attainment of this kind of liberation has been recognized by a comparative few, including Eva and Franco Mattes/ Darko Maver.[xvi] For more common are signs of nostalgia for the old days of aesthetic censorship by the museum and gallery system.[xvii] Museums’ reluctance to reformat their operations on an unlimited digital model, although frustrating cannot be entirely surprising; museums have historically traditional and stalwartly represented resistance to change. It is the attitude of artists, who have adapted to work within the format of the grandiose art fair and biennale (the 55th Venice Biennale and Art Basel 2013, in addition to showing many of the same artists have been compared in their size, scope and grandiose construction. Massimiliano Gioni’s “Encyclopedic Palace” theme for the Venice Biennale, outside of reviving the historical wunderkammen origins of the museum itself, seems to attempt to achieve it all, encapsulating the universe within the collection/exhibition, grossly overcomplicating for, as opposed to coming to terms with human limitations and failures.
The conundrum of this inescapable cycle of failure is that it a successful meditation on our times, must, if it is to accurately reflect its subject is impossible. This paradox results in exhibition that “attempt” “try” and “suggest” but remain outside the limits of achieving is a unique paradox. A strange type of insecurity is bred—are the exhibitions and art we critique succeeding in ways we fail to recognized, i.e. are we simply projecting our own failures on the art world as a whole? A situation where success in defining the zeitgeist must ultimately reflect its failure, an exhibition of an artwork, if it was to function within contemporary society would not accurately function for its viewers if it provided a overly melodramatic, political or aesthetic argument. This conundrum is often avoided as separate from the constant of historical retrospectives, revisionist histories and re-installations, exhibitions of solely contemporary work rarely exist. Museums, even galleries feel far more comfortable hosting retrospectives and re-writing historical narratives than developing programing to interrogate unique issues of the current age.
The first season of Mad Men ends with Don Draper making the now famous pitch for the Kodak Carousel—an object significantly antiquated in the face of the digital camera and the myriad of photo sharing systems. His professionally brilliant move to inject a rare moment of personal sentiment to his work resonates with Kodak—and the with television viewer. Audiences have projected themselves onto another layer to of the pitch, the projection screen (re-purposed with Netflix screenings), like the record turntable and the Instagram vintage-feel photo filters provide a delightfully pre-technological touch to our lives. The Draper character, itself a layered metaphor of contemporary identity through the lens of the 1960s can succeeds in examining the 2010’s, often bringing to the fore the brutal social stagnation since the period depicted in the fictional show.
In 1940, Walter Benjamin in the face of the threatening rise of National Socialism in Germany penned On the Concept of History, a series of paragraphs that express some of the writers most poetic musings on his contemporary society. Benjamin’s study of Paul Klee’s whimsical Angelus Novus is a reading of the figure as the “angel of history” face “turned towards the past,” a “storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” In 2009, Feedforward: The Angel of History was presented at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón, Spain. The exhibition, conceived as a series of workshops and organized into themes on the legacy of the 20th century and the global political and social forces that drives us forward. This helplessness, this inability to face forward into the future and see anything other than the failure and horrors of times past has not changed. This past spring, Jean Baurillard’s The Angel of History at the Palais des Beaux-Arts examines the nature of ruin and debris.[xviii] Like the ever-growing mound debris accumulating by Benjamin’s the storm of progress, Baudrillard confirms that we, cannot see a hopeful future beyond our present state. Denied our utopias, one can do nothing but look to the past and try to find value in its ruins even as they remind us of our failures.
[i] I refer to Fydor Dostoevsky’s analogy of the wall as that which subdues without further attempt the common man. Notes from Underground, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2009).
[ii] Kevin McGarry “Timely: Avant Guardian,” New York Times Magazine Culture section. October 4, 2012. http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/04/timely-avant-guardian/?ref=t-magazine&_r=0
[iii] The 1993 Whitney Biennial headed by freshman museum director David Ross divided the art world—at once “the biennial with a conscious” and a display of “non-art” the exhibition, from a contemporary perspective is striking in its impact on the larger community outside the close-knit art world. See Roberta Smith “At the Whitney, A Biennial with a Social Conscious,” The New York Times March 5, 1993; Arthur C. Danto “The 1992 Whitney Biennial” The Nation Art Section, April 19, 1993.
[iv] Although there is nothing inherently wrong with quoting, selecting, dialoguing with historical images, the practice of doing so solely limits the potential of any give artist. My point here is that artists must refer to the past in order to accurately provide an glimpse into the Zeitgest of the work’s creation.
[v] The popularity of the TV series Mad Men, and trend in home furnishings, fashion and even digital phenomenon such as Instagram photo filters are some of the more obvious examples of popular culture’s fascination with times past.
[vi] Thomas Mitcchell articulated a recognition of this sense of societal failure in his Single Point Perspective opinion column on Hyperallergic.com. See Thomas Mitcchell, “Single Ponte Perspective: Entropy Now,” Hyperallergic. July 6, 2013. http://hyperallergic.com/74882/single-point-perspective-entropy-now/ (accessed July 6, 2013).
[vii] Paco Barragán, The Art Fair Age; Pamela M. Lee Forgetting the Art World (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press 2012), 8-17.
[viii] Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 organized by Phillip Kaiser and Miwon Kwon for MOCA, Los Angeles provides an ideal comparison to the “crowd-pleasing” goals of many more contemporary temporary interventions. That Ends of the Earth was one of the few scholarly exhibitions presented by MOCA since 2010, the strength of its thesis and the continued importance and power of the work it contextualized provides another sobering example of the inability of contemporary work to live up to the idealism and the intelligence of the past.
[ix] Mitcchell, “Single Ponte Perspective: Entropy Now”
[x] Kos’ work was originally exhibited at the Museum of Conceptual Art, San Francisco for the exhibition Sound Sculptures (1970). It is unclear if the original ice blocks were replaced as needed in San Francisco.
[xi] State of Mind: California Conceptualism circa 1970, a Getty-funded exhibition was originally presented in 2011 at the Orange County Museum of Art as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative.
[xii] Museum staff do replace the ice upon its liquidation in State of Mind.
[xiii] Patricia Meyer Spacks has established that the workd “boredom” only entered English vernacular in the mid-nineteenth century. See Boredom(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). On the value of leisure time see Michel Foucault Of Other Spaces on leisure time as an incentive applied towards the lower classes in nineteenth-century Britain.
[xiv] Jasper John’s application of a quotian symbolic language, (flags, numbers, house paint) marked the tuning point in
[xv] Arthur Danto has recently re-affirmed Duchamp’s status as the first Conceptual artist, see What is Art. For Danto, Duchamp’s ready-made was the first work to successfully detach art entirely from the discourse of aesthetics, forcing, instead a new definition with which we are still grappling to fully articulate today.
[xvii] Boris Groys described this “nostalgia” in his essay “Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive,” e-flux 45 May 2013
[xviii] The Angel of History April 25-July 7, 2013. Press release http://palaisdesbeauxarts-en.tumblr.com