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By marywp

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.

Olafur Eliasson. Your Waste of Time. 2013. Installation view of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Olafur Eliasson. Your Waste of Time. 2013. Installation view of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

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, 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.

Paul Kos, "The Sound of Ice Melting," 1970/2011, mixed media; - See more at:

Paul Kos, “The Sound of Ice Melting,” 1970/2011, mixed media.

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