Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Holzer and hucksters in Cincinnati

Once every year I go through Cincinnati on the way some place else and stop to look at what’s on offer at the Contemporary Arts Center. Zaha Hadid’s building has been written up a lot, so there’s no reason to go on about it here. A Piranesian staircase that angles through the space in tall lobby is fun, but the exhibits always feel shoehorned into the galleries. The building is on a small lot, so that’s probably inevitable. It also has very cool urinals that look like squared-off metal buckets.

The current exhibit, Multiple Strategies, includes about what you would expect based on the name: “mass-produced, mass-distributed, or editioned objects that did not fall into pre-existing categories such as painting, drawing, sculpture, or installation.” The best thing about the show is that they put it all under the guiding spirit of Joseph Beuys – the first thing you see is a felt suit he made in a run of 100. It seems to me the more obvious alternative would have been Duchamp, who is represented in the show, but hanging it all around Beuys puts the emphasis on art-making as a social action beyond isolated aestheticism. The exhibit has tons of material from collectives: Coum, Fluxus, Destroy all Monsters, General Idea.

<>Tons of material gets at a key point. The CAC’s curatorial style seems to favor an overwhelming abundance of material. The cases are filled with lots of small, fascinating objects. There’s a whole section of boxes filled with pamplets, prints, and objects, objects are tucked under the display cases, and one case is stacked with books. A couple of last year’s shows were like this too – one on art and politics in the 1980s and another on Street Art. Sure, I’m always trying to fit in a visit on my way some place else, but all that little stuff would be hard to work through even if I was devoting the afternoon to it. I’m not actually criticizing this aspect of the exhibit design – it would be completely out of character to treat all the ‘zines and record/CD covers from last year’s Street Art show as isolated, precious artifacts. They were designed in a prolific way. No, I’m not sure you could show it any other way. It just seems to be a signature for this museum.

One detail from a Jenny Holzer piece made my day. In a case with all sorts of items (e.g., pencils, condoms) printed with phrases there was this set of peel and stick labels. One of the phrases was “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” Stendahl said beauty is the promise of happiness. I think that the need to create a vision of something-other as a path to happiness in the face of a culture and society that are quite oppressive to one’s humanity is the basis for value in so much contemporary art that is confrontational and harsh. A sign at the Halliburton protests in Houston Tuesday read “A better world is possible.” This conviction was the source of wide optimism in the 60s. Holzer’s printed words cut a few different ways, but it’s hard not to take them in part at face value.

<>The other show up at the CAC is a solo exhibit from Erwin Wurm. One of his bits is to get people to pose and become “one minute sculptures” which he records in photos. In the CAC there were two stations where gallery goers could participate in this process: there’s a platform with a prop (clothes) lying on it, and instructions drawn on the platform showing how to pose with the prop (Wurm is the sculptor after all). There was a Polaroid camera in the gallery and the gallery attendant would take your picture. It was suggested you donate one buck for this, but it also gave you an address for Wurm in Austria (I think). If you send him the picture and $100, he’ll sign it and send it back to you and then you will have a Wurm original! Although it seems more like it would be a Wurm autograph, which might or might not be worth $100 to you. The procedure takes the idea that authenticity in art involves some proof (the signature or other provenance) that the famous artist touched the work, and reduces it to something very close to a con, like mail order diplomas or religious ordination. Every artist verges on the huckster part of the time, talking people into believing something has value.


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