home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

how to read contemporary art

22 august 2013

If one were to generalize about the extensive survey of 21st-century art in Michael Wilson's How to Read Contemporary Art, the keynote might be transience. Few of the artworks that Wilson discusses are durable things that can be transported from place to place while maintaining a stable identity (like traditional paintings or sculptures). Even the many textual works that Wilson includes – films and video installations of various kinds – are heavily enmeshed in the contexts of their exhibition: they're not the kinds of stuff you can just pop into your DVD players and enjoy at home.

One of the artists that Wilson includes, Tino Sehgal, refuses to allow photographic reproductions of his site-specific, performance-based, ephemeral installations (331). Wilson is still free to use words to describe them; but since they don't exist anymore and can't be depicted, where are they, exactly? And what does it mean to produce art that insists on disappearing?

Of course, much art has always been intended for disappearance: storytelling, live music, ritual, decoration, sand and chalk and body painting, and especially theater, which must be continually recreated (or alternatively, simply vanishes), and loses much in text or recording, even on film. The piece that Wilson discusses by Sehgal, "This Progress," consisted of four people standing around in the Guggenheim Museum asking patrons questions. I'm not sure that would make much sense even if you photographed it.

I was lucky enough to experience two of Wilson's selections in New York in recent years, before they disappeared. (I missed I don't know how many more, just from ignorance or inertia.) In 2007, Urs Fischer took Gavin Brown's Enterprise in Greenwich Village, knocked through the floor of its exhibition space, and dug a hole in the ground (which he seems to have called "You," though I don't remember that part). Not a very neat hole, either. Visitors were invited to walk around on the narrow bits of floor that still clung to the walls, and look down into the hole, which was full of debris. It occurred to everyone who saw Fischer's installation that you could get pretty much the same experience by walking past any construction site in Lower Manhattan. But context is everything. New York galleries are proud of their glistening concrete floors. Fischer's point may have been, yeah, right, but look what's a few inches below that. Of course, the underplayed title "You" may have made the additional point that you're a huge hole. Much of the art discussed in Wilson's book sends a big old Fuck You to its audience, and not even a very playful one, at that.

More pleasant was Stephen Vitiello's 2010 installation "A Bell for Every Minute" on the High Line. Wilson:

every sixty seconds, overhead speakers would broadcast the sound of a different bell recorded somewhere in or close to the city. … Many passers-by will have missed, ignored or disregarded Vitiello's installation, but those who arrived at the right time and paused to listen will have found their awareness of the immediate environment unexpectedly enhanced. (364)
One element of "A Bell for Every Minute" that I remember well was a somewhat corny map of the type you find in museums, keying the sound of each minute's bell to the place where it was recorded. One must always be braced for irony in contemporary art, and I'm not sure if the map was ironic or not. (Sarcasm-detector of the beholder, I guess.) The bells that rang each minute (and rang again in a kind of symphony at the top of the hour) were not all that great as recordings; their status as simulacra was underlined by the difficulty (as Wilson mentions) of making them audible outdoors in noisy Manhattan. It was the kind of art that has to fight for attention, and not very aggressively, and it was a disarming experience.

Much of the art that I was attracted to in How to Read Contemporary Art is disarming, but in a creepy way. Englishman George Shaw's paintings of stuff like chain-link fences ("The Next Big Thing," 2010) and rows of garages ("Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002") have an unsettling quality – somewhere between George Inness and Edward Hopper, two of my favorite American masters – and a kind of imagination, both documentary and transformative, that I find appealing as it unsettles. Along similar lines, Mike Nelson's "A Psychic Vacuum," one of the installations that I missed in 2007 in New York, was a creepy, pointless, purpose-built place within a place in a Lower East Side building, meant to suggest various forms of loneliness and degradation, as if there weren't enough real loneliness and degradation on the Lower East Side. (And by 2007, the degradation quotient of the LES had dropped so low that one imagines artists being commissioned to restore and preserve it in hipster spaces.)

Doris Salcedo and Hans Op de Beeck also construct new temporary spaces within the fabric of cities. Op de Beeck's "Location" series are dreamlike (and dreamily, badly, lit) human locations, inexplicably purposed and eclectically constructed. They are apparently mounted in museums, but Salcedo's work attaches itself to the street scene. In 2003 she filled a lot between two Istanbul buildings with straight wooden chairs. (It looks like one good tremor would have sent a ton of chairs cascading down onto pedestrians, though one supposes there were safeguards. One hopes.) Salcedo has a chair thing. In 2002 she had hung similar chairs all over the Palace of Justice in her native Bogotá.

But these are just tiny threads from Wilson's tapestry. (Which includes some literal tapestries, like Gabriel Kuri's famous and remarkable renderings of receipts from stores, which elaborately preserve the most ephemeral of utilitarian objects in one of the most durable of media.) A fair percentage of the art here is neither creepy nor formally outré. Mary Heilmann's paintings are Op-y in their exuberance, full of ice-cream-parlor colors. An-My Lê works in the idiom of journalistic photography. She achieves effects, particularly with her studies of military people and materiel, that are both like and startlingly unlike the documentation of 20th century warfare in photographs.

There are collages and sculptures here, films and performances, – but also "happenings" and improvisations. Bus tours are art; audio-guided city walks are art; meetings to talk about art are art. Probably the most heavily represented 21st-century artform in Wilson's book is the video installation. I suppose everybody dislikes at least one current genre; I dislike video installations. You enter an uncomfortable room, and several short films of an abstraction that would numb the most aesthetically-minded arthouse patron are playing at the same time, in asynchronous loops, on walls and objects and sometimes on you as you walk past them. Most video installations are relentlessly humorless and frenetically offputting. (So, for that matter, are a lot of sculptures and paintings and static installations; but oddly enough, the ability to walk around and look at static stuff from different angles activates the viewer and enables thinking; watching some irritating short films usually just makes you want to change the channel and see if there's football on. I imagine that would be true even of Harun Farocki's "Deep Play" (2007), a 12-channel installation of different angles on a soccer match.)

Nothing in the prolific descriptions of video installations here in How to Read Contemporary Art makes me want to go see any of them. Though there are certainly some Fuck Yous in the bunch. Andrea Fraser's "Untitled" (2003) is literally so. An anonymous collector paid her $20,000 to appear in a video where she fucks him. I haven't seen "Untitled," which is presumably not opening soon at a multiplex near me, but the concept alone is provocative, quite apart from the content. Patrons used to get themselves included in Old Master frescoes and triptyches; now they can play a leading role in their protegées' video installations. What do they get for their money? Not the value derived from keeping the artwork, which is public anyway, nor lasting fame either, except as a kind of increasingly anonymous footnote to the creator. But many contemporary performance works (like those of the much-imitated Maria Abramović) depend on giving the audience immediate access to the artist. Fraser simply let her audience go all the way.

Wilson, Michael. How to Read Contemporary Art: Experiencing the art of the 21st century. New York: Abrams, 2013.