Ten memorable art-related moments of 2010, in no particular order:
10. Best animal weirdness: William Pope.L, Small Cup, 2008, Video, 12:52 minutes, included in the 2010 DeCordova Biennial
Filmed in one of the old textile mills that dominate the central Maine city of Lewiston, where the artist teaches in Bates College’s Department of Theater and Rhetoric, Small Cup is a layered commentary on architectural symbols of power. Set in the center of the cavernous mill is a small-scale Italianate cupola (a “small cup”) that is gradually overtaken by a group of curious goats and chickens, who feed, lay and crush eggs, and defecate inside it, butting and scratching until the dome falls. Score one for the animal house – carnivalesque, disturbing and triumphant.
9. Simplest expression of a complex thought (or vice versa): Bruce Nauman, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), 1968, in the 2010 apexArt exhibition You Can’t Get There from Here but You Can Get Here from There, curated by Courtenay Finn
Nauman’s laborious and exaggerated walk, shot with a fixed camera on its side over the course of an hour, embodies the eccentricities of Samuel Beckett’s Watt. Awkward, exhausting, and ultimately mesmerizing, Slow Angle Walk perfectly illustrated the paradoxical complexity of this exhibition’s theme: the relationship between reader and text, the fictional and the real.
8. And on a similar note…Fred Sandback. I’m a sucker for Minimalism, so I’ve been happy to find him everywhere all of a sudden. ColorForms, at the Hirshhorn Museum last spring; prints and drawings in the Worcester Art Museum’s Minimalism: Logic and Structure, and the recently-opened Fred Sandback: Sculpture and Works on Paper at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. With nothing more than stretched lengths of yarn or spare, ruled lines, Sandback managed to convey form, alter space, and shift perception.
The territory of art that responds to, comments on, and intervenes in the art market is vast. There are a range of practices in contemporary art that involve currency as a literal medium (collage, sculpture, public performance, altered banknotes), but here I’m narrowing the field to consider a few individuals and local communities who create alternative currencies with the intent to circulate them as a medium of exchange.
Artists have long been interested in currency design and reproduction, both as a technical challenge and as socioeconomic experiment. In the 19th century, American trompe l’oeil masters like John Haberle (1856–1933) and William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) painted depictions of U.S. currency to demonstrate their talents as photorealists. So successful at their craft, both were issued cease-and-desist orders by the Secret Service, who feared their next step would be counterfeiting. (It wasn’t, and they didn’t.) Marcel Duchamp, ever interested in authenticity and the value of ideas, created his first hand-drawn check in 1919 to pay his dentist, Daniel Tzanck. The “Tzanck Check” displays all the markers of a legitimate check, drawn by Duchamp to imitate official printing: the unique check number, the “Pay to the Order of” line, etc. Across the middle in red is the word “ORIGINAL,” which plays on the authenticity of the check as a legal promissory note but also speaks to this check’s status as a unique art object, signed by the artist. Art historian Katy Siegel notes in Art Works: Money (2004) that the signature is both the “ultimate proof of identity” and “a promise to pay — the essence of credit. The signature…assures the buyer that the aesthetic and social value created by the artist is contained within it.” Therein lay the Tzanck Check’s “real” worth. Years later, the story goes, Duchamp bought the check back from his dentist for a sum much greater than it’s face value of $115.
A similar relationship between market value and face value is played out in the work of J.S.G. Boggs (b. 1955), perhaps the most well-known “money artist,” who has been hand-drawing and spending his unique Boggs Notes since 1984. Like the trompe l’oeil painters before him, Boggs’s work is so convincing in detail that he has been threatened by the Secret Service for counterfeiting (he has been arrested in England and Australia), although his bills are typically illustrated only on one side, with his signature and thumbprint on the reverse. Each financial transaction is a unique performance; Boggs pays for goods and/or services with the face value of his bill, asking for any change in legal U.S. currency. He then sells that change, as well as information regarding the location of the Boggs Note, to collectors, who in turn enter into their own negotiation of value — generally paying many times the denomination. (The $100,000 notes shown above are used to pay his lawyers.)
Many thanks to all of you who commented on my posts last week, particularly “On teaching art to scientists,” which seems to have resonated strongly with Art21 and PBS readers. One of my lesson plans surveys contemporary mapmaking, a subject that fascinates artists, scientists, and wanderers alike.
In One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, art historian Miwon Kwon traces how site-specific art practices have, over time, revealed “site” to be an unfixed concept. Rather than a synonym for a particular geographic location, a site can be temporary, nomadic, virtual, and ultimately discursive, existing in and as dialogue. “…the increasing instances of locational unspecificity,” Kwon writes, “are seen to exacerbate the sense of alienation and fragmentation in contemporary life.” With site in flux, the very idea of community itself is elusive.
If we can’t define where we come from, then who are we? A response to contemporary life “as a network of unanchored flows” can be located in the explosion of cartographic practices in contemporary art over the last fifteen years. A partial list includes artists physically altering existing maps in order to point out their fragility as constructions (Nina Katchadourian, Shannon Rankin, Miguel Angel Rios), re-imagining “real” territories or creating new ones, to question cartographic authority (Lordy Rodriguez, Ross Racine, Bill Rankin), plotting experiences and memories both collaborative and individual (Liz Kueneke, Denis Wood, Simon Evans). Accordingly, there have also been scores of map-related art exhibitions, which are themselves attempts to map the maps, and so on into infinite regress (check The Map Room for a comprehensive list of map-related activities).
At the conclusion of One Place After Another, Kwon recounts the plot of Valparaiso, the play by Don DeLillo in which the protagonist Michael Majeski leaves on a business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, and accidentally winds up in Valparaiso, Chile. As the play unfolds, we understand that Majeski’s mis-adventure parallels his sense of identity – he is both literally and figuratively lost. When he returns home to find himself a newly-minted celebrity, he reconstructs his trip and, by extension, his sense of self, via a series of media interviews. Majeski’s journey, Kwon suggests, allows us to see how arriving at the “wrong” destination can lead us to new self-discoveries. The process of getting “lost” can be disorienting but ultimately liberating and, one hopes, rewarding.
This July, I’ll be teaching a course I developed on the intersections of contemporary art and science, for Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). My students are advanced high schoolers, attending two-week courses on physics, robotics, aerospace engineering, and biology, among other lab sciences. Many of them have had no academic art experience. We begin the first day by discussing where the boundaries might be between the two disciplines, listing responses to “what do scientists do?” and “what do artists do?” Experiment, create, observe, invent, analyze – they quickly realize that there are many overlaps, but no clear divisions.
Mark Dion noted in Art:21 Season 4 that humor, irony, and metaphor are tools artists have that scientists don’t. Or, as a recent New York Times review of the exhibition Dead or Alive at the Museum of Arts and Design (New York), put it – “artists are allowed to make stuff up and scientists really shouldn’t.” Is truth, then, the burden of scientists? This has been fertile ground for contemporary artists like Dion, Walton Ford, Alexis Rockman, and Walmor Correa, among many others. Their work challenges both the authoritative scientific voice and the structure of its presentation.
I’m interested in raising this question here, as I do in my classroom, because it continues to be a point of debate in the academic community, as it relates to practicing and teaching the two disciplines. Over and over again in current discussions about education, an interdisciplinary approach is stressed, and the Renaissance is held up as the ideal academic environment, a time when intellectual pursuits were not as narrowly defined. Leonardo had it made, we’re led to believe, because he could work fluidly between what we now know as art and science.
One of my ongoing curatorial interests has been the relationship between perception and subject formation — how does what we perceive say about who we are, and vice versa? How do we act on this information? What is an artist’s role in making us aware of this process? How does an artwork’s site or location contribute to our perception and understanding?
These questions came to mind on a recent trip to the Hirshhorn Museum in DC (I’ll review the ColorForms exhibition in an upcoming post), where I saw Dan Graham’s For Gordon Bunshaft (2008) commissioned for the sculpture garden opposite the museum. One of the artist’s signature “pavilions,” it honors Hirshhorn architect Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990), whose other notable achievements include Yale’s Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (1963).
Graham’s sculpture references Bunshaft’s brutalist structure specifically, as well as modernism and architecture in general, in several ways. The wooden lattice wall corresponds to the Hirshhorn’s interior courtyard windows (above); to the modernist grid employed by Sol Lewitt and other Minimalists; and to Japanese architecture. The two-way mirror glass and steel frame comprising the other sides of the triangle are materials of corporate architecture which, Graham has noted, are often used “to control a person or group’s social reality” in public spaces like airports or hospitals. (The sliding glass door does have the heft and feel of walking into a lobby.) Other references are more subtle — through a podcast talk with Hirshhorn curatorial assistant Al Miner, I learned that the common slate floor inside alludes to the backyard patios that were ubiquitous in suburban New Jersey, where Graham was raised. I didn’t notice this material on my visit, but it closes the loop on the play of opposites common to much of Graham’s work – urban/suburban, corporate/domestic, interior/exterior.