Concluding my guest blogging residency at Art 21, where I’ve looked at the processes of artists who both produce significant bodies of work without a team of studio assistants, and dedicate themselves completely to their artistic visions, performance artist Martha Wilson not only concerns herself with the creation of her own work, but also the preservation and support of other avant-garde artists, as the founding director of the not-for-profit alternative space and organization, Franklin Furnace.
More widely recognized through her work with Franklin Furnace, Martha Wilson’s art has steadfastly focused on women’s subjectivity and the performance of gender. From early photo-text pieces, where Wilson dressed as a man who is impersonating a woman, to her performances as First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, to her most recent works, in which Wilson revisited the framework of her early photo-texts to investigate the role of a woman over 60, Wilson stands as an artist whose strong and humorous voice has endured and remained current through many waves of feminism. With 2011′s I Have Become My Own Worst Fear, her first exhibition as an artist represented by a commercial gallery (PPOW Gallery), and a recently-published monograph, The Martha Wilson Sourcebook, Wilson’s art is currently receiving the critical attention it deserves.
I spoke to Martha Wilson at the Franklin Furnace office in Brooklyn about the evolution of her art, her relationship to feminism, absurdity in art, and the Culture Wars.
Emily Colucci: For these past two weeks on the Art21 Blog, I’ve been focusing on artists who I find inspiring both in their refusal to use a team of assistants to create their large bodies of work, and their unquestionable devotion to their art–as with your work, both as an artist and as the founding director of Franklin Furnace, the not-for-profit organization concerned with the support and preservation of avant-garde art. What is your artistic process?
Martha Wilson: A year ago, I was invited to join the PPOW gallery and as part of that process, Jamie Sterns, who was the director at that time, wanted a photograph of my studio, which set me back because I don’t have a studio. So instead, I took a picture of my desk. That’s where all the magic happens, where I sit and think.
An alarming number of Americans are taken by the notion that all past and present leaders of their Executive Branch converge and coexist in a state of simultaneity on a mysterious plane of existence decorated in the neo-classical style. I kind of believe it too. I call it The Hall of Presidents Syndrome.
The Hall of Presidents is a feature of Disneyworld wherein animatronic approximations of all 44 American Presidents are presented to an audience in a kind of civic religious ceremony. Within the Hall of Presidents, matters of grave importance are perpetually being discussed, historic speeches both eloquent and pithy are continually paraphrased, and the Union is forever validated and supported. The physical presence of these Presidential avatars tricks the minds of Americans into thinking that these men would be able to get along reasonably, and that the Americas they inhabited in their various lifetimes are all reconcilable, according to the linear march of Progress and each man’s unstinting devotion to The American Dream.
It is this fantasy that is reinforced, then threatened, in The Forgotten Man, a painting by Utah artist Jon McNaughton, which has become an internet sensation due to its guileless, ham-fisted, yet somehow opaque use of history painting conventions in the service of a doctrinaire Christian conservative value system. In The Forgotten Man, current President Barack Obama, who gets along with everyone just fine in the actual Hall of Presidents, is carelessly stepping on the Constitution as he looks glumly to his left. James Madison looks on in horror and makes a very George-Costanza-like show of his dismay. Behind Obama stand a bunch of Democrats (like Clinton and FDR) who applaud for some vague reason (’cause they’re all looking at a future of big government socialism or something?). Either way, what McNaughton employs his own 2-D Obamavatar to do in his next painting would surely get the 44th President kicked out of the club for good.
Where Cupola Bobber turns deluges of impersonal information into gradually unfolding epic explorations, guest curator Helen Molesworth’s stunning show of 1980’s art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, shows the power of an unabashedly partisan approach to history, research, and framing of the past. (Molesworth is Chief Curator at the ICA Boston).
It’s immediately apparent that Molesworth’s dynamic, vibrant, deeply affecting show of political (in its most inclusive sense) art in the 1980’s has uncanny reverberations today. From the first moment of entering the space, viewers come into contact with a flatscreen television on which appears newly-produced, filmed interviews of artists talking about what they were up to more than thirty years ago. Many of them cite Reagan’s refusal to recognize the AIDS crisis, Thatcherism and the beginnings of neoliberalism, and most of all the political indifference to unfairness around them as the inspiration for some of the most ambitious activist art made in America to date.
Other artists featured in the video program cited the “real” end of modernism (Tony Tasset wryly remarks that the conceptualist/minimalist model of the artist as critic and art as philosophical criticism “failed, frankly”), giving rise to appropriation art, practices across media, and true postmodernism pastiche as we recognize it now.
But most of the artist interviews cite their sense at the time that, as Molesworth herself articulates, “culture is really capable of changing society.” Of all the moving art in the show–and my eyes watered more than usual, as I’ll no doubt get into soon– what’s most remarkable is how much the artists in This Will Have Been truly made work as material for democracy.
I first met the artist, writer, and activist Ted Kerr during the summer of 2008 when we were both interns at Visual AIDS. He was standing outside the West 26th Street building with the executive director, Amy Sadao. My memory of the day is a sweltering bleached blue; Ted was wearing bright red pants and a striped shirt. I think he was smiling and waving, or the grin on his face registered as a giddy wave. I bring up my very first impression of Ted because he is perhaps the most hopeful person I know and, for me, that sunny image somehow encapsulates his hopefulness.
His writing and collages strongly reflect this hopefulness not only in their optimism, but also in the way he poses questions about everyday things and events in light of queerness, AIDS, and collectivity. They’re not easy questions to consider, but in posing them, Ted is inviting others to ask more questions, to bring seemingly disparate ideas together, out of which some new space for thinking, art-making, and collective action might arise. Ted’s always looking to have a conversation. His collages are like snippets of dialog between images and text he has gleaned from television, museum exhibitions, and song lyrics. Rihanna’s We Found Love, a portrait of a snowy Walt Whitman, and Occupy Wall Street all make their way into his pictures and reveal their connectedness.
For years, Jeff Koons (Season 5 Episode “Fantasy”) has been controversially appropriating dime store trinkets — kitschy souvenirs and ad campaigns. If it wasn’t for Koons, these once popular items would clog beaches and landfills as forgotten castaways of passing fancy. Koons “rescues” them, plucking them from the lowly world of dollar store giveaway bins and subway billboards, in order to reproduce them on a larger-than-life scale. With a new pedigree, the artifacts are worth thousands, if not millions of dollars. They ooze with a disposable, American decadence — a “Nouveau Versailles” aesthetic — critiquing the culture in which they were conceived almost as if by accident. “Balloon Dog is full of everything except gods, a de-deified sculpture that radiates irony and Eros. It’s an updated version of Duchamp’s urinal,” wrote Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine in July 2008. His work Made in Heaven represents the final fruit of Koon’s ongoing ironical exploration.
Where Warhol employed the soup can, Koons took the toaster, the vacuum cleaner, and the basketball. Rather than silk screen these objects (a medium with its own associative history of democratic dissemination), Koons set the objects in custom vitrines, enhancing the already emanating auras of convenience, luxury, and free time – conquests of an American life that indicate success. He aestheticized the design of everyday objects, and like a knight in shining armor, (think of Richard Gere pulling down the street in a limousine to fetch Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman), redressed the debauch of everyday in expensive clothes, toured it around the country, and made a fortune. He mirrors the exploitation of entrepreneurial practice in his own artistic endeavors, highlighting the erotic potential of inanimate objects so that we, the audience, begin to salivate. Shortly after his first exhibit, Koons began recreating tchotchkes. He made towering reproductions in factories with a team of employees. Videos of the artist at work feature Koons with a hard hat and a clipboard, pointing directions to a team of laborers. His art became a comment on the manufacturing business and has continued since.
There has always been a sardonic, if not nihilistic flair to his work. For all we know he is making fun of us, mocking our feeble efforts to maintain a cool distance from the uglier parts of consumer culture, pointing out the terrible truth behind exploitative ad campaigns and commercial structures. By reproducing and marketing lowbrow detritus to the cultural elite, Koons demonstrates the undeniable appeal in trashy, hedonistic totems. Cuddly kittens, balloon animals and Popples are irresistible. Still, Koons manages to remain ironically distant. It is unclear whether he believes in his homage to bubblegum, or if he makes his work out of critical spite. The taboos he picks up on – the more than dubious representation of women in his work, for instance (think of the Pink Panther hugging the busty blonde, which sold for 16.8 million dollars in 2011) – are not originated by Koons, but by us and our culture. Koons implicates everyone while profiting himself. Which is why Made in Heaven seems like such an excellent conceptual climax: he illustrates a cultural fantasy, propagating the power structures therein, indulging in a non-literal, plastic, commercial body. In this case, however, his hands are dirty. He offers his own body for public consumption.
The blatant point made in this work still elicits disgust. When exhibited in museums, the work is sequestered in smaller, partitioned rooms with signage that warns against their content. We are, after all, squeamish about sex. Made in Heaven taps into an almost ancient battle: how to define the distinction between pornography and art? In this particular case, that distinction is deliberately conflated. One might supposed the series is art because it is pornography: a specifically staged, anesthetized project about copulation. A reproduction of porn that nevertheless fulfills its pornographic function: penetration is visible. Body fluids are exchanged. Yet, like the rest of Koons’s work, Made in Heaven neither celebrates nor condemns pornography. Instead it reflects the cultural feelings around it, the artifice and industry of porn. The bodies in this work, like the bodies in pornography, are highly anesthetized, no different from his Michael Jackson sculpture and probably as misleading as one of his balloon rabbits. Ultimately this display of intentional and highly controlled sexuality troubles the function of a museum, highlighting also Cicciolina’s troubling insistence on participating in other echelons of society, namely politics.
“A local dancer,” is what arts reporter Jori Finkel called Yvonne Rainer in an LA Times article dated November 12 (though a concurrent blog post by Finkel called Rainer “legendary,” a more accurate description of the filmmaker and performer, who worked with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham). Finkel was reporting on this year’s MOCA gala, an annual fundraiser known for featuring the work of some sort of art world star — last year’s artist was Doug Aiken, and the year before Francesco Vezzoli with help from Lady Gaga — at an exclusive, high-priced dinner for patrons. This year, Marina Abramović, fresh out of her MoMA retrospective, helmed the gala, planning an extravaganza with human centerpieces and naked-lady cakes.
Finkel referred to Abramović as a “Yugoslavian-born, New York performance artist,” more cosmopolitan than “local dancer” though not terribly inflated, given that Abramović has been called, and has apparently called herself, the grandmother of performance art. Controversy erupted after Abramović hosted auditions to cast those human centerpieces, particularly the stoic heads that would turn slowly around in the middle of each table. Performers would sit on Lazy Susans below the tables and would not be able to get up or use the restroom during the three hour event. A handful of female performers would lay flat on their backs in the middle of a few special tables, naked, legs far enough apart to see what was between, with skeletons on top of them (a re-imagining of one of Abramović’s former projects, Nude with Skeleton). The performers would be paid $150 and given a year-long MOCA membership. Rainer heard about these auditions, apparently from an artist who had participated, and responded angrily. The letter she sent to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch has, by this time, circulated widely. She accused the museum of economic exploitation — compensation was not enough — and also, in what may have been the most memorable part, wrote that the performance was
reminiscent of “Salo,” Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramović by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramović and MOCA have no such credibility. . . .
More back and forth ensued, Deitch and Abramović invited Rainer to attend the ongoing audition, a number of arts blogs weighed in, among them ArtFag City, Hyperallergic, and ArtCritical. Of course, most “critics” did not attend the gala, certainly Rainer did not. I didn’t either. It’s an odd position to be in: criticizing art you didn’t see at an institution that desperately needs funding and acquires it the way many cultural institutions do, by marketing its exclusivity and creating highbrow spectacle.
Even if I’m cagey about taking a stance on the gala itself, I have no qualms about saying that, of the two 20th century art matrons, it’s Rainer, the one who would likely cringe at even being called a matron, I’d trust to do the ethical thing. This isn’t to suggest that Abramović is an unethical artist, just that for Rainer integrity — what it is, how to maintain it — has more or less been the subject of her now 50-year practice. She wanted to give the “everyday body,” not an idealized body, a place in dance, which led her to reject the minimalism of John Cage that she had initially embraced. Then, afraid dance wasn’t allowing her to explore her feminism and the emotional experience of being human in an honest-enough way, she began film-making in the 1970s. Her whole career reads like that — rejections, revisions, new directions, all in hopes of figuring out how to be an artist who respects real people’s experience.
What’s bothered me most about the MOCA gala debacle is the thought that Rainer would likely never be chosen to orchestrate an event like that. Why not? Granted, much of Rainer’s work is more abstract than Abramović’s, less visceral; there are no naked bodies in doorways, staring contests, or skeletons.
But she’s done some exquisitely accessible projects, like Assisted Living, based off photographs from the New York Times sports section, or her piece in the 2008 California Biennial, where dancers wore bright red sneakers and moved loosely and unpretentiously in a way that made dance as easy and awkward as schoolyard play. If it’s true that Rainer’s just not glamorous enough or that she can’t generate enough hype or that she wouldn’t attract donors, we should have better taste.
Note: If you’re in L.A., consider attending the panel that Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) is hosting Saturday:
Abramović, Rainer, gala theater & performance art politics: a public forum
6522 Hollywood Blvd.; Sat., Dec. 17, 1-4 p.m.
Beginning with the notion of a gallery as a charged or loaded space, Vancouver-based artists Erik Hood and Sam Willcocks produced a fleeting gesture based on military traditions and tactics of deception as part of a year long series of experiments in free choice learning at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery. Their endeavor was at once bluff, truth, and double bluff.
As part of an afternoon of performances, the artists built a Quaker Cannon using found materials, and aimed it directly at the entrance to the gallery. This act occurred last winter, shortly after the Smithsonian’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s film from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, and though its creation had no direct or intentional correlation to that event it acted as a reminder of the conversational context of a work of art. Situated in a space that had recently hosted a screening and discussion of the censored film, the work provided a new context of confrontation.
Its presence was palpable and at the same time benign, urging the viewer to linger in thought while considering advancement. This momentary suspension of disbelief situated within the active space of the gallery – a space commonly used for screenings, discussions, and other social events – brought into relief the discursive nature of art as a social object. Though not a controversial work in itself, this gesture recalled the tactical potential of art to be used as a tool for discussion. In this context, the Quaker Cannon served a dual purpose as both a false weapon (object) and a target (conversational proposition). The recoil of this false firearm was comparable to its discharge, producing a period of latent repose – a reminder that the power of art lies in its ability to create a space for reflection, discussion, and critical thought.
In connection with Ideas, a new section of Art21′s website that will explore a single theme in depth over a period of several months, the Art21 Blog is calling for essays for our latest Flash Points series. The inaugural edition of Ideas looks at The Culture Wars, Redux in the context of the seemingly endless number of controversies that have engulfed the art world over the past several years–from Ai Wei Wei’s April 2011 detention by Chinese authorities, the National Portrait Gallery’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly, and MoCA Los Angeles’s whitewashing of a mural by the artist Blu, to the United States House of Representative’s Spending Reduction Act of 2011, a bill which proposed to end the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities (fortunately the crisis was averted, though both agencies experienced budget cuts of 7.5% each). The October, 2011 print edition of Art in America also pointed to the rise of art censorship and vandalism across the world in an article titled “The Global Culture War” written by Eleanor Heartney.
In many ways, the questions asked in The Culture Wars, Redux circle back to the blog’s very first Flash Points question “What’s so shocking about contemporary art?” We’d like to continue the discussion, while re-contextualizing it within our current cultural climate, by asking “What’s at stake in the new culture wars?” We encourage you to explore the essays, images, and video materials that are collected in Ideas, and to respond by proposing a Flash Points essay sparked by an idea of your own.
We are eager to hear from a range of perspectives from those of you who work as artists, arts professionals, students, art educators, funders, organizers, and academics. If you’d like to write a piece for Flash Points, please email your ideas and pitches to blog [at] art21 [dot] org with the subject heading FLASH POINTS PROPOSAL. We look forward to hearing from you!