It’s time for me to talk about something I’m even less qualified to discuss than usual…
The visual arts! Honestly, it’s going to be embarrassing!
In the past three weeks I made visits to two quite different Houses of Art, and wouldn’t you know if they didn’t leave me thinking a few thoughts.
One of the locations was a small, very local art gallery in Orange County. While the crowd was pleasant, and the stock of unsold pieces displayed at previous openings included some quite nice pop art, nearly everything on the walls on this particular evening was uninspiring. One exception was a small painting, less than a foot on any side, of a black palm tree in front of a black sea. Its simple geometries imbued it with a haunting, Tarot-like, looming symbolism. The other pieces shared certain characteristics or inclinations that, although I don’t have a grasp on any current art scenes or trends, still seemed to be recently familiar. The common mode wasn’t noticeably conceptual, nor was there much in the way of symbolism that could be grasped. Abstract expressionism might be the closest relative, yet these works were more vague, less striking. While that previous movement may have striven to be bold, many of these pieces were content to reflect on their own materiality. Gobs of paint rising from the canvas, their texture and presence more important than colour or shape; a collection of unspecific photographs, some of them crudely altered with paper and pens. One could attempt to link this with a return to craft, not simulatenously linked with a return to craftsmanship. Perusing this art is akin to smiling and nodding while eating stridently mediocre home-made yogurt. The fascination with materiality, the fact of the piece as a creation of its author is somewhat childlike, somewhat psychedelic, like any contemporary band that sounds like early-era Animal Collective.
Coming to the second, much larger institution, the Hammer Museum, I’ll begin to get to the question I actually want to discuss- what is the purpose of the art museum or gallery and what role does art play when placed in that context? The Hammer Museum, now operated by UCLA, retains a tendency towards Impressionist paintings, inherited from its foundation as the project of an Occidental Petroleum CEO. (To this day, the first several levels of the parking garage are reserved for employees working at the Occidental Petroleum headquarters, the museum having been built adjacent when Armand Hammer reneged on his pledge to donate his collection to LACMA.)
With the Impressionist paintings, and with other older pieces, the role of the museum is fairly clear. As important elements of the cultural history of art, they belong to humanity’s common past and should be treated and shared as such to whatever extent possible. As physical objects they require a certain level of care and maintenance, which the museum can (presumably) provide.
What of the temporary installations of contemporary works? Well, they were all funded in the main part by Leonard Nimoy…but that fact is mostly a curiosity. They included a work by Syrian-born artist Diana Al-Hadid, who works, I would say, in grotesque architectures, making sculptures that look like cathedrals formed of stalactites, buildings created through bizarre organic processes, or, in the case of the deformed re-imagining of an early 13th-century water clock on display at the Hammer, like the work of a giant kindergartner given free reign with builder’s taffy. Put in a room by itself, in a corner right off the entrance, it evoked the feeling of an artifact put on display from the triumphant conquest of an alien race, a scene from a Cronenberg remake of Starship Troopers. The paintings of Fredrich Kunath lined the walls of the stairway lobby. In the accompanying glossy leaflet, senior curator Anne Ellegood suggests that they thus evoke the portraits that would be on the walls of “the Harvard Club or other exclusive settings”; in actual experience I found their placement created an odd situation. Enjoying the works, as I did very much, involves parking on the stairs, often in mid-stride, exchanging brief glances with bored stewards, appearing unclear as to why you are still there and have not entered the museum proper. Are these paintings, in their placement, being branded as a mere amusement, something to be scanned briefly before moving on to the more substantive and important works ahead? Comparing the purpose of their time in the stairwell to the the long-term stay of the Impressionist paintings within, are they being added to humanity’s common cultural patrimony, to be preserved for centuries?
Inside the museum, along with the permanent collection, there were several rooms dedicated to the works of print shop Edition Jacob Samuel. This, like the objects hanging on the wall in Orange County, involved a focus on materiality over actual product; the descriptions of the involved physical process of creating the printing plates took precedent over the resulting pages which while in book form might be amusing or transporting, looked silly and fetishistic when taken apart and pinned to a wall, page by page, . None of these books had a large enough run to reach more than a handful of people. Sharing their content cannot then be seen as their primary reason for being; it is instead the fact of being painstakingly created by hand, and then purchased by someone with the inclination to purchase such a handcrafted item. The final step, of display in a museum, which should be the somewhat democratizing part of the process, seems to be less a showcase for the works and their contents then a brandishing of evidence that the objects were created at all. This is not to say there were no pieces in the collection with any allure, but as a digital native looking at pages of Meredith Monk’s loopy vocal notation, I had to wonder: why not simply put this on the Internet, for anyone to see? Is anything more lost through digitization than is lost in the process of taking a book apart and putting it on a wall, and is there not a much greater benefit? I’m not attempting to put an absolute emphasis on abstracted “content” or meaning over the physical objects can contain or convey content while simultaneously holding an intrinsic, unabstractable meaning. At this moment I’m simply asking if content is served by objects, and if the crafted object is served by the institution of the museum or the museum served by the object.
There were yet two more contemporary installations inside the museum, one video and one that I suppose would have to be filed under ‘multimedia.’ The piece Sugar Water by Eric Baudelaire is a 72-minute video of a man in a Paris metro station pasting, piece by piece, first an image of a car on a Paris street, followed by an image of this same car exploding, an image of the smoldering wreckage of the car, and a blue screen. Yet this video was actually shot on a set and not a Paris Metro station. The man is a professional bill-poster, the passers-by who take no notice of him are actors. This, the curator’s leaflet instructs us, is both clever and meaningful. Ellegood tells us that the work is simultaneously about a society in which the high-volume of images teaches us to ignore them and one in which collective memories are created through the wide circulation and repetition of key images, her example being a jet flying into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The idea that these images are being ignored does not arise naturally, but is forced by the fact that this piece is a simulation and does not convey the idea through experiment, as posting such image in an operating metro station would. If one passes through the installation only briefly, not viewing the entire 72 minutes, does the work become yet another blip in the increasing volume of images, an ignorable statement about ignorable images? Would the act of sitting and watching this process unfold be fruitful for anyone? Does the act of creating the video add value or meaning to act of writing or saying the sentence: “Imagine a man in a Paris metro station slowing pasting on the wall a series of images depicting a car exploding”? I might suggest that creating the video actually saps the scenario of meaning and value by way of overdetermination. We are told (by the curator, not the artist) that images such as this imagined exploding car are ignored, but also form the basis of collective memory. So if this image is being ignored, it cannot form the basic of collective memory or collective (felt or real) understanding. This might as well be said about the piece itself.
The multimedia installation is a work by Stephen G. Rhodes entitled (yes, really) Receding Mind: Circle of Shit. The feeling of a receding mind is certainly successfully conveyed. Books and food are strewn around a trashed room, walled in but visible through many cracked and torn sections; the majority of the light comes from a revolving projector. A professor of Film and Visual Studies at the University of Sussex explains in the accompanying glossy leaflet that the video being projected and spun wildly around the room is Rhodes’ play on the concept of Steve Allen’s show Meeting of the Minds, and features a cast of disparate historical figures arguing loudly and stupidly with each other. The professor also explains how this is a brilliant expression of the nature of historical representation. Yet if we look at the work as it actually exists and can be experienced in a museum, this is simply not true. In constant motion, it is nearly impossible to determine the content of the video or its accompanying audio. Any conversation the piece has with the concept of historical representation lives only in the words written about it by someone other than its creator, and this meaning could exist even without the work the text refers to. The work lives up to its title, certainly, but it is a receding mind squawking to itself in a dark, absurd space, saying nothing.
Here we have two pieces designed to be impermanent, pieces for which meaning is sapped by the museum context. My two proposed purposes of the museum in regards to historic art would seem not to apply. The museum has no major role in the preservation of the pieces, and in the case of many installation works such as Receding Mind, it is probable that no museum would ever have a role in preserving it. To the extent that these new pieces do qualify as part of humanity’s cultural history, they are not well served by the context of the museum. What, then, is the role being filled? Is the museum serving as a locus for cultural discussion? If so, this discussion is very fractured and incomplete, and to really begin to enter it, one would need to visit a number of other museums of contemporary art scattered across the globe, not a wonderful method for fostering a discussion that reaches much beyond a very narrow artistic elite – the sorts of people who end up writing the glossy leaflets in which meanings are sequestered. Perhaps the primary function, filled by the museum in concert with private collectors and persons and organizations commissioning new works, is to pay artists so that they can make art, whatever its final value may be. This is not a bad practical result, and the involvement of entities which are semi-public is certainly preferable to exclusively aristocratic patronage systems of past centuries. However, whenever money and power facilitate art, there is an element of the relationship which declares: “You can’t have nice things without us.”
In order to finally bring this ramble to a close, I’ll talk about the contemporary installation I enjoyed the most, although as it did not come with a glossy leaflet or any other kind of explanation, I cannot be sure that it was intended to be interpreted as being one. On one of the second-story walkways there was a wide path with a wall of large windows, with two or three levels of plants arrayed along the wall. There was a small message explaining that this was a vacation space for house plants, and that in this spot they enjoyed both the view and the weekly concerts that take place in the same location. This was not what really drew me in, although it was pleasantly whimsical enough. It was the ping-pong table nearby, with small plastic bucket of balls and paddles, that I found the most engaging. In wordlessly inviting any group of two people or more to play a game, the ping-pong table brought into question why the visitor was in the museum, how they planned to engage with the works therein, and well as the relationship of the museum to the art. Is the ping-pong table too frivolous to be given attention? Does stopping to hit a ball subtract from valuable time that should be used to analyze, contemplate or enjoy “serious” works of art? Is playing on a ping-pong table a fundamentally different experience than looking at a piece of art? Are there elements of play in the experience of both? Elements of spiritual contemplation? Does the placement of an object in the museum make it a work of art, or does only the labeling of the object denote that it is art? Is it art when a glossy leaflet has laid out a meaning to the visitor? Is the act of placement of art in a museum demonstrative, or explanatory?
It was the inversion of the museum and non-museum, the invasion of the outside world, a game-space dropped into an art-space, that proved more thought provoking than any particular piece of contemporary art that the Hammer had on display that day. I would suggest many of these works would benefit greatly from a reverse move from the museum to the non-museum. The melted water clock of Diana Al-Hadid would truly intrigue were it to appear without explanation in an urban space. Baudelaire’s Sugar Water can only test its hypothesis through reenactment in a functioning metro station, unraveled from its double cocoon of filming on set and museum presentation. Receding Mind would have a jolting power were it to appear one afternoon in a downtown office. If the sterile space of the museum allows Impressionist paintings to remain alight centuries after their creation, the new pieces wilt in their respective corners. The true calling of this art should be an invasion of the day-to-day, a form of post-industrial sabotage, boldly melting the gears of normative meaning creation which thoughtless capitalism requires.
(The Rhodes and Baudelaire are on display until the 26th of September, the Kunath paintings until the 30th. If one is in Los Angeles before then, one could go see them and tell me how wrong I am!)