Tuesday, October 9, 2012

MARATHON MAN: Guido van der Werve Runs 'Home'

Guido van der Werve, Nummer veertien, home
Sep 7-Oct 20, 2012, Luhring Augustine Gallery, 531 W 24th St, NYC

The explorer George Mallory was once asked "Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?", to which he famously (reputedly) responded: "Because it's there." This economical quip expresses something meaningful about the willingness of spirit that takes triumph and failure under consideration in equal measure as potential outcomes of any endeavor. It is this same spirit that artists, generally speaking, understand all too well: the aspiration of overcoming self-imposed obstacles; the uselessness of doing things just for the sake of doing them; the poignant pointlessness of it all.

Guido van der Werve, the Netherlander artist and oft-described 'Romantic' (and triathlete, marathon runner, filmmaker, classically trained composer and pianist), also tried to climb Everest; or rather, the equivalent of it (he failed). He documents a more successful labor in his latest film, Nummer veertien, home, the centerpiece of an exhibition on view at Luhring Augustine gallery. The film follows van der Werve's elliptical journey from Poland to Paris as he swims, bikes, and runs a circuit that traces the birth, death, and unusual burial arrangements of composer Frederic Chopin. Chopin's dying request was to have his heart removed and smuggled back to his birthplace in Warsaw; his body, however, remains entombed at a pubic gravesite in Paris. These dual points of interment mark the start and end points for van der Werve's circulatory, oddball triathalon-as-pilgrimage, which concludes with the exhausted artist placing a small container of soil from Chopin's birthplace upon his grave.

The twelve-act film (structured after the classical musical form of the Requiem) is certainly replete with enough melancholic, wide-framed landscapes to earn the artist his "Romantic" credential, but also contributes to the canon of 'Endurance Art', which enacts extreme physical stress as a process and a kind of performance (see: Matthew Barney, Marina Abramovic, Ragnar Kjartansson, or--why not-- David Blaine). However, van der Werve's exertions are not an end unto themselves; they are actions which position and isolate the character within the broader visual narrative of his films and projects. We are rarely subjected to close-ups of the artist's bodily or emotional trials; rather, the film's dispassionate formality captures the wide, precisely-split horizon lines and flat, constructed 'Nature' of modern European suburbs. The inescapable grid of civilization, even in these semi- bucolic environments, undermines whatever sublimity the 'lone figure in the landscape' trope might evoke. Endurance requires a sense of rigorous interiority and discipline; it is no surprise that the lonely duress and directed purposelessness of the marathon runner is a state that appeals to van der Werve's sensibility.

Perhaps alienation is our contemporary Sublime, but, despite the beautiful, elegiac score (written by van der Werve), the artist undercuts any pathos or heroism with small episodes of abrupt, whimsical absurdity. In the opening scene, we see the artist playing a grand piano while outfitted in a swimmer's wetsuit; in another, the artist--who has inscrutably set himself on fire--calmly extinguishes the blaze by jumping into a small canal. Periodically, a full orchestra and chorus appear, nonchalantly performing the film's score while seated in fields, driveways, bedrooms, and other incongruous pop-up locations, in moments that seem more Monty Python than Greek chorus. The meaning of these moments is left open to interpretation, thankfully, adding a bit of mystery and shock to contrast to the film's otherwise top-heavy explication--and to help the audience forget about the ponderous, mostly unnecessary side-narrative about Alexander the Great. 

Unlike traditional narratives, which rely on external conflict and heroic resolution, van der Werve sets up a course of self-determined problems to solve, working from what he knows and pushing towards the outermost edges, seeking meaning, as most artists--or athletes, or explorers, or maybe anybody-- would do. Nummer veertien, home is not quite an indie film, a performance document, or an art installation. If anything, it's an extended-cut music video, by way of an act of self-flagellating devotion. It's a total work that threads together the physical and aesthetic enthusiasms of van der Werve, a (self-described) non-artist who nevertheless employs the the art world to provide a context of meaning to his variegated activities, skills, and obsessions. Why climb Mt. Everest? "Because it's there?" Nah. "Because I can. Because I must."

Friday, September 21, 2012

SONG 1: Doug Aitken at the Hirshhorn

Over the years, Doug Aitken has developed a singular and enviable practice: as a purveyor of large-scale, well-funded, ephemeral projects supported by a handful of devoted, established institutions, he is that rare artist who has figured out how to straddle the parallel tracks of commercial and fine art, an ambition achieved by few--and perhaps shared by none, considering the more conceptual, as opposed to pop, leanings of his oeuvre. He seems to have scarce need for the routine approval of the gallery circuit (actually, I don't know if that's true, but his New York gallery's website shows that his last exhibition was in 2008), instead carving out a niche with site-specific, spectacular projection works: after-dark-only, semi-public temporary pieces that are showy but manage to skirt the usual groan-inducing compromises of most public art.

In SONG 1, a 360-degree video projection mapped to the cylindrical architecture of Washington DC's Hirshhorn Museum, Aitken deploys his A-game bag of tricks, perhaps best described as lyrical film noir. It's narratively abstract but formally precise, all montage and motifs, multi-screen and nonlinear, and populated by affectless, oddball characters inhabiting the dusk-til-dawn boulevards of 'Lost' Angeles: an artificially lit, cinematic inner-edge megapolis suffused with the same listless melancholy and magical realism that admirers of David Lynch and Edward Hopper might be familiar with. Viewed as a kind of zoetrope-in-reverse, SONG 1 is a structural and phenomenal loop-- inverting its association with other panoramic/panoptic presentations that enclose viewers around a perceptual center, instead projecting the imagery along the outer circumference of the museum's facade. 

The audience is encouraged, thus, to perambulate around the building's horizon-line, with no fixed or privileged field of view; although the museum's landscaping makes a completely unhindered line of sight impossible, Aitken courageously sacrifices clarity by projecting straight through the trees onto the building, inadvertently evoking a liminal, haunted-forest effect that echoes with the polyphonous strains of the film's soundtrack. Aitken has a keen eye for the seductive artificiality of filmic space and time, flipping instinctually between the floating frames of traditionally composed narrative sequences--the projection as cinema--and kaleidoscopic, patterned abstractions of urban chiaroscuro--visual effects as architectural ornament.

The main character of SONG 1 is actually, as the title suggests, a song: the iconic standard 'I Only Have Eyes For You'--specifically the popular version recorded by 1950s doo-wop group The Flamingos as a touchstone, reworked by various musical artists and actors. This cast is directed to enact various lyrical and choreographed tableaus, in solo and counterpoint: singing over a car radio during a pensive late-night drive; a staccato duet (or duel?) in front of a shifting neon collage; and, in the film's most amusing segment, a Stomp-like percussive routine beat out by the beleaguered-looking inhabitants of an all-night diner. Mostly, though, 'Eyes..' serves as an increasingly fragmented fugue-like soundtrack guiding this eclectic ensemble of characters who, one imagines, mentally casts the small dramas of their somnambulist urban lives as something cinematic, cooly romantic, and sublime. Of course, we all have these 'soundtracks to our lives' running in the back of our minds, and our own reveries can, at times, seem like a lens-flared, soft-focus TV-movie montage. Having said that, SONG 1 periodically borders on twee, with the slick calculated affect of a car commercial or too-quirky indie film; but in this case, it might be all right to qualify Aitken's commercialized image/sound vocabulary as a type of appropriated material, rather than a lexicon of received ideas. Or frankly, maybe it's both; if the goal of commercial entertainment is to deliver closed, cathartic story arcs which dispel ambiguity, then SONG 1's lack of dramatic structure and traditional denouement--edited percussively rather than expositionally-- overrides some of the skepticism generated by the work's unarguable 'entertainment value'.  

In short, SONG 1 was a crowd-pleaser--including, perhaps especially for the crowd that is unfamiliar with the term "expanded cinema"--and one which, like the semi-lucid audiovisual drift of Marclay's 'The Clock', evokes nostalgia while eliding its attendant mawkishness.

For photos, production stills, and some interesting essays that accompanied the show, check out the museum's artist page here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Moving Image Art Fair review

Video art takes time. It can take a lot of time, in fact, so I made sure to show up early for the debut of 'Moving Image - An Art Fair of Contemporary Video Art' (a somewhat redundant title--isn't all video art contemporary?), in its sleek and spacious home at the Waterfront Tunnel, a block-long cavernous corridor in the northern strip of Chelsea, home to a former nightclub and the occasional art fair venue. I stayed all day and saw everything, which consisted of a total of 36 individual works (30 single-channel videos and 6 installation/sculptural pieces) from an international roster of galleries from such locations as Zurich, Romania, Paris, and Ghent. New York is suitably represented by well-known venues like PPOW, Julie Saul, Pace, Bryce Wolkowitz, and of course from the fair's organizer and host, Edward Winkleman.

Moving Image Fair opening, March 3

I look at a lot of video; even I can get sleepy. Truthfully, after 5 hours, I was still on my feet and watching pieces a second, third, and fourth time. Part of the love it/hate it relationship with video art is often with the presentation and the demands made upon one's attention; here, multiply that by 36. The minimal exhibition design is a cunning compromise, and for the most part, works--except when it doesn't. Upon entering, the first half of the show is airily spaced out with six installations that incorporate sculpture or projection to varying degrees; the remaining show of 30 single-channel videos are shown individually along two rows of alternate-side facing monitors, suspended from a hanging gantry. The monitors are unimposing in size, and are belittled somewhat by the scale of the room. However, this makes for an intimate viewing experience, and one can quickly glance down the line of TVs to get a quick preview of all the works at once. Each monitor only has one awkward counter stool assigned to it, so you have to do a lot of standing, but chic couches are placed evenly throughout the space, and--Thank God!!--a 'Wichcraft cafe is housed about halfway through, relief for when your legs and eyes start getting cranky.

Before I discuss the work, a few general notes are in order. First, this fair was invite only, not open submission, and thus reflects the taste (and network) of the hosting gallery and the advisory committee (including Elizabeth Dee, John Connelly, and Kevin McGarry--the full list is on the fair's website). If you were worried about seeing a kunsthalle stuffed with Bill Viola-, Pipilotti Rist-, and Ryan Trecartin-esque antics, you may be pleased at the low-octane, more considered energy of this fair.

Second, the selection of works is slanted toward the short-form and the narrative/performance-based, an observation of which was confirmed by Mr. Winkleman in an effort to, in a nutshell, not try the viewer's patience with an overload of difficult work (the favored maxim of my wise professor/mentor on durational art was: "If it's bad, it's also LONG and bad!"). Combined with the uniformity of presentation, this could be said to create a consistent, themed exhibition, more of a survey show than an art fair; a critical view might also see it as flattening and homogeneous.

Finally, it's hard to tell if this decision reflects the state of the art so much as the state of the market. Difficult and conceptual work is hard to sell, and this IS an art fair. However, barely 7 or 8 of the 36 video works on display are NOT in some way performance based or based on some mode of bodily figuration or characterization. This reflects a bias towards only one formal strain of video art, with many strategic positions, of course, but can hardly be said to be a survey of the full range of moving image and screen-based art in current circulation. There is very little abstract or experimental work; almost no animation at all; no internet-based or interactive/digital pieces whatsoever; and very little technological-sculptural work, with a couple clear exceptions in the installation portion of the show. All this is fine-- video-about-video and techno-gimmicks get old fast, and there is a good range of ideas and production values present.

But unfortunately, of all these bodies on display across these screens, they are, without exception, ALL, it must be said, of the ivory skin coloration. Not to play the quota game, but with such an international spectrum on display, and in view of the pronounced visibility of video artists of color on the biennial & fair circuit, this seems a strange and tangible void.
(CORRECTION: The sole exception to this criticism is the installation 'Trans Siberian Amazons', which I forgot about in my notes.)

On to the work. Like I said, the pieces mostly tend towards the short-form and the conceptual one-off, so feel free to streamline your viewing experience depending on what grabs you. The roundup:

I found myself returning to works which I found quirky, strange, and affecting. Of these: Shana Moulton's Galactic Pot Healer (2010), named after but not apparently based on the Philip K. Dick novel, portrays an elfish woman and the mysterious, titular entity which repairs broken pots by kneading the clay-like flesh of its clients. It's funny, perhaps even a bit twee, but is disarmingly clever in its low-fi, fantastical take on the oft-explored notions of the female body as a literal site of production through craft-work. (UPDATE: a later afternoon visit to the fair proved this video to be a real crowd favorite, not to my surprise!)

Shana Moulton, Galactic Pot Healer
Janet Biggs' Airs Above The Ground (2007) portrays an underwater ballet performance by a fit young female swimmer. The simple decision to flip the camera upside down, thus orienting the youthful athlete 'upwards' as she rises and descends, is haunting and supernatural.
Janet Biggs, Airs Above The Ground
Corban Wallker's TV Man (2010). You can't miss this droll and somewhat confrontational act of self-portraiture, in which the artist presents himself 'life-size' within a wide-screen TV frame.

Corban Walker, TV Man

Andres Laracuente's Timepiece (2008) is an eye-catching, increasingly grotesque head-shot of an "aged voice actress" who attempts to maintain her close-up composure while getting hosed in the face by an aerosolized fog spray. It is at turns weirdly hilarious and touching; I think I could watch it all day.

Andres Laracuente, Timepiece
Alex Mirutziu's Runway Spill #2 (2011) depicts the artist attempting to stand in an awkward pose, arrested in mid-fall. You get it right away, it's a visual one-liner, but it works; oddly, the high-falutin' wall text fails to note the piece's obvious witty 'moving image' reference to Robert Longo's famous 'Men In The Cities' series.

Alex Mirutziu, Runway Spill #2
Video's been around for a while, so certain modes of production reassert themselves continuously, often to the point of cliche or banality. If you'll forgive me a moment of absurd reductionism, the fair is not without its 'Woman-as-Talking-Head-Speaking-To-The-Camera' genre (Cecilia Stenborn's Alive and Sophia Lisa Beresford's First and Second Creation, both by UK-based Workplace Gallery) and its male-go-to counterpoint, the 'Dude-In-A-Room-Doing-Weird-Fetish-Shit' archetype (Martin Soto Climent's The Chessboard Hall and RKDB's 'The Healing of Xrist). We've seen this type of work before, and I'm not sure these have much to add to these practices, but in an act of redemption is the always fascinating, sometimes goofy Melanie Bonajo and her Diversion (2009), which combines the performance of direct address, shamanistic ritual and consumer-junk props lashed to naked, forlorn bodies like so much sexualized, post-capitalist flotsam.

As I mentioned, abstract and electronic work is scant, so it's good that what IS on view is engaging. Jim Campbell's edge-of-perception, volumetric LED grid is a rare fusion of concept and technical wizardry (a larger outdoor version of this work is also on view in Madison Square Park). Hiraki Sawa's Dwelling (2010), depicting tiny airplanes flying around an apartment, is a dry, witty favorite, but unfortunately looks a lot better online than it does here. Miranda Lichtenstein's Danse Serpentine (2010) is a psychedelic, whirling arabesque which pays homage to the twin births of modern dance and cinema. Martin Kohout is definitely the odd-man-out in this show with the atmospheric Moonwalk (2008), a kind of electronic-tonal 'Stairway To Heaven' composed solely of stepped stacks of a YouTube player scroll-bar displaying the progression of the audible score.

Miranda Lichtenstein, Danse Serpentine
Of course the show had its harder-to-parse moments. I won't go into the hyperbolic and hilariously overblown wall-text statements, but they are worth an embarrassed chuckle or three. In my notes I charitably upgraded the category from 'Mindless' to 'Willfully Obscure' as seen in such works as Adrien Missika's Flat Beat, Paul Mpagi Sepuya's A Separate Piece, and Johanna Unzuta's Natural Movements, pieces that show how too often certain half-baked ideas are communicated, yet unserviced, by this medium. Leslie Thornton's Binocular (2010), on view at Ed Winkleman's a short time ago, is formally elegant but falls somewhat short of the mark in its comment on the aesthetics of our technologized 'seeing' of nature. I wanted to like Glen Fogel's With Me...You installation more than I could, which because of its insistent scale as a five-channel walk-through projection is likely to be remembered as the fair's most pronounced statement. Consisting of family heirloom jewelry shot on a turntable against monochrome backgrounds, then projected monumentally, any personal or melancholic reading of the work is outstripped by its resemblance to a tacky store display or Zale's commercial. Still, there is something there--maybe--but it didn't slow me down much. The same could be said of Carolee Schneeman's War Mop (1983), a kitschy kinetic sculpture, which was a particularly odd piece to choose from this pioneering feminist artist, given the fair's disposition toward female-performance and body-oriented work.

Glen Fogel, With Me...You
In that regard, some historical grounding is provided with Hannah Wilke's Intercourse With... (1975), a well-edited performance documentation that includes images of the artist's nude body covered with various texts. At almost half and hour, it is the longest piece in the fair, but worth spending time with. PPOW also presents David Wojnarowicz' Heroin (1978), a silent black and white film transfer that recalls his well-known 'Rimbaud in New York' photo series, which is wonderful to see if you are as passionate about this artist as I am, but it does remind one that Wojnarowicz' voice was more fully realized in his writings and paintings.

Despite my insistence on the 'theme' of this show, Mr. Winkleman assures me that no such theme was consciously intended or directed. Adopting an active rather than reactive stance, the fair was assembled quickly and elegantly with the notion in mind that (to paraphrase) "..asking 'how can we sell video work' is the wrong question. The point is that if you are serious about [collecting and looking at] contemporary art, you can't ignore this." As the market for video continues to vie for authenticity by emulating the artificial scarcity-editioning method of photography, in actuality, it is the very malleability of video that is ripe with potential. More than one of the single-channel works here are distillations of more complicated multi-screen installation setups, which points to the fact that video art is conceptual art, at least in half, at its very core. (UPDATE: At the panel discussion held at the fair on Saturday, there were some interesting complaints from the curators about video artists' tendencies to continue fiddling with the presentation of the work long past its original context and intent, because of new technology being made available, or "just because they can"). I have a lot of respect for the overall sophistication of execution at this inaugural fair, and for reducing what could have been an unwieldy concept to its first and basic principles. I'm looking forward to witnessing Moving Image's future evolution.


Moving Image: An Art Fair Of Contemporary Video Art is open from Thurs-Sat, March 2-5 from 11am-8pm, and Sunday March 6 from 11am-3pm, at the Waterfront New York Tunnel, 269 11th Avenue between 27th & 28th st. Visit www.moving-image.info for more details.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Speed Dating At The Strip Club: Tino Sehgal

The famous riddle goes something like: "What crawls in the morning, walks on two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening?" The answer has something to do with Tino Sehgal's latest installation-slash- performance-slash- social sculpture now at the Guggenheim Museum. There is no physical artwork in the main rotunda; on my visit, the museum was amok with children, groups of teenagers, and bemused folk of all ages. The atmosphere was lively. The experience of the piece goes something like this: at the base of the ramp, a small child confronts you with the question "What is Progress?" As you walk and talk and formulate a response to this precocious charge, you are unceremoniously fobbed off on a person of more advanced years--late teens, early 20s. More walking, more talking, another handoff, another age bracket. Before you know it you are at the top of the museum, shaking hands goodbye with the senior-aged 'guide', and then you go into a side gallery and look at some Picassos and stuff. So the question about progress really becomes a question about process, about the inevitability of aging and decay, and any grand notions turn inward and become soberingly personal.

Back up a minute. The first thing you see upon entering is a couple embracing,making out, and rolling around on the ground floor of the rotunda. Their movements are dancer-ly and mannered, like a tango in slow motion. The awkwardness of witnessing public eroticism dissolves over time, partly because the stamina of the performers and extended duration of the performance, but also because they are constantly visible no matter where you are--it's an erotic ballet which anchors the center of the Guggenheim's helix runway. They are the first and the last thing you see: as I left (after an hour & a half or so) a changeover took place, presumably to give the first couple relief. It's worth mentioning that the couples were male-female, young, hip-looking, inter-racial, fit, and basically attractive.

Some thoughts:

Ok. The kids are totally adorable. Their earnestness and obvious thrill at being in charge is disarming and a cunning point of entry to the piece. I found myself talking to them as I would speak to an adult. Good one.

As you 'progress', the transitions from conversation to conversation can be abrupt. The guides are prone to leaping out from behind columns at you, or darting away when you are in the middle of a sentence. This is meant to keep you off balance, to remind you that you are on the clock. The first time I went through the cycle, it was kind of exhilarating. I stood at the top of the rotunda and looked down at the kissy dancers. I thought about all the cool things I just said in a short space of time. Then you see the guides walking up the ramp chatting with someone else, and you feel a little cheated. These people are there because it's their job to pay attention to you. They do not particularly find you interesting. It comes off feeling like speed dating at a strip club.

Not that there's anything wrong with strip clubs. We seek out fake experiences all the time, as a reminder of our notions of the so-called 'Real.' You watch strippers to get a certain experience about sexual voyeurism. Speed dating gives you a pared-down, goal-oriented meta-experience of flirtation. But there's no essential chemistry, and the conviviality is self-aware. Sehgal's 'Progress' is not about social chemistry. The final conversations, prompted by the older guides, were a little morbid. I rambled on about capitalism, war, and death. The particular architecture of the Guggenheim is perfectly suited to house this stagy cradle-to-grave metaphor.

The second time I walked through, I felt a rebellious urge to break the rules a little bit. This piece DOES have rules. A child reprimanded me for turning the question back on him (the performers are not allowed to give their own opinions). I stalked a couple of other people's 'conversations', and the vibe was about the same as when one does this to strangers at a bar. I got one of the older guides to break the wall and admit that she didn't know if this was art, and that "no social science will result from all this--the artist will never know what happened". An enthusiastic young German guy told me that "art is supposed to confront you with thoughts." I flirted with a couple people (unsuccessfully). I tried to get a guide to walk me DOWN the ramp (nope). I deliberately answered questions obstinately and got what felt like an honest argument out of the performer, but I never got a sense of any REAL tension, or that the guide was allowed to judge my opinions as one would in a real conversation.

And, just in case you think this is all a bunch of phony baloney, or if you need a break, there IS art to look at. The side galleries are stuffed with the procession of Modernism: Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, and Brancusi, all that pre-war jazz. It's good. It makes you think about art's relation to the 'progress' of the 20th century. There is an amazing NEW work by Anish Kapoor that looks like a rusted beached submarine forcibly wedged in a narrow gallery. It's volume and heft is breathtaking; in fact the piece is so large you have to view it from three separate corridors, and for once you get to peer into the void of the sculpture's interior. It's a great experiential magic trick, and it was all I could do NOT to shout just to hear the sublime echo. I prefer the volume of the void to his mirror surfaces any day.

As I left, passing the dancers engaged in their amorous torpor, I witnessed a a changing of shifts. Another couple (also male-female, young, and interracial) merged onto the floor. After a minute of synchronized dance-hugging, the first couple exited, to some scattered applause. I think they deserve a lot of credit for their strenuous, compelling performance. But if it were my piece, I would have taken a lot of couples, really going at it, and hidden them behind stairwells, around columns, in the reading room, and other secret places. There is no sex without a little mystery, a little surprise--even in a sex club. And there's no come-hither, no real allure, in a conversation that one doesn't really want to be stuck in. Are you really talking to someone, or just waiting for your turn to speak?

'Progress' is part relational aesthetics, part social work, and part Tony & Tina's Wedding. In other words, it limns the boundaries of the comfortable territories of ART and is part of a genus of activity that perhaps needs a new name to describe itself. For all the valid criticism that gets lobbed at the Gugg, this is one show, love it or hate it, that WORKS in it, and BECAUSE of it. The open spiral ramp shows you simultaneously where you came from and where you're going, the people that you're traveling with, and the painful human yearning for connection and love which slowly spins at the axis. This sounds like as good a definition of progress as I've ever heard.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Intangible Gets Tangible Over New Museum Controversy

An interesting but tepid panel discussion held at the Fashion Institute of Technology took a surprising (yet somehow predictable) left turn during the Q&A session. The ostensible subject of the symposium, titled 'Intangible', was to explore the diverse marketplace realities of so-called ephemeral art, mainly related to performance and media art since the 1960s. Seated on the panel was dealer/impressario Jeffrey Deitch; prickly artist/educator Clifford Owens; the assistant curator to media & performance art at MoMA Cara Starke; and the passionate, ever-classy advisor/curator Thea Westreich. The discussion was moderated, sort of, by educator and writer Martha Schwendener, who also teaches at the FIT; the event was organized by MA candidates in the school's Art Market: Principles and Practices program.

So, the conversation went hither and yon, with several anecdotes about (and impersonations of) Vito Acconci and frank accounts and case studies from Mr. Deitch and Ms. Starke. Actual $ numbers were revealed and some peeks behind the curtain were offered (though nothing revelatory to those in the know, I'm certain). Mr. Owens established a cautious and enticingly antagonistic tone at the outset ("I'm surprised I was asked to be here. I'm going to see how this conversation develops"). Ms. Schwendener held the reins rather slackly, at one point allowing an impatient irruption from an audience member to fully derail the conversation (whom Mr. Owens derailed in turn by amusingly banging his head into his microphone). This individual blathered on about how the internet makes everyone an artist because every 10-year old with a cellphone can upload a funny video to YouTube, which is a sadly linear and startingly low standard of qualifications for this particular career choice, unless you're Ryan Trecartin, but maybe he had a point. Everyone
is an artist now, whereby the "hell of images" has merged with "the hell of other people." Beuys=0; America's Funniest Home Videos=1.

Aside from this, the discourse was quite reasonable and entertaining, even though no aspirant performance artist was going to walk out of that room with a new business plan in mind.

Then the shit hit the fan. During the Q&A, someone inevitably brought up the case of the New Museum, despite it being a case of conspicuously NONephemeral market-object propagation. A crackle of energy, a whiff of ozone, and the tone of the room changed instantly. (I've only had the occasion to witness this particular debate online; this was my first face-to-face encounter with the polarizing rancor ensuing in its wake, affected by those close to the controversy). I only had a dinky skee-ball pencil to write with; I'll summarize.

Jeffrey Deitch (portrait not by Phong Bui)

Mr. Deitch became immediately testy--as an adviser & curator for the Joannou collection I imagine he has been at the defensive center of the controversy for some time. I've never seen him lose his cool--his whole demeanor is one of measured, mannered impishness. Mr. Owens wasn't very cool about it either, declaring more than once "I don't make art for collectors" and like comments, and loudly shuffling his luggage and jacket as though preparing to storm out of the auditorium while Deitch was speaking (he also made several salient points during the ON-TOPIC part of the symposium, so my apologies for short shrifting him here). Ms. Westreich exuberantly broke down the whole situation for everyone. The following excerpts are liberally paraphrased; there was a lot of heat coming off the stage here.

Deitch: "I don't see what's wrong with exhibiting a pre-eminent collection of modern art by one of the world's greatest collectors, and least self-serving individuals, works selected by Jeff Koons, the most radical artist of the past 25 years...(turning to an agitated Owens) You disagree with me."

Westreich: "The answer is in the history of art. No museum can exist without committed artists and collectors. The New Museum is an exhibiting, not collecting, museum... (she carries on about the realities of patronage and museum boards, exceptional only in the coinage of the wonderful word "Vomiticious!")... It's HISTORY, folks, if we don't like it, then we have to change it, as a consensus."


"The underground happens out here (gestures with hands) and the good ideas will eventually be recognized and co-opted...the edges move to the center and meanwhile there's more edges and more young people emerge with ideas that will change the way we look at and think about art. This is the history of the museum. This is the history of culture!"

: (to an audience member) "That's where it comes down to taste, and choice. The New Museum is not the same institution. You could go and support White Columns, if that's more your choice in programming."

"It's not about the market, it's about patronage. Patronage is crucial to the support of living artists. I hope Dakkis feels the same way about collecting your work as he does about the other works in his collection.. ..the NEA's budget is next to nothing, financial support for the arts in this country is nothing. The REAL tragedy here is the paucity of support for public art institutions."

"I don't make art for collectors."

"No, you don't make art to be sold, you make art to answer certain questions...but you show in your gallery, [that gallery nurtures and sells your work]. Your richness does not become MY richness without a system of support and exhibition. Patronage preserves that history."

(something to the effect of) "Let's preserve the history of the New Museum as a non-institutional institution, one that was critical in supporting under-represented artists like myself." (lots of head-nodding in the audience here).

"Everything that you're talking about, Dakkis started the same way. I started the same way, making art and writing, I decided the best way to serve the arts was as a dealer. Dakkis did lots of things, and decided his best way to serve was as a patron. There's a lot of people speaking here without being informed. Dakkis wanted to be involved in the same way (to be a part of the art dialogue). He buys work from emerging artists and unheard of artists and supports their careers. He's not doing it as speculation."

"Do we have time for one more question?"

"No, because it's late! I'm DONE!" (stalks out briskly, with Deitch not far behind).


No, not much was added to the debate in this exchange, but I hope the FIT team makes the full video recording of the session available soon, if only to correct my gross paraphrasing and to witness the passion and vigor of this impromptu argument, which the participants were clearly unprepared to speak about--but which clearly had been weighing on their minds. Maybe it's just me, but everyone seemed like they were dying to bring this up. Perhaps the NuMu should hold a symposium (or town hall meeting, the way folks are carrying on you'd think the future of health care reform was at stake) to allow for a good ritual public airing of views. It might reduce the levels of hostility between those in the inner circle, and educate the shoulder-shrugging bemusement of most of us who are on the outside and choose to let history decide the rightness, wrongness, or quality of the show.
The only interesting, and true, and contrived, act of resistance would be on the part of one of Joannau's selected artists, who might refuse to participate in the show on ethical grounds. Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants? And an almost certain solo show for said 'outsider' artist, alas..