Flash Points

Top Billing at the Guggenheim

Philippe Perreno, “Marquee” (2008). Courtesy Guggenheim.

I’ve been reading a few reviews of the Guggenheim’s anyspacewhatsoever exhibition recently, including Merrily Kerr‘s insightful take a few days ago. Coupled with the launch of Flash Points and its first-column focus on “controversial art,” I wanted to extend the conversation and chime in.

Last week I took in the show and was particularly excited to see Philippe Parreno’s light whirling, blank Marquee installed outside the museum entrance. Expectations met, as it is easily the best work in the show. With heavenly fluorescent lights and ethereal glowing chains, the sculpture is a minimal and decadent take on Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. If Marquee is Dante’s inverted heaven at the museum’s entrance, then the rest of the works inside the Guggenheim represent circles of the Inferno, where the usual suspects have apparently been consigned to several levels.

From the banality of Douglas Gordon and Liam Gillick’s signage systems to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s glorified rainstick, the exhibition inside could have used a dosage of less conscientious humor and more serious introspection. Moving past the third ramp-circle of hell, Angela Bulloch’s infinite color audio piece lacked in scale what Jorge Pardo’s abused (did they both shop at U-line for this show?). At the bottom of the ramp—now we are in Purgatory, I suppose— even the usually dependable Maurizio Cattelan’s drowned Pinocchio appeared a bit flat, buoyed (literally) by the name on the marquee alone.

A fifty-foot King Kong (or Zwang Huan’s sitting Giant) standing asleep in the Guggenheim rotunda chained to the permanent collection is what I would have preferred to see. Well, there’s always Netflix.

Trong Nguyen,

Relational Aesthetics, that favorite branch of contemporary art, doesn’t make a bold case for itself here in theanyspacewhatever. Slated as a show of artists who contend with the exhibition itself as work of art, the majority of these works and artists, who have all collaborated with each other inonewayoranother (couldn’t help it) in the past, seems misplaced contextually.

Unless one has uncanny aim, the handle of Relational Aesthetics can be very problematic. By definition, Relational Art is concerned with the social context of the artwork, whereby social activity and collective experience replace the singular viewer/object dynamic. Thus the work itself can be the act of creating a social environment in which people come together as opposed to forming imaginary and utopian realities.

The fallacy in this is the fact that, as Baudelaire observed, “even in the crowd, especially in the crowd, we are alone.” The viewer/object relationship then is never truly abolished. Rather, the audience outside one’s self becomes part of the object, temporarily or not, within an exhibition or not. To isolate the social experience and call it art, yet confine that activity inside a museum space, defeats the purpose of Relational Art’s desire to take the object’s social context outside of an independent and private space. As a result, any redeeming quality of newness of experience and subjective risk-taking attributed to the work are immediately thwarted. Relational Art, while it may bemuse the viewer, doesn’t appear capable of maintaining its conceptual integrity inside the architectural cloister that is the museum.

Jorge Pardo and Angela Bulloch, 2008 installation views. Courtesy Guggenheim.

Much as the recent Whitney Biennial erred with its selections of artists who underwhelmed the already overwhelming Armory space, the heavily text-based works in theanyspacewhatever miss the point of the museum as having a unique context. (It couldn’t have hurt to include the work of Fred Wilson (Season 3), whose omission is a bit perplexing in my opinion, to amp up and rework the museum’s wall labels for this one.)

For example, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Carsten Höller’s works suffer from the art world’s greatest unseen conceptual virus, “killer context.” While these gift economy-type works are intended to possess an underlining of edge and controversy, they suffer the fate of their own enclosure within what is essentially a protective white cube space. That is to say, they are the right works in the wrong place.

Museum-goers do not need to be given Tiravanija’s free cappuccinos or bean-bag chairs for comfort (though of course I partook), nor do they need to be spending one night alone at the museum as part of Höller’s Revolving Hotel Room. Both of these works could have been, pardon the pun, better served had they been located outside the Guggenheim in the real world.

Homeless people need hot coffee and a place to rest more so than the well-off who can afford to even attend a museum show, let alone fork out $700/night to be alone inside one. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper and easier to employ them as a security officer for the night, alone but pretending the crowd is all around?

Unfortunately for these art world insiders, what other critics have called “mundane” and “devoid of ideas,” does indeed fit the bill outside.