Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

John Haber
in New York City


Last time a friend was in town from LA, I suggested we meet at a gallery in Chelsea, where Rirkrit Tiravanija was serving up free curry for lunch. She refused. Not that again.

How could this have happened? Starting in the 1990s, Tiravanija made art the way other men his age make their bed in the morning—barely, but come over anyway and hang out. He turned a gallery into a replica of his apartment and invited strangers to stay over. He staged his first Thai soup kitchen as well. And now? Carsten Holler's Revolving Hotel Room (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2008)

Somehow, after ten years a democratic, participatory, collective vision of art has become its opposite. It has become an artist's personal signature and controlling gesture. It has also become bland enough to enjoy without thinking—or to turn down. Come to think of it, the curry was rather mild, although I did enjoy it.

"theanyspacewhatever" takes that lunch in Chelsea to extremes, and I did not enjoy it. Its ten artists all appeared in the 1990s with a flair for over-the-top installations and a trust in what Nicolas Bourriaud, a French critic, termed relational esthetics. Now each, Tiravanija included, tries a site-specific response to the Guggenheim Museum. Each promises something spare, welcoming, and perplexing. And each ends up imposing a dead hand and a bland installation. What began as relational esthetics has become the specter of an ugly relation at a family holiday.

Guided missiles

For the most part, the artists know quite well what they are doing, and that is what also makes the show interesting despite itself, as a clue to a moment in time and the fate of the Guggenheim. All obsess over the visitor's response and how to control it. All engage New York's most famous museum architecture. Yet all see an installation as taking the visitor out of a recognizable location—into "theanyspacewhatever." Feel that something is not quite right with the art scene these days, its opening-night crowds, art's empty spaces, and its trashy installations between architecture and a wrecking ball? Ask ten artists who enjoy playing both rebel and guilty party.

The controlling gesture begins with the artist as tour guide, and this show cannot seem to get enough artist tours. Philippe Parreno guides visitors starting outside the museum, with a movie marquee of spiraling, flashing lights. Yes, this is theater, with the artists as Broadway stars. Within, he supplies the audio guide. Do the descriptions seem oddly warped or self-serving? Rirkrit Tiravanija is back with hours more, in video interviews with the other artists and associates.

Liam Gillick offers further competition, not just to the audio but to the museum as well. His metal signs overhead interrupt the museum's own like more guides, but watch out. As he might have learned from one of his own signs, Fish or Cut Bait. Along with literally accurate and painfully obvious descriptions of one's progress up the ramp, Gillick includes interspersed directives and painful promises.

In the Middle of the Night, another reads. Could it serve one right to risk entering the museum after customary hours, just to get Friday evening's cheap admission? One might find that one can never leave. Each sign has its mirror image beneath it, and I often found myself circling a sign twice, before I found how to read it. With Gillick, even the tour guide challenges one to find one's way through the maze.

Douglas Gordon adds messages of his own, stenciled on the walls. They turn the museum into a threat right out of 24 Hour Psycho, his video of the Hitchcock classic slowed down to exactly the course of a day and night. Life or Death. It's Better Not to Know. Someone Is Looking. Are We Evil.

Note the change in the last from a question mark to a period. It may, as Roberta Smith suggested in The New York Times, alter the phrase from an open question to a dark statement of fact. Then again, the change could unmoor the statement from grammar, gutting it of meaning anything at all. Each of these works poses the same mystery: is it controlling, merely empty, or both? The only certainty is that the artists think they know you better than you know yourself.

Disguising the site

The controlling gesture extends from words to physical control. Tiravanija last appeared at the Guggenheim with a radio transmitter set in a cage. Now Gillick's S-shaped benches tell one where to sit. Jorge Pardo's parallel cardboard sheets slow one's progress, turning the ramp into an obstacle course. Need a boost to make it through? A level above, one can stop by an espresso bar.

Maurizio Cattelan, the subject of an upcoming Guggenheim retrospective, shows what happens to those who do not behave. Daddy, Daddy, a "life-size" Disney Pinocchio, lies face down in the museum's ground-floor fountain. Although the most direct pun on the museum's recognizable features, it centers on the art object, as the other installations purposefully do not. It also acts out the Oedipal rebellion implicit in the entire show, but, like Jim Shaw, as adolescent humor. Somewhere, that gigantic black balloon Pinocchio from Paul McCarthy is smiling.

The control extends, too, to site-specific art that manages to disguise the site. Pardo's cardboard walls bar an encounter with the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster fills another level with the sound of a rain forest. For all the reference to Wright's masterpiece, Falling Water, her gauze curtains actually hide his walls from sight. Angela Bulloch inserts an image of the night sky into the dome. In the process, she inverts Wright's expanding circles into a narrowing of attention.

Pierre Huyghe is present only with an occasional performance and a book seemingly left on the ramp by mistake, with ghostly images of the museum inside and out. It serves as the first indication that site co-exists with installation only as a troubled memory. So indeed does Modernism. In projections from Carsten Höller, a camera seems to revolve around an ideal city, only to put it—and, by extension, the viewer—under surveillance. The projections reduce the expansiveness of a city to the scale of a toy.

Finally, control means a constant focus on the artists themselves. Pardo's corrugated cardboard has his usual baroque ornamentation. This time he litters his architectural additions with circular pockmarks and flat, repetitive crab shapes that, in a few cases, give off light. A different kind of self-reference extends only as far as the show, with posters from each of the contributors. One print serves up still more snide humor at the expense of the site and the viewer: "I Went to the Guggenheim and All I Got Was This Richard Print."

Even the espresso bar is self-referential, to Tiravanija's food fights. His interviews, though, could sum up all the show's strategies of welcoming and control. The procession of headsets and TV monitors quickly turns from comfort to a chore. One has to take off one's shoes. One has then accepted the invitation to walk in, have a soft seat, and join the exclusive club. So why are its members then lecturing you—with a rambling, tedious lecture at that?

Impure possibility

How did art progress from democracy to celebrity and from welcoming to control? Writing in New York magazine, Jerry Saltz blames the Guggenheim's pomp under Thomas Krens and its selections. One could instead blame the artists for selling out. One could just as soon, too, see all this as the price of success. I enjoyed that curry in Chelsea's costliest gallery real estate, and somehow, for all his populism, Tiravanija felt no obligation to appear most of the time. Now the artist has entered a museum masterpiece, but one had better have planned well in advance to catch a performance.

One can also see the artists as the root of the problem all along. Rirkrit was briefly married to Elizabeth Peyton, and his invitation to a select few to spend the night in a gallery parallels her early exhibition at a room in the Chelsea Hotel. Ever since, she has had no trouble romanticizing name artists. Alternatively, one can see control and celebrity as the price of continued, vital rebellion. The curator, Nancy Spector, sees the show as all about possibilities and even freedom. Is the dead Pinocchio, she asks, a case of "suicide, homicide, or well-planned escape?"

The dilemma acts out art's evolution from Minimalism to installation. Minimalism offered a theater, as Michael Fried put it, but without a division between stage and audience, and the artist vanished in favor of a mute art object. Installation preserves attention to one's surroundings, but through theatrical gestures that overwhelm the viewer's perception. Gillick's benches may come closest to the Minimalist program of contemplating space in and of itself—or do they? Here one contemplates everything but the art object in its relationship to oneself and one's surroundings. Unlike with Minimalism, too, once seated one may find oneself looking around sheepishly for something to do.

The dilemma already appears in the show's title, suggested by Gillick. Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, first introduced it as a term for the generic background shots in a movie. Directors use these to establish a scene's sense of location, but the philosopher imagined them instead as place unmoored from its time and place. Are they "pure possibility," as he claimed, or the impossibility of finding oneself or losing oneself alike? Deleuze has always treated his radical revolt against interpretation, including Freud's Oedipal myth, as a kind of mythmaking. Could his and Félix Guattari's Thousand Plateaus all fit into the six tiers of the Guggenheim?

If so, they had better clear it with Höller. He upgrades Tiravanija's sleepover to a hotel room within the Guggenheim. Some museum visitors actually spend the night in its geometric furnishings, a stark as a factory for living by Andrea Zittel. It, too, seems to promise comfort, but wait. No one but the room's guests for the night may touch, and the room slowly revolves, directing one's movements even in one's sleep.

That is, it does so for those privileged enough to have copped a reservation, at the price of a luxury New York hotel. One cannot even bring children, as with the lighter relational esthetics of Ernesto Neto or Tomás Saraceno. It says something that at least one booking went to an influential art critic, and I do not mean me. The guards woke Saltz at 7:30 sharp, but at least he had free espresso.

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"theanyspacewhatever" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 7, 2009.


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