My Personal Museum

John Haber
in New York City

Beth Campbell and Fred Wilson

Beth Campbell likes simple concepts, open-ended alternatives, personal histories, and impersonal repetition. She has projected herself over one seemingly ordinary day, three screens, and half a dozen cities. In each, she enacts in close synchrony such gestures as catching her reflection and brushing her hair. More recently she took a downtown storefront and pared down its wares. It became a gallery and an open-ended narrative, not unlike the cross between a chandelier and a family tree that she once fashioned from twisted wire hangers.

With Campbell, a passing moment multiplies into infinity, like the potential paths of a human life. In turn, the possibilities all come back to the illusion of herself in the everyday. Following Room at the Whitney takes her usual alternatives to extremes. In the process, the illusion grows harder than ever to dispel. It also grows harder to separate from the museum. Maybe every artist and every exhibition demands to know whose museum, but for Fred Wilson, too, a collection is as close as the artist may ever come to a confession. Fred Wilson's Local Color (Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993)

In July 1993, the Studio Museum in Harlem celebrated a major anniversary. The anniversary was of 1492, the celebration was "Artists Respond: The 'New World' Question," and the new world in question was the Americas. And of the seven invited artists behind an awfully portentous title, Wilson had a simple answer: if the museum wants a response, it already has one, in its collections. Wilson raided them for Caribbean and African art, which he displayed along with kindred spirits purchased on the street. His title left open which of the two supplied Local Color.

Mirror, mirror

In her 2002 video, Same as Me, Campbell sways to blow-dry her hair or polishes off fast food. She pauses to window-shop or sits by the road, her head turning to follow the traffic. She walks right toward the camera, without a trace of a smile. She lies ever restless, crossing her legs or twisting to scratch her back. Only she does it all in perfect synchrony on three screens, from utterly distinct parts of the world. What is past is past, but whose past could connect these disparate representations?

In a video by Lorna Simpson, thirty-one variations on a theme reinforce the constraints of black urban experience. Campbell creates all her own constraints. She covers ground from nameless city streets to Chelsea galleries, a German town, the suburbs, and desert landscapes. She dresses differently in each shot, but her gestures never fail to match up precisely on different screens. They come together in real time, joining her to the life of the viewer. They also turn the scenery of the world into a woman's life, her life to a passing show, and a show's illusions to the uncanniness of ordinary existence.

Same as Me could have the message of a Cathy cartoon. See, wherever I go and however much I attempt to change, I shop for new clothing, I never share the space of the imagination with another being (much less a man), and I never do lose weight. It could serve, too, as an ever-shifting reminder of an artist's months of patient dedication. Sometimes a scene takes a while to end, so that Campbell takes too long to catch up to her other two images. One never identifies a scene for certain or remembers a specific disjunction, adding to the craft, the strangeness, and the comedy. The artist may not acknowledge the viewer, but she is playing to the camera all the time.

She reverses entirely the message of some other wondrous art-world posers. Where Cindy Sherman puts on one fancy character after another, with Campbell all and none are "just her." The artist at her most natural is merely a pose—and yet somehow still more exposed to life and the male gaze. She seems too modest, too self-aware, too bound to the sensual, physical weight of living, and much too funny to have high aspirations. And that is how she makes so many suggestions of meaning possible at once. It also explains how she grows so hypnotic over fifteen minutes.

Beth Campbell's Same as Me (Roebling Hall, 2002)Six years later at the Whitney, Campbell is just as elusive, but on the modest scale of a living room. Where most museums let one stumble upon treasures of the past, Following Room uses materials so simple that one could overlook them in one's own life. Black, open shelving appears to define a room, and it holds what look like memorabilia. A scarf drapes over a chair. A book lies open on the floor, and a red cushion has fallen beside the shelf. Yet the room's inhabitants are nowhere to be seen.

The artist might have left only a moment before, and yet the moment grows longer the longer one looks. The shaded river walk in a framed photograph might or might not exist in Paris, but the absence of lovers undercuts its evident romanticism. Besides, I could swear I saw that movie with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—plus its sequel. Most people, no doubt, construct their living rooms and their lives from received images. Few, though, take such care with the construction. Few, too, get so lost in its possibilities.

Guilt and genius

Traditionally, art based the illusion of reality on a vivid metaphor, the mirror of nature. Campbell makes it hard to distinguish a mirror image from a projection—or an installation. And, sure enough, this sculpture includes multiple copies of its one-of-a-kind objects. One could easily mistake the display for an arrangement reflected infinitely in paired mirrors. I myself admired its careful construction of the same scene and its mirror image, over and over, each copy reflected in mirrors at the center of the installation. Yet the illusion of infinity boils down to exactly a dozen copies, without a single mirror.

I passed my hand, gingerly and guiltily, through the panes where a mirror ought to lie. It took me several experiments to get over the disbelief. Is this the illusion of an illusion? Do the copies of copies now seem twice as cheap or twice as ingenious? Why not both, and they also seem twice as funny. The book's spine promises The Other Side of Me, as if one could get to the bottom of her by stepping through the mirror.

I feel closest to her work when she lets herself in, as with Same as Me. And she does so again at the Whitney, if only in a museum handout that alone justifies the show. Titled My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances, the handout resembles a drawing she once contributed to "Greater New York" at P.S. 1. "I've been invited to do a project at the Whitney," she begins. From there, the weave of pencil traces extends to such outcomes as "a few people quit or are fired because of my show" and "I suffer from terrible guilt." Oh, and "my baffling 'artspeak' is translated into genius."

All these puns suggest an object lesson in post-structuralism's "fiction and repetition." And the curators duly haul out quotes from enough all the people one really ought to have read. They cite Roland Barthes on photography, Paul Churchland on consciousness amid neural networks, an explication of André Gide's mis en abyme, Lewis Carroll's looking glass, and Anthony Vidler on architecture as the space of anxiety and estrangement. The work has enough influences to call it a near knockoff—from Sophie Calle with her comedy of fiction and confession to the discarded household of "Better Homes" or the New Museum with its "Unmonumental" sculpture. In Same as Me, Campbell knocked herself off. Here she extends the favor to others.

Plenty of artists have treated the museum as muse. Starting at least with André Malraux's popular text, The Imaginary Museum has haunted art history. That holds especially for those like Marcel Broodthaers, Howard Saunders, and Alan Wallach, suspicious of the institutional power of modern museums. Campbell's handout recalls Ad Reinhardt in his sardonic diagrams of Modernism, although with no trace of Reinhardt's insistent determinism. Like Barbara Bloom, Campbell creates a museum of mind. Like Bloom, too, she hints that real museums harbor illusions.

The more elaborate the construction, the more Campbell tempts one to write it off as a gimmick. That would be a mistake, although I did like Same as Me more than the Whitney's careful charade. For one thing, Campbell's hall of mirrors has the solidity of things. For another, it never loses the enigma of who lies behind the mirrors, like the fragmented images of herself that have fascinated Amy Greenfield. Following Room creates a public space with room for just one person to linger. And one cannot easily call that person the artist or oneself.

The basement tapes

When the Studio Museum called on Fred Wilson in 1993, he had engaged just the year before in what he called "Mining the Museum." He appeared two years later as well, in "Art of Our Time" at the Modern, with small wooden relics posed and dressed as a cross between a thoroughly modern household and voodoo dolls. When Old Salem: A Family of Strangers turned up again in 1998, in a show called "Play Things," it was hard not to imagine them as his family—and equally hard not to want to play. As Wilson wrote for MoMA, one simply has to get involved, because "my work is about looking and being looked it." Well, look again. Local Color is back, with a few changes. From Fred Wilson's Art in Our Time (Metro Pictures, 1998)

For one thing, times have changed, to the point that the lookers become harder and harder to keep apart. MoMA in 1995 was celebrating and questioning its own past—an exhibition with the very same name on the museum's tenth anniversary, in 1939. As Wilson explained, "When we step back and view 'Art of Our Time' from the vantage point of our own time, we see how tied its curators were to their time and, by extension, how tied we are to ours. We see, by looking back, how invisible the present can be." Not any more. Africa art now plays alongside movies on VHS, and the dead technology alone puts the living on the line.

VHS tape wraps one thin totem as if to mummify it or to strangle it alive. Another artifact hangs upside-down on a trapeze, in a thoroughly modern circus. Could the additional strings of tape crossing the room be her tightrope? They lead from the statuary to a display of VHS boxes—and guess which stands on pedestals and which on a cheap portable table. The green and maroon walls look equally out of fashion amid today's museum white cubes, but visually distinct, like two period rooms rolled into one. Maybe the table is Wilson's collection, a hint at a personal history within the global and artistic one.

Local Color has its limits as a docent tour or as art, but impeccable timing. When "Artists Respond" opened, not everyone was up for another mining operation. Holland Cotter in The Times panned it as a "visually tepid installation" that "lacks any urgency." Now it gains in urgency by standing alone as installation—and by a distance of twenty years. Barbara Bloom is taking her curatorial installations to the Jewish Museum, the Studio Museum and others have recently surveyed contemporary Caribbean art, and the New Museum has omitted Wilson from its reincarnation of "NYC 1993." The taped totems anticipate the nylons filled out with sand by Senga Nengudi, while the museum as muse anticipates Beth Campbell.

The work also gives a new cast to the rest of the museum. Selections from the permanent collection center on Beauford Delaney's hazy abstractions from the early 1960s and Sam Gilliam's blood-red panels from 1981, and one can see them less as theme shows than as call and response. Upstairs, David Hartt documents the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, the publisher of Jet and Ebony. Here, too, the collision of past and present both hides and discloses. Hartt's photographs and video looks within the rare modernist landmark by an African American architect, John Moutoussamy, to see something stark, empty, and less than empowering. The glass and shelves look suspiciously like museum cases.

Wilson is displaying how Third World culture becomes a First World stereotype, just as with primitivism for early modern art. The wall for statuary also includes a t-shirt, showing a young black woman with boobs and an attitude. Just who is on display and in what period? Whatever the wall text may reveal, he has roped off the whole installation, so you will just have to decide on your own. Wilson's 1995 essay for MoMA noted how blackness "existed marginally and centrally, simultaneously, within its walls." How fitting that he now gets the Studio Museum's best exhibition space, in the basement.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Beth Campbell's "Same as Me" ran at Roebling Hall through October 14, 2002, "Following Room" at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 24, 2008. Fred Wilson ran at the Studio Museum in Harlem through June 30, 2013.

 

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