Been There, Done That

John Haber
in New York City

Haunted: Photography/Video/Performance

Art, even new art, has come to seem awfully familiar—and terribly remote. For aging boomers, try a walk around Chelsea without hearing Crosby, Stills, and Nash: we have all been here before.

The Guggenheim takes that uncanny feeling as its premise, for a show of recent art—almost all from the permanent collection. One could call it "new acquisitions in photography." The museum, though, calls it "Haunted." Surprisingly enough, often it is. Paul Chan's 6th Light (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2007)

The unheimlich maneuver

The Guggenheim signals its intentions right off, in the two-story alcove at the foot of the ramp. (If art cannot make it there, it cannot make it anywhere in the stubborn Frank Lloyd Wright building.) The wall label for Warhol's Orange Disaster cites the artist, on how constant exposure to an image takes away its power to shock. He means that a media-driven culture numbs people to even capital punishment. He means, too, the numbing repetition of his silkscreened grid—a single image fifteen times over, an electric chair. The curators, in contrast, insist that Warhol's appropriation and repetition are as haunting as ever.

And shock he does, more now that no one is shocked that this is art. Of course, Andy Warhol said a lot of things, all of them savvy and few of them to be trusted. If anything, his deliberately crude, garish handling makes this more shocking, and so does his calling attention to a repeated presence that so many refuse to see. Andy Warhol shares the alcove with Paul Chan, whose 6th Light projects falling silhouettes on the floor in honor of another disaster, 9/11. Chan has since gone for more sex and flippancy, at a serious cost, and that says something about contemporary art, too. This show is narrow and misleading, although not in the way that Andy Warhol made into art, but also a cry for help.

Must art reflect on the past while representing the present? For Modernism, borrowing or stealing was liberating. For the 1980s it was a critical strategy—or, as J.-F. Lyotard, the French literary theorist, called it, "the postmodern condition." Before all that, for as long as people have been making art, it was a matter of respect, tradition, and necessity. Now it tends to feel more like stagnation. Instead of calling ghostbusters, dealers would rather call a collector.

A hovering between past and present is also the nature of a ghost story. Sigmund Freud made the tension between familiar and unnatural the definition of the uncanny. German, he pointed out, has the tension built right in. Heim is home or place of origin, but heimlich is also secret, clandestine, or furtive. The unheimlich brings things to light, but it does not clear the air. Maybe home was never what it was cut out to be anyway.

For an example, Freud used the spooky tale of a doll that has taken on humanity and of the Sandman who threatens to rob a child of his eyes. (Now you have a precedent for Coraline.) At the Guggenheim, Jarina Tschape's toy figurine spins in a castle open to the landscape, much like the empty cardboard garage of James Casebere and other model builders. Zoe Leonard contributes a wax anatomical model, and Susan Philipsz adds another ghost story, if you can hear it amid the even more frightening mob of tourists. Her sound art derives from the Benjamin Britten opera The Turn of the Screw. This in turn derives from the story by Henry James of a haunted governess—one more case of quotation, reflection, and transformation.

Freud relates the fear of losing one's eyes to castration anxiety, and there the Guggenheim diverges. It includes Ann Collier, known for a close-up of merely an eye, but most notably here with a color photo of Dodgers Stadium. In this show emptiness involves not blindness but vision. It also involves less fear than a comforting sincerity. Right in the lobby, Douglas Gordon zooms and jerks in and out of Empire, as if Warhol had danced around the Empire State Building instead of making a static shot into a Warhol motion picture. Even irony, it says, is going to be plain fun.

Repetition as memory

As background, "Haunted" begins with Warhol and the real font of appropriation, Robert Rauschenberg. And here, too, warm memories rule. Alongside a combine painting is Autobiography, with Rauschenberg surrounded by spiraling text in tribute to friends like Jasper Johns. A look back at the "Pictures generation" of the early 1980s gets slimmed down, too, for the same reason. Maybe you remember Sherrie Levine for her rephotography of Walker Evans, as an assault on male ownership of icons of America. "Haunted" has instead her take on Alexander Rodchenko, like a scrapbook of modern art's revolutionary hopes.

Photo albums use repetition and collection to express a very personal sense of the past, so naturally they abound. Luis Jacob has one, while Sarah Ann Johnson has a whole wall for her coming of age rituals in Manitoba. In this context, when Sarah Charlesworth strips out the text from the Herald Tribune, the photos become a kind of scrapbook as well. Nate Lowman's collage pays tribute to Mexicans who suffered passage across the border in sealed trunks, with a cross to underscore their fate. Walead Beshty offers a comparable memorial in blurred images of Iraqis in Berlin. The blur arose from accidental exposure of the film by airport x-ray cameras, identifying the artist's journey with his subject's displacement.

Clearly it is a short step from a photo album to a shrine. Christian Boltanski builds one, for Jewish children in Europe. Adam McEwan laughs at one, with a pretend New York Times obituary of Richard Prince, whose Marlboro man appears earlier. So, perhaps, does Hiroshi Sugimoto with Lady Di. Maybe so, but here McEwan's description of Prince's "pathos and loss" sounds much less ironic, while Sugimoto's found image looks as sentimental as its source. Tschape's toy castle turns out to reside in Buchenwald.

Death knocks often where one least expects it. Instead of her love life and fierce wit, Sophie Calle presents her parents' graves. As with Beshty, death also comes wrapped in a comforting blur, and as in cartoons the ghosts (and artists) are white. A ghostly blur covers by silhouettes by Ori Gersht, Alan McCollum's photo of a TV screen, and anything at all by Sugimoto. The blur can create another kind of tribute, too, to the museum itself. Luisa Lambri turns a bay of the Guggenheim into a swelling curtain.

All this pathos layers sentiment over irony. When death or pain does intrude, it becomes downright refreshing. Yes, Warhol really does shock. In his self-portrait with death's head, Robert Mapplethorpe may shock most of all. Anthony Goicolea's video of a nail biter can at least discomfort. Mere gross-out or not, this company needs it.

Humor, too, comes as a relief. Gordon's Empire video practically salvages the show by itself. One can forget that the ironists of the 1980s and 1990s were trying to wake people up, like a clock for Jorge Macchi. Performance artists, too, were trying to confront and engage an audience. Joan Jonas in 1969 combines humor, performance, redoubling, and dislocation. She lies on the ground, her face cut off by a mirror and her legs extended in both directions.

Haunted by sincerity

"Haunted" is haunted by all that it omits, like the haunted studio of Francesca Woodman, and all that it elides. The indirect allusions to appropriation and performance become one more kind of haunting. That sounds great on paper, for those like me who like mind games. Repetition overruns itself, and so do art and its many meanings. Still, starting with its commentary on Warhol, the show is cheating. You, too, may feel cheated and start to list all the artists that you think were left out.

That said, the Guggenheim is onto something. For one thing, it proves that it is still collecting, with a reasonable sense of the last few years as long as one leaves aside such minor details as painting, race, politics, and gender. It proves, too, that it is turning its back on the excesses of the Thomas Krens years. A low-budget production can still fill a museum, without a car crash in sight. Not that Matthew Barney or anyone else would be out of place, since a theme like repetition could cover more or less anything. Still, "Haunted" has the sense to stake its claims on a style and a message.

"Haunted" also takes its theme seriously enough to play off artists against one another. The haunted quote and repeat each other, willingly and unwillingly, so why not let them? It can deaden their impact, just as Warhol said, but it creates some interesting interplay. Here the water towers by Bernd and Hiller Becher become less irony or formalism than a document of Germany's transformation, and Idris Kahn gets to quote them, too. Sally Mann in her murky landscapes may suffer compared to her grimier photographs of West Virginia. Near An-My Lé's shots of Vietnam War enactments in Virginia, however, they become the setting for Civil War history.

The show's insistence on feeling has a real point, and it leads to some interesting juxtapositions. From Joan Jonas, one can jump ahead to Robert Smithson, whose Mirror Displacements do to soil what she does to the human body. He and Calle's graves in turn frame Cindy Sherman at her grimiest back in the 1980s. Smeared by mud, leaves, makeup, and goodness knows what else, she might have been testifying to her own failure. Had the arts so absorbed her Untitled Film Stills that she had to keep upping the ante? Here she looks genuinely sucked into the earth.

Sherman enacts a concept closely related to the uncanny, abjection. Julia Kristeva drew on Freud when she used that work to characterize depression and feminine identity at risk. "Haunted" often dances between life and death, almost to the point of overlooking dying. Tacita Dean does not, and she gets the entire top floor for the show's climax, from Dean's series of artist videos. On screen after screen, she shows a seated Merce Cunningham, immobilized by age—in a stark performance of 4'33" by John Cage. The video also circles back to the show's beginning with Rauschenberg, the dancer's and musician's dear friend.

Freud, quoting Otto Rank, argues for a paradox: the double holds so much dread because it serves as a comfort—"an insurance against the destruction of the ego." True or false to the past, memories carry feeling, and with that theme "Haunted" also captures an aspect of the present. Everywhere, it seems, artists are rebelling against performance, installation, and irony—precisely when those trends are losing dominance, outside of posh galleries pandering to posh collectors like Dakis Joannou. That irony has powered the Bruce High Quality Foundation, "#class," William Powhida, and any number of frustrated painters. Come to think of it, "that's uncanny" works as a compliment, too.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 6, 2010.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME