From Chaos to Mythos

John Haber
in New York City

Summer 2007 at P.S. 1: Organizing Chaos and Tunga

Jim Shaw: The Donner Party

In the city's finest alternative space, contemporary art is slipping away. It slips into ambient noise, never to appear at all. It slips into the artist's own home, never seen again. It slips into waste sites, far better left unseen. At least that picture is emerging from recent group shows at P.S. 1 (or, for those looking ahead, MoMA PS1), which have struggled to emerge from a nasty rut.

Yet it takes only a small step to proceed from chaos to mythos. That and the free market may explain Matthew Barney or Matthew Ritchie. It may explain big, messy shows all over the place recently, like those by Dana Schutz and Neo Rauch. Artists these days have to prove that they deserve mythic status, and the summer shows at P.S. 1 do their best. Jim Shaw's The Donner Party (Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Grenoble/MoMA PS1, 2003–2007)

With "Organizing Chaos," P.S. 1 could almost be summing up its own mistakes. Meanwhile, Tunga and The Donner Party by Jim Shaw make the artist the hero of his own wild and wooly myth.

Chaos is come again

In just the last year or so, four different shows at P.S. 1 have obsessed over human waste, in a museum now way too old to be playing with its food. Another settled for works "Not for Sale" by well-established artists. A third, "Music Is a Better Noise," pursued visual art by musicians, who definitely had better not give up their day job. It hardly helps that the largest solo shows, like that of Ron Gorchov, have looked back on careers almost at an end.

What happened to art's future? The title alone of its latest group show raises alarms. "Organizing Chaos" sounds interchangeable with "better noise"—or, for that matter, a marketing campaign for a recycling center. Much of the show consists of sound art, except that one cannot hear the music. It could almost confirm that the opposite of sound art is unsound art.

One might expect that from John Cage, whose score for 4'33" opens the exhibition, but not like this. As you probably know, the score instructs a performer not to play for the stated time. David Tudor, the pianist, signaled the duration of its three movements with his hands, although Cage permits any combination of instruments and, in fact, any timings one wishes. Perhaps you imagine a meditative silence, a profound sensual awareness of ambient sound, or your discomfort at that cough or rustle of newspaper that keeps escaping. You may never have thought that you would be listening to a loud and persistent orchestra in the very same room. It is the first sign that "Organizing Chaos" has too little patience with either chaos or organization.

The dominant noise in that first room comes from Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra. For the forty-five minutes of a documentary by Luke Fowler, the group does anything but attend to its instruments. And, sure enough, no matter how close one gets to speakers, the conversation remains garbled. Next door, a recording by Stephen Vitiello of dogs in his backyard mistakes chaos for mere passivity. Past that, Christian Marclay drags his electric guitar behind a pickup truck, for once mistaking chaos for single-minded aggression. Black Sabbath does not constitute "Soundings" or sound art either.

Things grow only more inaudible after that. In fact, they give up on sound altogether. Bruce Nauman subtitled his log of studio activity Fat Chance John Cage. But what of the scraggly photographic diaries of Hans-Peter Feldman and Tomoko Takahashi or of Cao Guimarães? How do these fit in? Too many selections are random and chaotic.

Since Robert Smithson, the word entropy has become a curatorial cliché, maybe especially among those who could not explain the second law of thermodynamics if they tried. For that very reason, the show seems on the brink of fulfilling a need. Besides, Marclay will get anyone laughing—or maybe playing along on air guitar. He also finds the prefect visual contrast in the patience with which he ties a noose around the guitar neck, almost like a freak capo, and attaches it to the truck. Rivane Neuenshwander even sticks to what a mathematician really does call chaos theory, with a film of soap bubbles. Yet the chaos of life or of contemporary art will just have to wait a little longer.

On extended wings

Set up those living-room speakers or docking station for your iPod now? What does it mean when an artist locates his unconscious in furniture? At P.S. 1, Tunga puts his deepest longings and fears on display. Only they turn out to lie amid blinking lamps, glass shelves, porch screens, and tapestries of thick black yarn. Some come amid low murmurs, giving his art that special Tunga din.

Perhaps it means too many late nights in bars, not unlike Brazilian art of the 1960s and 1970s. Loosely grouped as the Neoconcrete movement or Tropicália, that art found inspiration in the carnival in Rio, a culture of ritual and spectacle. It built on the Minimalist idea of sculpture as the site of immediate experience, while giving that experience a natural history. It crossed media, whether between art and music or between arts and design. Does the linking of hard sculpture with furniture and soft fabric sound feminist? Tunga pierces his black weave with what look like gigantic silver knitting needles.

Most of all, Tropicália reveled in excess. Hélio Oiticica, for one, called himself as an outlaw. He made art about desire and surfaces, including the surfaces of young men. For Lygia Clark, art was supposed to burst the boundary between objects and the human body. Surely household furnishings do just that. Beyond Brazil, Tunga has something in common, too, with Jorge Pardo, the Cuban-born artist who fills galleries with tiling and lamps—always gaudy but never quite Gaudí.

Oiticica and Clark began with abstract painting or sculpture, as Neoconcrete implies, and they loved decorative art for its own sake. Tunga, in contrast, is well into his Surrealist period, with a decidedly personal iconography for his dreamscape. He also seems to have darker dreams. The knitting needles could pierce, and his black hammock suggests a spider's web that Louise Bourgeois might have woven in steel. Its very limpness looks threatening, like the rope tricks of Eva Hesse, and it gathers up a number of oversized, sometimes glittering sculls. His wire screens look dark, the lamps cast more shadow than light, and both trap live flies.

The installation titles, Laminated Souls and A la lumière des deux mondes ("To the Light of Two Worlds"), carry one further into the great beyond. The first puts the cold surfaces of modern materials on dead souls. The second could well invert the ideal of Jesus as the light of this world. Their furnishings reek of mortality, only beginning with the sculls. The screens reverse their usual function, not keeping pests out but fencing them in, and I could not help noting that tunga is also a nasty order of tropical fleas, akin to chiggers. The stacked glass suggests slides in a primitive laboratory, but for disconcertingly large specimens.

At age fifty-five, Tunga makes every display something of a stage set for the artist. Not just the large work in the museum's two-story gallery downstairs, but the loosely arranged mini-retrospective upstairs comes across as an installation. It makes for a claustrophobic universe, dedicated to one man—the artist as poseur more than trickster. Even the one-word pseudonym, perhaps after the river in India, insists on the artist as a luxury brand name. The work yields its mysteries quickly, and the lamps never really cast the promised silhouettes of wings on the walls. For all his creativity, this is one artist who believes in his own myth.

Apostle of thrift

Like Tunga, some artists spin their images into a private mythology. By now, Jim Shaw has so many that I have lost count. And why not? He finds them wherever he can get them.

With The Donner Party, I am certain to get something wrong, but here goes. For starters, if you do not know right off that Shaw parodies Judy Chicago's 1979 The Dinner Party, depart immediately for the new Sackler Center for Feminist Art of the Brooklyn Museum, and prepare for a thorough indoctrination. With the help of a woman's collective, Chicago set places for goddesses, saints, and their vaginas, no doubt in hope that more realistic feminist role models will show up in person. In honor of "women's work," Shaw's anonymous contributors construct their motley settings from used parts, often small appliances. Maybe he intends an eat-in kitchen. Long Island City is coming back.

Donner does not mean that Santa has come early this year. Shaw refers to an arcane but enduring story, about an expedition that got stuck in a wintry mountain pass and resorted to cannibalism. This explains why Chicago's eternal triangle has become a vicious circle. The table proper consists of small, mock Conestoga wagons that have indeed drawn into a circle for dear life. A mural behind them shows a lurid sunset over the American West. The people stand side by side and face forward—as heroes, zombies, or both.

Then come still more desperate and archetypical Americans. All this has something to do with a religious cult in upper New York State—devoted, of course, to a goddess and that gaping letter O. The surrounding rooms display art supposedly culled from the community's thrift shops. Apparently at least some fundamentalists encourage both painting and interior remodeling. They, too, could flourish in Long Island City. Whether they also painted the mural I leave for wiser heads.

Shaw has presented himself as curator of thrift store paintings since 1991, and he added a fictitious cult some years later. To complicate matters, this time he invents a wholly different religion, although its tenets remain unspoken, and its place in America's debate over "values" remains an open question. The fad for "bad art" made Shaw the critical darling of those fed up with the art world, although these days he shows at Metro Pictures, on Chelsea's priciest block. It also endeared him to people angered and fascinated by America's own habits of mythologizing. He likes paintings of people, between folk art and history painting, the less distinguished the better. I have every assurance that he really does scavenge all these, although I doubt it would matter if he made a few adjustments along the way.

In other words, he wants to revel in it all and yet to rise above it. Not surprisingly, then, he drew attention at much the same time as John Currin, and I have much the same qualms about both. Besides, how do all these American dreams add up? As far as I can see, not at all, but anyone who can get a rise out of Judy Chicago is fine with me. Better circle those wagons.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Organizing Chaos," Tunga, and Jim Shaw's "The Donner Party" ran at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through September 24, 2007. The review of Jim Shaw first appeared in Artillery magazine for September 2007. A related review picks up a 2015 Jim Shaw retrospective.


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