Trashing ChelseaJohn Haber
in New York City
Andy Goldsworthy, Fischli/Weiss, and Installations
Are artists competing to trash the gallery as thoroughly as possible? With so many big, unruly installations, it sure seems that way. I may not find beauty or coherence, but that amounts to a tautology. I may not find much in the way of significance either. But explanations? No problem.
Plenty of art this spring had me looking for answers. Artists competed to turn a gallery into a battlefield, a disco, a natural disaster, a trash dump, or maybe Santa's workshop after the toys went south. It all comes down, I shall argue, to a tension—between real-world anxieties and pressures to act them out in public, big time. They amount to two sides of the art market. Clearly art is in a mess.
Start with avaf and Alexander Lee, who take comfort in catastrophe. Then consider more carefully how the trend got started. Next, see how far it can go, thanks to Kai Althoff and Nick Z. and to Andy Goldsworthy. Last, Peter Fischli and David Weiss turn destruction into a metaphor for creation—and even a fragile equilibrium.
With the "war on terror," art became a battlefield—and not only in Iraq, not when a group act has called itself "The Horror Show." To make art about the headlines could make art the headline. To make art about censorship could subject art to censorship. But has the battle died down a bit? Do gallery-goers now take torture and war for granted? Two shows suggest just that.
In the first, artists paper a gallery with slightly staggered red, yellow, and blue words, like pulsating newsprint. The same "3D wallpaper" covers objects propped against the walls. The flattened furniture and broad straps appear as puzzling and threatening as the sign pointing downstairs. Given a choice of words like Bush, Iraq, and evil, could I help mistaking a "multi-disciplinary room" and a dark cellar for a military prison? Yet avaf, an artist collective that appeared in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, tries not to make the words too legible, and stairs lead to a neon logo about as upsetting as Citibank's—and even less meaningful. It could give new meaning to the banality of evil.
Two doors down, Alexander Lee displays what look like charred limbs, amid a huge pile of black gunk. Even if war did not reduce entire cities to ashes, the remains would recall the term firefight. Yet Lee calls the substance black sand, and he relates it to a creation myth in Tahiti. Lava spawned fish and, ultimately, populated the earth. Cross Tenth Avenue, and enjoy an island vacation and a better planet.
My mistake could say something about me and my love for such handmade plasterboard as that of Erik Sommer and Kadar Brock—or about museums that embrace Rudolf Stingel for blurring carpeting and wallpaper. It could say something about America's anxiety, anger, and fatigue. avaf calls its show "a very anxious feeling." Then, too, this art could simply have trouble getting its point across. Multidisciplinary also means a crossing of ideas and media, and avaf has built a reputation on a fashionable combination of big installations and visual overload. It adds a vague rehash of pop album covers, as in the nostalgic 2006 Biennial and the Whitney's 2007 "Summer of Love."
My mistake also says something about the art scene and its obsessions. avaf could stand for a new notion of the artist collective, not as community but as slacker celebrity. For its press kit, the group poses in masks like a major-label band on a publicity shoot. Its full name, assume vivid astro focus, might translate loosely as "short attention span." Its anonymity, of "artists born anytime between the 20th and 21st centuries in various parts of the world," serves not as a disclaimer of authenticity, but as a guarantee of exclusivity. A similar shift in stature occurs when Rirkrit Tiravanija repeats his free lunches in Chelsea's largest gallery.
Nonetheless, both shows do make me anxious. Perhaps war has sunk so deeply into the psyche that it merges easily with other dangers. A "disciplinary room" might mean a sexual turn-on, and avaf's wallpapering includes the words homo, dyke, and anal. Fernando Botero, too, has used Abu Ghraib to air his sexual preoccupations. And Lee's creation myth promises that trauma may yet spawn something. His black remains can almost give me hope.
Creative destruction, then, comes with at least three goals, all between installation and architecture. One is to deal with real conflict, one is a to make a smash, and the last is to leave room for growth. Moreover, the shift from old media to installation did not happen overnight. Starting in the 1960s, artists exploded the whole idea of an art object and broke through the gallery walls. Yet markets demand objects, and they demand growth. Put those together with anxiety about the future, and you have a recipe for an explosion—with new meanings scattered along the way.
One has plenty of examples. Robert Smithson brought in shattered glass and stone, and Gordon Matta-Clark burst right through the roof. Long before his Torqued Ellipses, Richard Serra left heaps of torn rubber, while Elizabeth Murray both shaped and split canvas. Jeff Wall created a small room only to tear it apart—and, in turn, so that he could photograph it the ruins. In different ways, Phoebe Washburn, Julie Mehretu, Sarah Sze apart from Sze's architecture, and "scatter artists" like Jessica Stockholder, and all sorts of bad boys have all turned entire galleries into structural diagrams of chaos. Matthew Ritchie has even invoked the Apocalypse.
When I see yet another display of wall-to-wall debris, then, I all but take it for granted, just as I take another curry or espresso bar from Rirkrit Tiravanija. The celebrity artist has departed, leaving only me to rattle around the interior. Will Urs Fischer savage another wall or concrete floor? Just last month, at Ritchie's own gallery, Elliott Hundley played this year's model. He hauled out the same mix of painting on canvas, wall drawing, free-standing sculpture, gallery renovations, and prophecy. But what can this fashion for installation art mean for the artists? Art has a dozen answers.
Like Jonathan Schipper, they can be celebrating entropy as a natural or creative force. They can mean it as a threat, but one that gives the space of the gallery and the viewer a chance to fight back. They can be wrestling with art itself as an ordering or subversive spirit. They can see art as expression or catharsis. Like Joshua Neustein, they can be responding to the revival of old media like painting alongside new ones by demanding to include them all.
They can enjoy the "burgeoning geometry" of New York City or of commodity culture. They can seek an escape from the marketplace of art and its dozens of niche markets. They can be embracing a crowded marketplace, in which art has to make an instant impact. No wonder the worst excess gravitates to galleries large and wealthy enough to display it, while the most evocative empty rooms lie elsewhere. They can mirror a society haunted by terrorism and global warming—with the feeling, as one recent show had it, that "The End Is Nigh." Call it the anxiety of influence.
Why, then, do artists feel obliged to trash the gallery that is giving them a shot—and why does a gallery or a Whitney Biennial submit to it? In sum, the partners in crime seek each other out, to legitimize their status as superstars. On the one hand, the artist acts as a force of nature—with the artist as mythmaker. At the same time, a larger system absorbs and degrades every personal gesture. In the process, the players scale up these themes for an era of posh galleries, celebrity artists, and short attention spans.
One way or another, galleries are determined to discover the largest dump site, in a macho scene for which size matters. Does it matter whether the mess means more than the chance to know the price of everything and gawk? Does it matter that Matta-Clark died long before Chelsea's largest gallery set out an old van in his name? Does it matter if, in inviting visitors to add graffiti, it rehashes an urban cliché of a generation past? I think these things do matter. Quantity alone does not offer an artistic challenge.
It does, however, let artists have fun—and so, at times, can visitors. At least Kai Althoff and Nick Z. are having fun. They pile in all the expected elements, from painting and wall drawing to sculpture, found objects, and physical alteration of the space itself. Mostly, however, they get to make a colossal mess, with the emphasis on the colossal as much as the mess. The mess fills both sides of the huge, partitioned main space and both side rooms as well. I dare you, even after two or three visits, to remember a single object or image, much less what it might contribute to the whole.
To emphasize the overkill, the German superstar and graffiti artist throw in not one but two cockeyed, cramped, half-open sheds. A painting has jagged edges out of early Elizabeth Murray, and two hyperactive young men spar within it. Everything signals a childlike glee, from spray paint and cartoon faces to colorful bedsheets, snappy messages, and drawings stuck on the walls as in elementary school. It amounts to a child's fantasy of grown-up rebellion, right down to the jar of cigarettes at the desk, for sale at a quarter each. See, it all says, we refuse to stay in until we clean up our room. As the title puts it, We Are Better Friends for It, just like Calvin and Hobbes.
Shows like these pretend to destroy an influential part of the art market—but only pretend. At the same time, their scale requires a massive task of construction. Andy Goldsworthy plays on exactly that ambiguity, between construction and destruction. He merges natural processes of demolition with his own. His show, too, amounts to simple theater, but with quite a stage set. As entries in the "trash your gallery" sweepstakes go, this one will be more rewarding than most to clean up at the end.
A sign warns visitors to stay near the center of the room. It may be looking after one's safety—or and the gallery's liability. It also underscores how much one wants to get closer. The walls are peeling, and inch-thick white fragments lie everywhere on the floor. I wanted to reach out for the familiar touch of Sheetrock, but in fact the artist lined the gallery with porcelain clay. The press release notes that he had no idea how long it would take to crack, but after only three days it had pretty well fallen away.
The caked substance alludes to the artist's home territory, in Cornwall. Like Richard Long with his walks, Goldsworthy is measuring geologic space and time in England through his own spatial and temporal gesture. And the more nature takes over, the more the work comes to be. White Walls also describes the white cube of a gallery, at once empty and increasingly full. Ironically, the gallery's home page displays a more pristine version of the same space. Think of the universe before the Big Bang.
Arthur C. Danto in fact calls his essay on Peter Fischli and David Weiss "The Artist as Prime Mover." The title is irresistible, and so is their best-known work, The Way Things Go. (It ran again at MOMA in 2005, and one can even purchase it on DVD.) What starts as a coy Rube Goldberg apparatus grows into a chain of events seemingly as long, as marvelous, and as implausible as creation. A slow fuse burns, a tea kettle whistles, a balloon inflates, the ramp unfolds, tires tumble and roll, and before long I nearly gave up wondering what comes next, because the only mystery is whether anything still can. The magic act holds one in suspense for all its thirty minutes and the contraption's hundred feet.
As Danto points out, the 1987 video accords the artist a god-like stature, but in a uniquely modern universe—one Olafur Eliasson and his own art as science experiment might appreciate. The prime mover makes art indiscernible from "ordinary things" and then withdraws from the creation, just as Fischli and Weiss never quite enter the frame. Like the physical world, it has components as elemental as fire and water, but also laws as elementary and impersonal as chemistry and physics. Like the real world, too, it seems senseless but always threatens to end in a catastrophe—and it surely trashes the artists' studio along the way. Not that Danto believes in a last judgment, whether in art or life. Anything can become art, he has argued, and the work's tires and old shoes might confirm that thesis as well.
The Swiss artists surely do update old role models for a world with few idols apart from art. Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce's hero, described the true artist as above it all, "paring his fingernails"—something that Leonardo might have appreciated in his defense of painting over the dirty work of sculpture. The video goes back as well to the old idea of the artist as trickster. One trusts an artist or god alike at one's own risk. However, Fischli and Weiss have a humbler side than Danto or Joyce might ever admit. Now they offer some hints of how The Way Things Go got going.
The exhibition includes Making Things Go, which amounts to a documentary on the work's making and an hour-long succession of false starts. Here the artists definitely appear throughout, and they do not appear awesome. Other planning stages for the finished video appear in the eighty color photographs of Equilibres. Each shows an assemblage poised precariously but, unlike in the video, never able to unleash a world in time. They bring out their work's humor, but also a striking elegance and simplicity amid the trash and fireworks. An automobile tire balances upon another, as if in preparation for a car wreck by Luca Buvoli or Martin Kippenberger, thanks to the perfect angle and a small stick.
Structuralism provided a description of a language or a culture as a self-contained system. It need not have a prime mover, just the infinity of relationships between its parts. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the structural anthropologist, also described myth as a work of bricolage, a kind of do-it-yourself kit for creating a world by trial and error. One can see Fischli and Weiss as the ultimate bricoleurs. They defy any appeal to final authority, just as the title The Way Things Go avoids appeal to the way things are. The process undermines even its own linear unfolding, the kind that necessitates a prime mover.
"We don't think chronologically," the artists have said, to justify the arrangement of their 2006 retrospective at the Tate. This time, the preparation for a work appears years after the work itself, and one enters and leaves at will, probably without ever seeing the whole. Then again, maybe that does parallel life in the cosmos—or the art world. Samuel Beckett might almost be invoking Rube Goldberg when he ends a bleak comic novel with "I can't go on. I'll go on." In the old debate between the essence of the art object and the process of performance, installation, or "action painting," process has, for now, the last word.
avaf ran at John Connelly Presents through June 30, 2007, Alexander Lee at Clementine, through May 26, Elliott Hundley at Andrea Rosen through April 21, Gordon Matta-Clark's recreated shed at David Zwirner through May 19, Kai Althoff and Nick Z. at Barbara Gladstone through June 16, Andy Goldsworthy at Galerie Lelong through June 16, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss at Matthew Marks through June 30.