Imagination and the Suspension of Reality

In early 2014, I went with my father to the David Zwirner Gallery and waited in the cold February winds to see Doug Wheeler’s installation. Within the Gallery, Wheeler had created what one might call an infinity space, but what the artist dubbed a “rotational horizon work.” The visitor entered a room to find a white space which Wheeler had carefully sculpted and lighted to create the illusion that the space extended indefinitely. Even standing directly in front of the wall it appeared as if I could run forward for miles. The experience was surreal and unlike anything I have ever encountered before or after that moment. It was if I had awoken from a deep sleep to find that the world had gone blank. Wheeler created a physical space with plaster and lights capable of deceiving the human eye, a space that computer scientists could only do with virtual reality glasses. Although, Wheeler is associated with the Light and Space movement, his work may also be classified as a synthetic environment. The “rotational horizon work” shares an important commonality with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 2004’s retrospective at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Despite vastly different construction, both works are fictional environments which rely heavily on the visitor’s imagination and the suspension of reality.

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(Doug Wheeler, Rotational Horizontal Work, 2014, https://www.davidzwirner.com)

As described in 2004 article, “No Ghosts in the Wall,” Tiravanija’s retrospective did not in fact exhibit any of his previous works of art. Rather, Tiravanija, acting as a docent rather than himself, walked a group of visitors through the exhibition while reciting a planned tour, describing each work of art that was not present. At the close of the tour, Tiravanija would state: “Tiravanija and the curators believed that this is one of the possible ways this body of work could be represented. There is no object, no picture, no moment no space and even perhaps no time, but in this void of representation we hope you have imagined a picture of your own, a memory of your own, and that in the end it was an experience of its own making” (Tiravanija, 153). Each visitor in the group heard the same scripted remarks, but in the absence of any grounding visual clues, each visitor’s imagination would naturally create a unique version of the retrospective within each of their minds. As the Tiravanija details, this is brought about by the “void,” a suspension of all grounding elements. In this manner, viewer enters their imagination, a wonderfully malleable space that is not always easily accessible to all.

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(Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rirkrit Tiravanija: A Retrospective, 2004, http://nevolution.typepad.com)

The “void” which Tiravanija leverages to enact his retrospective may very well resemble the space which Doug Wheeler created physically. As a completely empty, white expansive space, the “rotational horizon work” recalls the colloquial phrase: “my mind is blank.” While this phrase often carries negative connotations, suggesting an impossibility to recall information, Wheeler’s space and Tiravanija’s retrospective push the viewer to recognize that a blank mind is a bank canvas. Stimulation is a deceiving concept. Through the exploration of the void in both of their works, Wheeler and Tiravanija demonstrate that the elimination visual stimulation in fact pushes humans to reconnect and spark their imaginations.

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Volksboutique: The Lust for the Aesthetically Pleasing and Mindfulness

the scholar Hal Foster discusses in his article “An Archival Impulse” artists who operate as archivists and curators. These artists—Thomas Hirschhorn, Sam Durant, and Tacita Dean, to name a few—delve into research and sift through endless piles of what man others classify as “junk” to re-present and re-frame items of the past to viewers. Naturally, each artist does so with a different intent. In some instances, artists catalogue and archive in order to find “time readymades.” Other times, this re-presentation serves as to “[retrieve]…alternative knowledge or [act as a] counter-memory” (Foster, 4). In the case of Christine Hill, the proprietor of Volksboutique, re-presentation seems to be driven by an aesthetic lust for nostalgia pieces. The original Volksboutique, situated in Berlin, Germany, not only acts as a gallery space but epitomizes an intentional lifestyle practice, which can be classified as mindfulness (Hill, 26). However, Christine Hill’s work appears to fetishize material culture and mindfulness.

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(Christine Hill, Volksboutique Anniversary Commercial Clip, 2017, http://www.volksboutique.org/)

The introductory video on Volksboutique’s website demonstrates the aesthetic lust of mindfulness. The commonplace phrase “aesthetically pleasing” denotes a satisfaction of the senses and is certainly a characteristic of the Volksboutique website. The website entices the visitor with a beautiful layout, fit with an embroidered border and header. The hues of the website and video are muted and soft–the greens evoke antique glass and the pop of red is that found in Edward Hopper paintings. In the video, Hill offers some samples of what objects Volksboutique stores and archives. However, the manner in which Hill prepares the demonstration and displays the objects creates an aesthetic tension. Every motion is intentional, slow, and controlled. At the same time, the actions are so clearly for the voyeuristic viewers. As Hill is faceless, the viewers can imagine that they are Hill painting their nails, and moisturizing their hands, finally crossing them in the most particularly specific and charming manner. The video continues on to display an assortment of objects with the same color pallet, with Hill remarking, “This one’s really nice,” “This is a really nice one,” “This one is really beautiful.”  The objects may seem unremarkable but in part because they are unremarkable they are beautiful. Because the actions bespeak confidence, knowledge, particularity, and possession of these beautiful objects Hill creates in her viewers a lust for a mindful lifestyle as well. This is not surprising in an age in which everyday life is frequently curated online to evoke envy and desire in others. This is also exemplified by Hill’s Minutes–a collection of notebooks detailing everyday tasks. Minutes showcases art that is reminiscent of the alluring notebooks and examples of penmanship found on Buzzfeed and Pinterest. Thus, as a result the art viewer becomes consumer of the ephemeral, awakened by aesthetic lust for the vintage and the fetishization of mindfulness.

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(Christine Hill, April, 2006, The American Heritage Dictionary)

In this manner, Volksboutique sets itself apart from other archival works by Hirshhorn, Durant, and Dean.Whereas artists like Hirshhorn work towards the creation of “a counter hegemonic archive that might be used to articulate ([dis]placements)” and the creation of new meaning, Hill unintentionally awakens the insatiable consumer (Foster, 18). Hill’s work is pleasing and charming, but perhaps it is important to recall the words of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “Charm…spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art” (Waugh, 273.)

Double Vision and the Seduction of Fantasy

Formed from a multitude of changing internal and external forces, identity is constantly in flux. However, there is often the contradictory urge to define identity, which fixes the fluid. This confinement presents a difficult conundrum which can be harmful, to oneself and others. Art often attempts to provide an antidote to these limiting conceptions and definitions through deconstruction. In his article “Hip Sensibility in an Age of Mass Counterculture,” Phil Ford discusses what he dubs double vision—the ability to perceive perspective—and its application in music in the 1950s. Jazz musicians during this era were able to lure listeners into thinking they could anticipate what would happen next in the music and then subsequently perform something different. In this moment, the listener simultaneously becomes aware of his own perspective and another point-of-view (Ford, 13). Double vision is not only applicable in the realm of music, but in the visual arts world as well. The artwork of Mickalene Thomas and Kara Walker employ double vision in their manipulation of fantasies in order to subvert assumptions about identity.

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(Mickalene Thomas, Hotter than July, 2005, Rubell Family Collection)

As discussed in Derek Conrad Murray’s article “Afro-Kitsch and the Queering of Blackness,” Thomas exploits traditional poses of sexual fantasies to reposition black women as the locus of power. In Hotter than July, a woman is posed suggestively—short skirt bunched up, legs spread, with her shirt unbuttoned, revealing her bare breasts—in a manner that is reminiscent of soft-core pornography, yet defiant of objectification. In her direct gaze, the woman is inaccessible to the viewer. There is the acknowledgement of her sexual positioning, but it is clearly not for the gratification of the viewer. In this moment, the viewers understand that they have been conditioned to identify black, female bodies with subservience while simultaneously understanding black, female bodies are not bodies at all but rather people. The viewer becomes acutely aware that Hotter Than July was created by a black, female artist and constructed from her perspective. In this manner the work “[exposes] the hypocrisies of racial fetishism and [liberates] the work from identity politics that have become outdated” (Murray, 12). Thus, Thomas uses her knowledge of white sexual fantasies of the black body to subvert the confines that others have placed on people of color.

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(Andrea Dezsö, The Godfather, 2014, Brain Pickings)

Kara Walker constructs double vision through her use of fantastical silhouettes. Walker’s artwork draws parallels with the work of Andrea Dezsö, featured in the 2014 anthology The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Like Walker, Dezsö employs silhouettes to produce vignettes to accompany each fairy tale. Although Walker predates Dezsö, Dezsö’s artwork emphasizes existing connection between silhouettes, shadow puppetry, and the fantastical world. As both Walker and Dezsö understand, silhouettes necessitate, to some degree simplification, of form and story. Historically, these stories have often been distilled to more palatable versions. Little Red Riding Hood is a metaphor for rape, however, in modern retellings this unsavory connotation is often not depicted or referenced. Like Dezsö, Walker challenges these simplifications. However, in opposition to Thomas, Walker effects not her own identity but that of her country, and the simplified perceptions of race relations. In her employment of silhouettes in works such as Slaughter of the innocents (“They Might Be Guilty of Something”), Walker lures the viewer into a seemingly innocent vignettes at first glance. The viewer is then confronted with the horrors of slavery and the viewer’s limited perception of the United States is deconstructed and reformed in the eyes of black individuals. As silhouettes force the viewer’s imagination to complete the representations given, presented with these disturbing images, the viewers cannot fantasize about American history in they anticipated. Thus, through the temptation of fantasy, both Thomas and Walker confront the viewer with reality and double vision, and deconstruction limited notions of identity.

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(Kara Walker, Slaughter of the innocents (“They Might Be Guilty of Something”), 2017,

The Paris Review)

Is vs. About

In her article, “Language Between Performance and Photography,” Liz Kotz discusses the various ways in which language functions in contemporary conceptual art. Through an examination of Brecht’s Three Chair Events and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, she explores how each artist perceived language, photography, and the reduction of art. What becomes evident is that in Brecht’s attempt to create temporal art, he leaves his artwork vulnerable to reduction, while Kosuth manages to safeguard his art against reduction through incorporation.

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(Goerge Brecht, Three Chair Events from Water Yam, 1963, http://www.fondazionebonotto.org/en/collection/fluxus/brechtgeorge/412.html)

To the Fluxus artists of the 1960s, photography was considered “representational and static,” and therefore in opposition with their temporal art (Kotz, 6). Thus it is not surprising that photography was excluded from Brecht’s Three Chair Events–a performative art event that presented three chairs in different contexts accompanied by an “event score.” While the Fluxus artists are not mistaken in considering photography “secondary,” inaccurate manifestations of ephemeral art, “event scores” are no more “primary.” Inevitably, post-event representations of Three Chair Events rely almost solely on the “event score,” reducing the ephemeral to the permanent. Once instructive, and art informative, the event score will act only as a document, a testament to the lost performance, and thus alter the very nature of the artwork. The participant becomes a viewer, temporal event becomes physical artifact. Therefore, if the event will ultimately face reduction due to the tangible, permanent existence of the event score–which currently resides in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection–photography should not be regarded as more contrived than the event scores.

Conversely, as One and Three Chairs confronts and incorporates reduction, the work’s intent is preserved. One and Three Chairs, part of Kosuth’s Proto-Investigations, displays three manifestations of a chair–a physical chair, a photograph of the same chair, and the textual display of the English definition of a chair. The artwork prompts the viewers to consider to what varying extents the three manifestations constitute a chair. Are the manifestations substitutable, or in-equivalent? Paradoxically, it appears as if the three manifestations comprise an entirety while simultaneously functioning differently systematically. Regardless of the conclusion that each viewer draws, the artwork evidently initiates the same cognitive conversation and thus continues to thrive. Thus as Kosuth’s work is about reduction, One and Three Chairs resists simplification, while Three Chair Events is ultimately reduced.

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(Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965, https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/joseph-kosuth-one-and-three-chairs-1965)

The Limits of the Limitless

 

In his 2006 article “I’m sort of sliding around in place…ummm…,” Sam Gathercole explores art’s defining principles—or lack thereof—in the 1970s. The article, featured in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, discusses artist’s disillusionment with social critique, and the resulting fragmentation, or pluralization, of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. What Gathercole’s article exposes, although it is not explicitly discussed, is that the true limitations of art institutions—such as museums galleries—is their limitless reach.

Artists of the 1970s, disappointed with the 1960s counterculture, attempted to induce reform through infiltration and subversion. As Gathercole brings to light, “in spite of the perceived ‘failure’ of the historical avant-garde, it had nevertheless made ‘art recognisable as an institution and also reveal [art’s] inefficacy in bourgeois society as its principle’” (Gathercole, 65). Much of the art of the 1970s attempted to make social critiques from within the institution. Via infiltration and subversion, the artist Hans Haacke attempted to critique the unethical associations and practices of the Guggenheim Museum via the exhibition of his piece Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum. The Museum’s director prevented the display of the work, which exposed a Board Member of the Guggenheim’s involvement in property speculation. Although the work was barred from the Museum initially, Shapolsky et al. is now part of Whitney Museum’s permanent collection. Similarly, Judy Chicago critiqued the institutionalized erasure of women from history—including art history—in her 1978 installation The Dinner Party. While Congress blocked the donation of The Dinner Party to the University of Washington, the work was eventually acquired by the Brooklyn Museum. The question that remains is whether the adoption of these artworks by the institutions that they critique, although in line with the initial intention of the artist, actually constitutes reform, or whether the inclusion is a self-aggrandizing cooperation of the artists’ radicalism.

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(Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971 https://blogs.uoregon.edu/hanshaacke/2015/02/16/shapolsky-et-al-manhattan-real-estate-holdings-a-real-time-social-system-as-of-may-1-1971-installation/)

As art institutions are in the business of displaying any and all art, after the initial shock of radical art subsides, institutions are free to adopt art that critiques its own nature without truly facing the repercussions. Gathercole’s briefly touches upon this subject in his discussion of site-specific art. Speaking of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Gathercole says:

“Smithson described museums as ‘asylums and jails’ in which art is ‘confined’…. ‘From gyrating space emerged the possibility of Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structure, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.’ This ‘actuality; appeared to the artist to be a reality beyond human control and corruption….unmediated by intellect.”(Gathercole, 68)

By creating art which cannot be co-opted and subsumed by art institutions—although reproductions and discussions in these spheres may attempt to do so—Smithson creates one of the few spheres in which critique will always remain a critique. Smithson reveals that site-specific art, and perhaps even ephemeral art such as performances like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, are unmediated and therefore untainted. While the adoption of art such as Haacke’s may symbolize progress and reform, the initial exclusion stripped the art of its initial potential power, and later inclusion becomes in part self-aggrandizing. Thus, the limits of art institutions may lie within their limitless reach, represented by the inclusion of art critical of its very nature, and the oppression of spaces outside its own realm.

 

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(Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, http://www.rickety.us/2010/11/spiral-jetty-at-rozel-point/)