Doomocracy Now

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Taryn Simon’s recent Park Avenue Armory exhibition An Occupation of Loss which was meant to be the first in a short series. I took a brief pause from this series to write about the emotional backlash I was feeling after the election. I am taking up the series idea again and this time I’m writing about Pedro Reyes’ recent exhibition Doomocracy, which was put on by Creative Time at (and in conjunction with) the Brooklyn Army Terminal. As a reminder, I have re-posted the introduction to the previous post and the series:

In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.

This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.

Lately, I have been seeing a shift which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and, through their actions, activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism.

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Pedro Reyes, Doomocracy, 2016. Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, New York. Installation view, image taken by the author.

Pedro Reyes: Doomocracy. Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, New York; October 7 – November 6, 2016.

Initially, I was planning on saving Doomocracy for last because, out of the three, it was the one I had been most critical of. My criticism did not necessarily stem from it being worse than the other two, instead it was because I had been expecting more from it. I went into Taryn Simon’s space with only images and reviews in mind and few expectations. I was blown away, but it would have met higher expectations with equal success. I went into Ann Hamilton’s exhibition with slightly higher expectations because I was already a fan of her work. However, I was aware that the space was more dependent on my activating it. Once again it met my expectations. With Doomocracy, I wasn’t previously aware of Pedro Reyes’ work, but it had been sold to me conceptually as a politically-themed haunted house with a structure similar to Sleep No More. Shrouded in mystery in regards to the specifics, my imagination went wild and I was ready for a truly immersive, physical, visceral experience that pushed boundaries and hopefully scared me. Unfortunately, it did not meet these high expectations. I understand that there were probably concerns with liability issues, fear of someone getting hurt or sexually harassed, and the need to limit the actors and space in order to protect both the guests and the cast. Regardless, I think they could have taken everything further. They had a captive audience of consensual adults that they were herding through an empty, many-storied building manned by professional actors inhabiting created and controlled sets. In my mind, they played it safe and did not take it far enough.

At the time, pre-election, when I was certain that there was no way in hell Trump would win, the dystopian scenes and horror-themed political and social settings felt tongue-in-cheek. A light forewarning of a potential future based on the issues of today that everyone seemed to agree couldn’t actually happen. By the end, it felt like they were preaching to the choir, only reaching an audience that was already in agreement. I mean, really, the people who had made it to the few performances of this show way down in South Brooklyn, the people who even knew it was happening, were almost all left-leaning liberals who were interested in continuing to fund the arts, believed in climate change as a real threat, and were aware that racism, sexism, and classism are legitimate threats to many people in America, if not necessarily themselves. However, with the rapid spread of hate-crimes, the “alt-right,” and the frightening back and forth of Trump’s picks for powerful government positions since he became the most recent President-elect, my trip through Reyes’ house of horrors (in hindsight) is developing a strong sense of foreboding. It is beginning to feel like a wake-up call, especially considering the way I initially viewed it. Clearly, the bubble that I inhabit in the New York City art world has blinded me to the possibilities that we face as a country and as a species, despite my growing up in rural and conservative Upstate New York. This exhibition was not the “preaching to the choir that didn’t go far enough” that I experienced pre-election. Instead, it was an ominous warning of the potential dystopian future that we can expect if we don’t all wake up to the real state of things in both our country and our world. It is now clear that it is no longer enough to admit that racism, sexism, and classism still exist; we need to actively speak out against these acts and beliefs and reiterate that hate is never acceptable. It is not enough to shake our heads when we hear someone deny the impending threat of climate change and call them ignorant; we need to listen to them and make intelligent arguments in return. It is not enough to listen and speak with like-minded people in the cities or towns that we live in and participate in the globalized world solely through the internet, tuning out those who disagree with us. We need to all wake up and hear the cacophony of voices and opinions. We need to educate ourselves on why we believe what we believe so we can make intelligent and forceful arguments to support these beliefs. We can no longer afford to call people with differing opinions stupid or ignorant or wrong; this behavior will not change their minds nor will it reflect positively on our arguments. The only way forward is with intelligence, empathy, and activity.

While I still believe that Pedro Reyes, Creative Time, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal could have pushed further with this exhibition, it remains a strong visual account of the legitimate fears of a dark impending future. Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, which to this day are quoted as examples of what the world could easily become, Doomocracy created fantastical scenes that seemed like a joke until I realized just how close they are to many of the horrors we are witnessing today. As Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s artistic director, sid in the NY Times review: “It seems like a joke but the joke is really not funny at all.”

Doomocracy began with ticket holders being separated into small groups who would experience the show together. My group, once called, was sat down and given a general set of guidelines and warnings about the upcoming exhibition to both prepare the viewers and protect the cast. Rules like no cell phone activity of any kind, no touching of the actors unless invited to do so, and the introduction of a safety word in case a viewer felt things had gone too far were all smart stipulations that allowed an environment of trust to be created. We were then herded into a large van and the exhibition began in earnest.  Not long into our drive, we were stopped by what looked like military personnel. They claimed we were in a restricted zone and ordered us out of the van. Yelling, carrying guns, and masked, they pushed us into a room, ordered us against a wall, and made as if to frisk us. We were all giggling slightly at the absurdity of the situation, assured in our minds of the clear fakeness of the frisk and guns. No one seemed to be considering the fact that this has been a real-life situation for many Americans. Perhaps it will become one for many more in the not-too-distant future, a fear for many Americans who are innocent of everything but being the “wrong” color or religion.

We were then herded through a door and there was an abrupt change. Suddenly, we were in a dreary room with flickering lights and a very kind, very old woman dressed in a nauseating shade of green to match the walls and with a small dog on her lap. We were encouraged to vote and to do it in a timely manner! From there, we were quickly shepherded through several different rooms which included document shredding in the name of Trump, a prescription-happy doctor who was more than willing to write me a note for the highly addictive synthetic opioid Fentanyl at my request, and a funeral director who had created brilliant candy-shaped coffins for the children who had died, presumably at the hands of their favorite trash foods which they could then be buried in. Donuts, Twinkies, Diabetes, oh my! After that, it was a blur of rooms and scenarios that no one took terribly seriously. There were conservative housewives in sweater-sets selling guns like Tupperware. When one accidentally went off and “injured” an actress, we were ushered out. Then, there was a boardroom for a company that had gone under and we were given the option to take a buy-out or work towards fixing our mistakes and improving the shattered economy. Those of us who chose the buyout saved ourselves and went on to attend a swanky art party, those who chose to make the “hard decision” and help those our company had harmed were suddenly working the event. A stray piece of dialogue stuck in my mind from when we were waiting to serve those attending the party: “I thought they all spoke Spanish or something.” Moving on, we were sold bottled air from a calm-voiced actress in prototypical futuristic silver clothing. Only the best air for the highest price for the most discerning (i.e. wealthy) buyer. Teenage cheerleaders cheered anti-abortion while a pregnant teen burned at the stake. The post-practice discussion was the most disturbing part as the clearly queen-bee-type girl chastised her team with a valley-girl accent before they had to run off to class: “It was ok, not great.” The finale was a soccer match between people who had chosen to go through Trump’s door (those who were undecided were lumped into the Trump team) and those who went through Hillary’s, with a blow-up globe being the ball.

The part that struck me the most, though, was towards the end. We were given virtual reality glasses (a novelty by itself since many people haven’t had the opportunity to try these glasses yet) and told to put them on. We were led about in a row, connected and guided by a rope we all held onto. The glasses showed us a familiar scene of peaceful woods with deer and gently falling leaves. As you looked around, the three-dimensional scene was perfect and you were alone. There were bird noises and rustling sounds. Even the floor had been strewed with something that felt like gravel or acorns, something that made it feel like you were walking across a forest floor. All that connected you to reality was the rope grasped in one hand and the voice of your guide: a park ranger for the newly privatized national parks. Suddenly, there was a motorized noise and the guide freaked out, pleading with us to run and save ourselves, that they would kill us or harvest our organs or something equally gruesome. As we all pulled off our glasses we were met by actors on Segways in Mad Max-esque garb and brandishing weapons. We were pushed through the “real” scene which was a hallway or alleyway strewn with refuse and trash. Having grown up in the country, with acres of woods for a backyard, this scene was the most relatable for me. I shifted from being transported to a scene that reminded me of home to being yanked back into the old army terminal that was grey, dirty, and mechanized. I realized, even then, how close we are to a world where nature and greenery can only be manufactured in virtual reality. I was aware of how delicate our situation is.

As I walked out of the space, still unaware of the level of foreboding I was going to associate with the show as I write about it now, I was still aware of the attempt to make this a wake-up call of sorts. It may have been intended to wake up the people who still believe that climate change isn’t real, or those who are still convinced that we live in a post-race/post-gender/post-class society, or those who aren’t aware of the delicate system we all live in. Regardless of what it was meant to be, Doomocracy for me has become a wake-up call to how easily our future can become this dystopian thing that has, up to now, been no more than a source of inspiration for movies, books, and morality lessons. It is a wake-up call to how many people do not think the way that I think, do not agree with me, and who hold different things to be dear and important and worth fighting for. In my mind, the things that are important to me are right and objectively important, but it is easy to forget just how subjective our lives and opinions truly are. The things I have read about over the past several weeks and months have begun to sound familiar, they remind me a little of much of the years leading up to WWII and I am scared. If we are not careful, Doomocracy could legitimately become our future. As I walked out of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, into the chill night air with my friends, I couldn’t help but hear the over-dramatic refrain of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” as sung by Madeline Kahn in Mel Brook’s movie Young Frankenstein.

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The Brooklyn Army Terminal, 140 58th Street, Brooklyn, New York 11220. Image taken by the author.

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Influencing Spaces: Taryn Simon’s “An Occupation of Loss”

Having written this post yesterday and considering last night’s events, I hesitated to post and to share it. But, it is in times like these, on days like today, that I turn to art to find humanity and the shared dream of a world where peace, love, and understanding can conquer. With that in mind, I want to share a globally-minded and thoughtful work that explores the human occupation of and with loss and mourning. With this, I will remember to continue to strive and push forward. To turn to like-minded programs, groups, and friends with support and renewed vigor. To continue fighting for equality and the world we wish to live in. This is not the end of the fight, this too shall pass. Moving forward, regardless of where you stand or who you voted for, I urge everyone to remember to be kind and to reach into the depths of their moral consciousness to treat everyone with empathy and remember that we are all human beings with feelings, dignity, and loved ones.

 

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.

This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.

Lately, I have been seeing a shift which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and through their actions activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism. My next three posts will be about these shows, starting with Taryn Simon’s.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory, September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss. The Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY;   September 13-25, 2016

You begin by being turned away from the Park Avenue entrance after purchasing your ticket. You are instead instructed to follow the building along 67th Street to the fire escape. Once there, you are presented with a long, descriptive wall text and, once you finish reading, ascend the fire escape about two stories up to a door. At first, you are blinded by the sudden darkness, all that stands out are staggered strips of blue light and then, eventually, the vista of the old drill hall occupied by eleven concrete towers, or wells, that are gently illuminated. Gathered together in the cavernous space, the monumental sculptures form a half circle, almost appearing to huddle together in the middle of the space. Next, you descend the illuminated metal staircase to the ground floor and approach the work.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

I did not have the opportunity to attend one of the nightly performances of professional mourners, which I hear were quite moving, but I still encountered a spectacular space. As I approached the wells with my two friends, everything was quiet and still. Other visitors seemed disinclined to speak above a whisper and the breathless air and gentle light created a calm, almost ritualistic space. We quickly commandeered one of the wells and proceeded to enliven the space. Since I was aware of the nightly performances, I was excited to test the acoustics and one of my friends, a singer and actress, was happy to help. We sang and made noise and laughed and talked. The sounds rang within our well and encouraged us, although we were slightly concerned about disturbing the other visitors. While the sound was amplified within the well, it was concentrated in our immediate space so that when one of us stood outside it, it was muffled creating a unique space where you were both a part of your immediate surroundings and separated from the greater whole. Quite like mourning, when you were in the silo you could be observed by those outside, but they could not fully comprehend what you were experiencing.

Inhabiting the well, which included a single strip of blue light that ran the entire height and a concrete bench placed about four feet above the ground and attached directly to the wall, I felt happy and safe. At one point, I crawled under the bench and crouched awkwardly like a child playing make-believe. Glad to be together and quickly feeling territorial about “our” well, we were a little disgruntled when another pair asked to join, though we couldn’t say no. As it turns out, they added to our space and a sixth member joined our group soon after. We all spoke about the show, the performances in the evening, and the physical space. The wells provided an opportunity for connecting isolations: each well created an environment that could be looked in on from the outside, vaguely heard, and joined. Eleven separate little worlds living side by side. All apparently the same but infinitely and minutely different, just like individual people. Strangers were encouraged to cohabitate a small space and share an intimate moment. As our group grew comfortable, we began to experiment within the space. We learned that the sounds rang clearly throughout the well, but outside were muffled. In the very center the frequency of the vocal noises changed. It was like being right in the middle of the sound you were making, as if suddenly the space was smaller and you were shouting in a handheld tube. I couldn’t help feeling like it was more truthful, somehow, in the center. At the very least the difference was fascinating and we shared the change with the carefree abandon of discovery. One of my friends remarked: “It is amazing that something so utilitarian seeming can inspire so much human movement and noise making.”

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Simon’s practice has been an exploration of intricacies, research, cataloguing, and exploration. Typically, she focuses on spaces and objects that would appear to exist on their own as independent things but are in fact created and activated by human presence. The spaces or objects act as middle men, mediating the relations between people and how they interact with and influence each other. An Occupation of Loss explores mourning. This is most clear during the evening performances where professional mourners from across the world inhabit a well and perform traditional, ritualistic mourning practices. During the day, the presence of the mourners is dropped to a murmur as their recorded sounds are faintly played in the drill hall and the silence of the uninstructed viewer prevails. Growing up with the mindset that grief and mourning are kept quiet, only feeling comfortable crying into a pillow or alone in the bathroom, and raised on scenes of private mourning, it is both alien and familiar to be confronted with a space that explores public mourning and the history of lamentations. I know the feelings, but do not know the sharing. Simon’s installation re-introduced me to the inherent humanness of mourning and loss and how it occupies us. While we occupied the space, shared with the ghosts of each night’s ritual and fellow viewers, we were made aware of the underlying similarities that connect people. No matter how foreign a ritual or space may seem, we all occupy it with the same feelings: love, sorrow, and the need to connect.

An Occupation of Loss created a space that made you uncomfortable, maybe because it was so cavernous, maybe because everyone else was being so quiet, maybe because no one was quite sure what they were supposed to be doing/seeing/feeling. Regardless, this creation made you aware of the space you were inhabiting and how you inhabit it. It made you aware of yourself and the people around you and how you interact within that space. The space, created by an artist and occupied by visitors, acts on those visitors because of the actions taken upon it by all the people who inhabited and activated it.

Right before we entered the exhibition, standing on 67th street and reading the wall text with one of the attendants, two older women forewarned us not to waste our time, that it was nothing more than concrete columns. Art of this nature, art that demands participation, some research, and curiosity will not be experienced in the same way by any two viewers. Some will not experience it at all. This is an important lesson, however: you get what you put into something and, while you cannot control the space that you inhabit, you can control how you occupy it. We chose to occupy this space of symbolic loss with human interaction and joy.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Your Insta-Game is Strong (but is that enough?)

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Martin Creed, The Back Door, 2016, exhibition image taken by author at The Park Avenue Armory

Ever since I entered the semi-professional art world (e.g. internships and undergrad) and graduated to the professional art world (a full time job, etc.) I have heard the phrases “you have to see it in person” and “it doesn’t photograph well” over and over and over. It became a matter of course that the picture of almost any painting, drawing, print, sculpture, and photograph (at least the non-digital ones) was going to be sub-par in its reproduction. Even professional art photographers, aided by Photoshop and studio lighting, struggle. Emails with attached images and links to websites were always tempered with “you really should see it in person.” Collectors were urged to attend auctions and art fairs in person (or at least send a trusted consultant), lecturers insisted students must visit the museums that house treasured works, and colleagues stressed that the aura of a truly great work of art could never be wholly captured on film.

Now I am hearing, for the first time that I can remember, artworks and summer public art exhibitions being hailed as “Instagram worthy.” To me, Instagram worthy means that a work of art is not only visually interesting, but it also photographs well and probably provides a sweat selfie backdrop (you gotta stand out to keep your selfie game strong). Initially, I was really excited. I loved the idea of art and art exhibitions being massively popular on social media and talked about by my friends as well as my colleagues. Especially during the summer months when many exhibitions are…not boring…but not as spectacular as spring, fall, and winter exhibitions that coincide with auction and art fair seasons.

As I do with most things, I talked about it…a lot. I talked about the upcoming exhibitions, public art projects, and artworks to friends who I wanted to go with and colleagues whose opinions I valued. I talked and wrote dates down in my calendar and eventually, they opened and I began getting opinions. No one was outright against any of the works but then again, no one was particularly impressed either. I had gone into this hoping for something visceral and interesting. In my mind, the typical gallery-style, white-box aesthetic for displaying art is quickly becoming outdated. I’m over it, the ascetic aesthetics and intimidating space that it creates are passé and potentially harmful to the viewing experience. Personally, I have been very inspired by ground-breaking shows like the immersive “play” Sleep No More, and the widely acclaimed James Turrell and Alexander McQueen exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Met, respectively. Both the latter visual arts exhibitions were some of the most highly attended shows in either venue, ever. And as for theater, I have never heard people talk more about a performance as I have heard people talk about Sleep No More (except maybe Book of Mormon and Hamilton, but those are different formats [musicals] and modern in different ways [i.e. not in presentation]). I am very convinced that this widespread interest is in large part due to the presentation of the shows. At the Guggenheim, James Turrell took over the space for a magnificent, site-specific optical light installation that transformed the rotunda from a white, open, Frank Lloyd Write space to…something else entirely. When you walked into the museum, you encountered a space washed in color and people splayed about everywhere (even lying on the floor, in the middle of the floor, really ALL OVER THE FLOOR, which is not only unusual but not usually even allowed), themselves awash in glowing jewel tones and looking up, enraptured and calm. The colors changed slowly and you became a part of the art and the space. You were not separate, and the art was inclusive and mesmerizing. The McQueen show at the Met also shunned the white cube aesthetic. It took a more theatrical approach to a retrospective about one of the most influential designers of the past several decades and transformed a series of rooms into a Gothic dream. Dark walls and ceilings, aged mirrors, a low wash of light with intense spot lights reminiscent of the runway, and subtle non-verbal music throughout the whole. Once again, as a viewer I was pulled in, my perspective shifted, and I felt like I was being guided in my way of seeing and understanding a subject on which I was frankly quite ignorant. As for Sleep No More, I have yet to actually see it, but I have seen stellar adaptations of it (namely at Cornell directed by a very talented friend), and will not leave NY without seeing it, to be sure. Basically, if you’ve been living under a rock, Sleep No More delicately oversteps the theatrical fourth wall. Set in a series of warehouses in Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen made to look like a dated hotel and based on Macbeth (a personal favorite Shakespeare play), it takes over the entire space. The audience walks through the “hotel,” guided by actors and taking on a pseudo ghostly role. They are free to go to different parts of the space and enter or leave scenes as they choose. There are many stories going on a once and if you find yourself alone in a room you may even physically interact with one of the actors. Talk about visceral, it’s almost too vivid, taking the idea of a Halloween haunted house and building off of it in a most interesting and creative way.

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James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim Museum, photo courtesy of Abby Clark

The significance of exhibitions and performances like these, and the reason that I think they are so important in an internet and social media saturated world, is that people are not allowed to just be spectators but are forced to become participants or what I call “active viewers” (based on a somewhat haphazard understanding or Adorno’s 1938 essay “The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening”). They are not allowed to sit back and passively absorb what they are seeing and hearing – where they run the risk of not being affected by the show or exhibitions they witness. Instead, an environment is created and they are immersed in the activity of viewing, spectating, and imagining the world that the artist is sharing. To my mind, this is the future of the arts and the direction I hope more institutions will move in.

So, you can understand that I had high expectations of public and outdoor artworks that provoke some sort of participation, be it only social media, which is really the quotidian social participation that many people have (not the only, just the daily). However, to my disappointment, the early reviews from my art world peers was lukewarm and rather apathetic. I was told it wasn’t really worth going to see in person because the images that were already flooding my Instagram were more interesting than the actual, physical artwork. What a reversal from the typical art world adage of “you have to see it in person to get the full effect.” However, I still went to a few of the nearby ones…and found myself agreeing. It’s not that the works were bad, they were just boring. Much more interesting in idea than in presentation…which, given my personal definition of a good work of art, must make them bad works of art.

The first artwork I visited was the closest. I went just a few blocks uptown from my gallery to the Metropolitan Museum to see Cornelia Parker’s Transitional Object (Psychobarn) on the Met Roof. This is a difficult space to design an exhibition for, granted, but I have seen spectacular shows there before. This one was…ok. It was an adaptation of the house from Hitchcock’s famous movie Psycho: she had a life-size reproduction of a typical New England style barn strongly influenced by Hitchcock’s horror mansion and Edward Hopper’s paintings. In theory, interesting, in person, not so much. You couldn’t walk up the front stairs, there was no interior, the back was nothing more than the skeletal structure of typical play or film sets. It really had to be explained and in that endeavor didn’t require much wall space. However, it photographed beautifully and I had to weave around the various people taking pictures, group pictures, pictures for friends, and selfies (etc. etc.) in order to get my own pictures. With the ominous sky, my photographs were definitely guaranteed to get me some likes on Instagram. But, I only stayed for the ten minutes it took to do a walk-around, take a few pictures, and read the wall text. I then moved on to other exhibitions within the museum proper and, beyond sorting through and editing my pictures, the exhibition did not stay with me. In fact, I hadn’t thought much more about it until I decided to write this article. That is not a great work of art nor is it a good exhibition. A great art work or exhibition stays with you, you continue to think over the artistic and curatorial choices, and often want to go back. In the best cases, it changes the way you think about something. I often say that, to me, the importance and worth of art is that it provides empathy in a contemporary society where empathy isn’t a high priority. It allows you, helps you, if must be, forces you to see the world, a topic, or yourself through someone else’s eyes. What else does that? In order to survive alone you have to spend most of your time thinking about yourself: feeding yourself, clothing yourself, paying your bills, finding a S.O., interacting with friends. All of this in direct relation to your personal happiness and survival. Art is supposed to make you stop and remember that other people exist and that they look at the world differently and live in different situations than you. It separates you from the solipsistic self-absorption that is our natural state (thanks evolution) and which has been further magnified by the physical solitude and image cultivation of social media.

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Cornelia Parker, Transitional Object (Psychobarn), 2016, image taken by author at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

After this, I was loath to visit the rest of the public exhibitions because I had heard much of the same and they were much farther away. I didn’t even take the time to walk out to Katarina Grosse’s piece Rockaway!, put on by MoMA PS1 at Fort Tilden, when I went to the beach a few weekends ago. I had seen the pictures, been told that was enough, and chose not to take that walk, which is unusual for me. I always want to go see the art and I’m always stopping my friends to take pictures of interesting things and graffiti. That is how disappointed I had been by these so-called “Instagram worthy” exhibitions. I haven’t had the time or strong desire to trek out to Governor’s Island to see the various artworks set up there. I still plan on visiting Mika Tajima’s color changing hot tub at Hunter’s Point in LIC, which has a glowing steam cloud with color fluctuations based on the varying price of gold, but have been dragging my feet.

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Katharina Grosse, Rockaway!, 2016, image courtesy of Lori Camilleri

Now, I know that this can be said for a lot of conceptual art and I personally am not a big fan of that particular art movement. This indifference could be symptomatic of that feeling and I have further said that I don’t like plenty of artwork that I would still classify as good art. But the difference for me between these shows and good conceptual art is that they still don’t make me think. I can understand their meaning after reading a few paragraphs and then easily leave and never think of them again. That is not a successful work of art, be it conceptual or otherwise. Further, the very idea of them being “Instagram worthy” separates them from conceptual art. They are being spoken about for their digital presence, which while not physical per se, is still the virtual remnant of the physical object, which is not the basis of conceptual art. Conceptual art is focused almost entirely on the idea, not the object, so much so that many works of conceptual art never went beyond the written explanation and did not need to because their weight was held in the concept. That was what made you think.

The only work of art that I saw this summer that I truly enjoyed that was described to me as “Instagram worthy” was Martin Creed’s balloon room, “Half the Air in a Given Space,” at his Park Avenue Armory retrospective The Back Door. That room was fun and truly indicative of Martin Creed’s take on art and, having never met him, I’d assume life. It has been my understanding that Creed’s art theory is to not take it too seriously, and in that endeavor, to turn the art world (an institution that all too often takes both itself and the art it presents way too seriously) on its head. I agree with this, art is meant to be thought provoking and cause change, but that doesn’t always have to be terribly serious, sometimes being able to laugh at ourselves is enough change of thought for one day. As for the balloon room, they let in a certain number of people for a certain length of time and you were free to run about the room and act like a five-year-old, which I happily did. I went in about five times, and oddly (though I suspect on purpose) I was given a different rule each time. The first was a very precise and short time limit, the second was not to throw any of the balloons, the third was that I couldn’t bring my bag in (even though I had done this each time before), etc. These rules did not hold up outside each individual session as I only followed the one rule given each time and was never chastised for forgetting the previously established rules. This may have been on purpose by the artist, perhaps he told the attendants to make up a simple and banal rule every so often. Or maybe, like I did when I lifeguarded at a night club, they made up rules as difficulties in the space arose or if something bothered or annoyed them. It’s unclear but fun to think about. And right there is why I liked the balloon room so much more than the other exhibitions. I was pulled into the space, I had fun, and I kept thinking about it and kept going back. I also took some amazing pictures that, yes, are on my Instagram already. But I never said that the two things were mutually exclusive. I want to have my cake and eat it too, thank you very much.

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Martin Creed, “Half the Air in a Given Space,” The Back Door, 2016, image taken by author at The Park Avenue Armory

I am left, however, with the lingering question of what this idea of “Instagram worthy” art means for the greater artistic evolution. If all of the art made previously was meant to be seen in person, is generally agreed to be much better in person, and has a physical presence and effect that a photograph just can’t capture, what does it mean when several works of art erected in the same summer in the same city are almost only described as “Instagram worthy?” I don’t know, I think this is one of those things that can only truly be understood with time, or at least a great deal of research that I am not prepared to make for this blog post. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing though. Like most changes, there will be mistakes and not so interesting products, but there will also be truly interesting and different results. Martin Creed’s balloon room is case in point. While it provides opportunities for fantastic photos and videos and is a social media PR dream, there is so much more to it that you can only experience in person. It both photographs well and must be lived through if you want to get the full experience. Change is good, which is a good thing because it is also inevitable.

Museum Gift Shops: Well if you’re going in that direction anyway…

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

I really wanted to title this entry “Exit Through the Gift Shop” which would, consequently, also be the preferred title of my PhD Thesis (if I were getting a PhD), except Banksy already used it for a movie. Basically, I’m obsessed with museum gift shops: the art books, the surreal sales atmosphere, the knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, reproductions, jewelry, etc. There’s a little bit of everything in a good museum gift shop and they are often so conveniently (and in an obvious marketing strategy) located at the end of special exhibitions or near the museum exit. Of course, not all museum gift shops are great, some only have art books and logo merchandise, others only have weirdly camp objects, some are clearly directed towards children or the elderly. However, despite my obsession – or perhaps the reason behind it – museum gift shops are also a bit disturbing to me: definitively capitalistic and surreally kitsch in their miniaturization, reproduction, and dissemination of fine art imagery. For example, how many times have you seen Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced on a coffee mug, mouse pad, puzzle, or really anything you could imagine a reproduction being printed on? There is also, of course, the print reproductions that are offered at varying levels of size, quality, and thus, cost…these are not as kitsch – they aren’t cutesy, hip, collectible, or vastly different from the original – but they do go against two of the major components of a work of art (namely a singular work of art like a painting) which are “authenticity” and intentionality.

When used from an art historical, academic perspective, “authenticity” typically refers to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” hence the scare quotes. This essay discusses the uniqueness inherent to a traditional work of art where only one object is produced. This is the case in painting, tapestries, antiques, antique furniture, and many sculptures. However, around the time that Benjamin was living and thinking and angst-ing, about a lot of stuff (I love him, he’s brilliant, but he has “Twilight” level angst going on sometimes), photography was becoming a big thing and was being used in unique ways by artists, like Man Ray. Benjamin began to question the authenticity of works of art that are created by a medium that is inherently reproducible: photographs, prints, sculptures created by a mold, etc. When you see these today, they are usually offered in editions and the cost is closely related to the number of editions available, the quality of said editions (for example, print quality tends to go downhill as more are made; the woodblock or plate starts to degrade, so earlier editions are more expensive and often preferable), and if the edition was created posthumously or during the artist’s lifetime by the artist. It’s still an issue both in the market and academically. On the market, singular works are priced higher and often considered more valuable by those who don’t specifically seek out prints and photographs. Academically, you still see art historians citing Benjamin, writing about authenticity and “aura,” and this particular essay is assigned at some point in almost every degree program for the history of art. The shove of the piece is that unique works have an “aura” based on their life. Since it is a singular work, the object in question has a life-like experience from its creation in the artist’s studio, to its viewing, through its various owners (private, public, etc.), and in whatever else it has experienced. Further, each person who views it brings their own perspectives, opinions, and experiences to the work. Every article written on it and exhibition it is included in (which of course brings it into contact with other works of art) adds to its “aura.” It soaks these experiences up like a sponge and carries them around; this is part of the reason why most articles and museums will include a provenance (or history of ownership and exhibition). Benjamin questioned whether an inherently reproducible work of art could have an aura since there is no one piece but instead several nearly identical pieces that go on through different lives. He then began to question the relevance of auras and authenticity in the modern age (keep in mind Benjamin lived through the two world wars in Germany and emigrated to France and Spain, so he was greatly influenced by the world’s first industrialized war and the social and cultural take-over of technology). Benjamin was never decidedly saying whether or not any of this was good or bad, that kind of final (almost biblical) judgement wasn’t his jive. Instead he seemed to be laying out what he saw, discussing it and its effects, and pondering on the changes occurring and what they could mean for the future of art, culture, and human society.

This is one of the things that fascinates me about the museum gift shop. Museums are defined as institutions that house and protect art and provide a space for the general public to view and be educated about art, history, and human culture. A statement along these lines can be found in almost any museum’s mission statement and is also what the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) uses as the starting point for many of their rules and regulations concerning the museums that are members of the AAM. The more global International Council of Museums (ICOM) also uses similar language. However, museums are often put in a bind when the question of funding comes up. The collection itself is seen as nearly sacred and it is frowned upon to sell works from the collection unless (and this is in infrequent cases) the sale goes directly into purchasing new artworks that will “improve” the collection. But, most museums don’t make enough money off of entry fees, sales, grants, and endowments alone. Trustees play a large part in this, their deep pockets are often called upon to finance shows, purchase works, and allow for renovations. Still, museums are always looking for new ways to bring money in since they are not inexpensive institutions to run. This is where the gift shop comes in. Sales on everything from prints to houseware to books to toys are made and bear the name of whatever illustrious institution is peddling them for a heinous mark-up. What confuses me, though, is also what really pulls me in. While museums are not allowed to use their collections as a financial buoy, they do have free reign to use reproductions of the works they own (with a few exceptions). Here, they go crazy and plaster images taken from the masterpieces of their collection all over everything and sell them as souvenirs, collectibles, and generally unnecessary but highly desirable commodities (I could go way deep into Marx, Simmel, and Lukacs here, but I’ll spare you).

Don’t get me wrong, I love this stuff, not only because it bears the image of my favorite works of art, but also because these objects are interesting things unto themselves. What does it mean for the original artwork that it is being miniaturized, kitschitized, and reproduced ad infinitum for mass consumption by the masses who have probably never even read a book about said work or the artist who created it? What does this mean for the artist’s creative intentions; what would Van Gogh say (the man who cut off an ear in a fit of passion…or epilepsy [depending on who you’re asking])? Then, with smart phones and selfies and social media, the images are further reproduced and disseminated on individuals’ accounts. How many people have seen the selfies taken by Beyoncé and Jay Z at the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa? This 21st C image has become iconic just like the image that they were pictured in front of; this is the definition of meta! But what does this mean for the art? Does it demean it, cause it lose meaning, bastardize it? Do endless reproduction (which often, like in the game of telephone, lead to a distortion of information) take away from the original work of art or does it just add to the artwork’s life and aura? Personally, I think only time can tell on that front, but for now I think it’s good that mass culture is taking an interest in art, even if it’s only through celebrities. Art is meant to speak, be seen, make change, and educate. The artist’s intentions, further, can never be kept once the work leaves the studio. People will see what they want and think what they think, taking their own experiences and perceptions to the object and projecting them all over it. It is a visual medium, so spreading its picture can only add to it (be it good or bad – didn’t someone once say that all press is good press, anyway?).

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Neue Galerie gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

Beyond this though, and the part that begins to disturb me much more than the reproduction and commoditization, is the inevitable kitschitization. “Kitsch” is one of those weird words that no one seems to have a solid definition of. It’s originally German and made its way into daily English usage like so many other foreign words, picking up both slang and academic meaning. My favorite definition of kitsch, however, comes from Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “kitsch in the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” So, this endless repetition, miniaturization, and “purification” of art through a selection of what is “appropriate” or desirable for mass consumption – its kitschitization through the museum gift shop by making it everyday, collectible, and safe – is really a lie. The reproducers and the consumers pretend to revere the art image, and this desire to take it home in a functional or collectible format for everyday use or gifting vies with the belief that art lovers would actually want their art in such a format. In reality, if we view kitsch in Kundera’s terms, as the denial of shit and the baseness of humanity, then this kitschitization of great art is the destruction and denial of said art. Great art is itself an individual, grossly private, uncensored, human, personal excrement of the mind, soul, and body. By kitschitizing these masterpieces, we water them down and remove the inherently base human desire to share the self (no matter how grotesque or perverted) and instead make each individual work a mass-produced commodity that is a degraded version of its original intention. When Munch’s The Scream – a poignant work of angst, emotion, and anxiety (nothing if not a silent scream of a depraved state of higher intelligence) – is reduced to being reproduced onto t-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, what-have-you, what becomes of it? It is no longer a meaningful demand for attention or productive thought but just another image watered down by repetition and simplification. Because, at this point, it is truly removed from the human being that created it.

Art – which may be one of the few classifications of objects that is not reified but is almost human – at this point truly becomes an object, becomes reified, through this reproduction that is not only a reproduction, but further, a base change of format and meaning. It loses its touch with humanity (both of the creator and the viewer) that made it great, that made it art. If art is the admittance of everything that is unacceptable to human existence, and kitsch is the denial of that same thing, where does that leave gift shops and the museums (the self-same protectors of cultural heritage) that create, house, and sell them? Basically a pimp whoring out art (though that may be a bit harsh). Nonetheless, I love these gift shops. Surrounded by so much useless shiny shit, I want it all. Like Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” I do not pay for Nastassya nor do I try to have sex with her. I do, however, remain fixated in her presence unable to truly judge what is happening and what it means (but maybe the meaning of this can best be explained by Simmel: “it is not our task either to accuse or to pardon, but only to understand”). Perhaps, though, it is this very dichotomy (the contradiction in both my feelings and my argument) that when paired makes the brilliance of the original shine all the brighter, the intention all the clearer, when placed next to its shallow imitator, its hollow twin, its doppelgänger. The reproduction in this form is all surface. When we buy gift shop collectibles, we don’t want to look deeper for an inner truth but instead look to the surface to see what we can find there; it both withholds and reveals.

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

Graffiti on my Mind, Part 2

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Exhibition photo, image taken by author

One of the fun parts about living in NYC is that there is always something going on. More than that, and lucky for me, there is also always something art-related going on. There is always more art to see and events to participate in, be it a museum show, gallery opening, auction, art fair, or an apparently new wave art salon à la Gertrude Stein (more to follow as I investigate). A month or so ago, I was invited to my friend’s fashion photography opening. Last week I was invited to my friend’s husband’s gallery opening, “An Intro” at  The Urban Foundation (TUF) Gallery. TUF Gallery, run by Marc Casola, is an UES gallery representing graffiti artists and it is geared towards shaking up the prim and typically secondary market UES gallery scene. Given my previously mentioned obsession with graffiti, I attended to both see my friend and see what TUF Gallery was showing. Jonathan Lindsay, the artist, has created gorgeous graffiti inspired canvases that show a range of techniques, influences, and a healthy growth throughout his career. Several works depicted nude bodies; one in particular was of a back-bending figure that I suspect may be a study of his wife (a dancer), titled Over Backwards. Others are gracefully contorted figures, lovers in primary colors. Then, he veers into abstraction with a few Pollock-esque drip paintings and others that almost look like sound waves or vibrations of the paint as it was laid out on the canvas. While his works weren’t carrying dates, I believe his most recent works feature light bulb-shaped skulls and sunglass-clad, earphone wearing monkey heads. These works, reminiscent of the stencil work that has become popular in graffiti art in the past few decades, are set on abstract backgrounds with sharp, angular lines and bright colors that reminded me of dance club atmospheres…a place where many artists, dancers, musicians, and for a long while I, too, work to pay the bills while we pursue our passion.

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Jonathan Lindsay, Held Twice, acrylic on canvas, 37 x 37″, image taken by author

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Jonathan Lindsay, Over Backwards, acrylic and watercolor on canvas, image taken by author

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(Images listed from UR in a clockwise pattern): Jonathan Lindsay, Side View 1, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12″; Jonathan Lindsay, The View, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24″; Jonathan Lindsay, Side View 2, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12″; image taken by author

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Exhibition photo, image taken by author

One of my favorite things, though, was a headless mannequin, hanging from a pole with a welded hanger attached through its shoulders. This piece was interactive; Jonathan had picked out the mannequin, welded the hanger, and dressed her in spray painted Nike sneakers and a fanny pack filled with pens and the guests were encouraged to decorate and write on her body. I like this for several reasons. To being with, it is interactive and brings the viewer into the work of art, making him/her a part of the activity of creating as opposed to viewing which all too often feels static. I call this “active viewing” and think it is an important part of modern/contemporary art practice and curation. It was fun and a group activity and everyone seemed happy to participate. I didn’t stick around long enough to see the blank space filled, but within the first hour the mannequin’s breasts, butt, and thighs (we’re all horny adolescents at heart, right?) were covered with hashtags and signatures. This got me thinking about the origins of graffiti and graffiti art: tagging…which I also started thinking has an interesting correlation to the very contemporary, internet/smart-phone/technology-based phenomenon of hash tagging. So, for those of you living under a rock, tagging is when you spray paint your name/alias/simple words onto a surface. It’s a very basic form of graffiti and covers the walls/alleyways/subway platforms of most cities. It is quick, gritty, and difficult to call “art.” It’s more like a pseudo-territorial, visual-linguistic way of saying “I was here.” When I obsess over and write about graffiti art, I am not talking about tagging. But, tagging has an interesting and important history and continuation within graffiti culture and is also very similar to an artist signing a work of art, which is often more than just a name placed on a completed work to demonstrate who created said work. Manet, for example, would often incorporate his signature into the work of art. In The Bar at the Folies-Bergere his name is placed on one of the bottles. Many academics have speculated that through this he could have been symbolically linking the selling and commoditization of his art to capitalistic systems and the product distribution of less personal objects. Then, Oscar Kokoschka had a very interesting signature that remained constant throughout his career, a very child-like scrawl of “OK” often in a garish shade of red. These are choices and choices always mean something. So, tagging is what? It is a beginner’s approach to graffiti, it is a signature, it is a territorial gesture, it is a way of reclaiming the city space for the individual, it is also a way of literally writing over someone else’s work or tag and slighting them in the process. By allowing his visitors to “tag” the mannequin and, in effect, participate in his art making, Jonathan gave them a chance to say, “I was here.” He gave his visitors the opportunity to add a visual, linguistic, and more permanent reminder that they came, they saw, and they participated. It was uniquely related to graffiti and it was smart because not only did people write their names, but many included the hashtag for his show or perhaps his personal statement, #makeartwar, which immediately linked the action to his social media and turned his hashtag into a sticky, self-perpetuating meme that people were now more likely to remember because it was no longer outside of them.

This brings me to hashtags and the inherently linguistic nature of our culture. Hashtags are everywhere; initially used on Twitter, they have been picked up by Instagram and Facebook as well as most blog sites, including WordPress. They take a concept, a name, a group…basically any meme (and I’m using that in the Dawkins sense, not in the internet sense, read “The Selfish Gene” where he coins the term and defines the original idea)…and create a link to its use anywhere else on the site, assuming someone put the # sign in front of it, thus taking part in the hashtag. Much like tagging in graffiti, it links the person using it to a larger phenomenon, brings the individual voice to the wider public sphere, and brings other people to you when they would otherwise just be wandering aimlessly (depending on their technological/internet savviness) in cyberspace. It’s interesting and it is interesting in many different ways, way too many to get into here. But, in the realm of art, I find it particularly interesting because art, something usually considered visual and thing-based (as opposed to linguistic and word-based) is making good use of hashtags. They can bring out ideas and themes in an artwork, connect people to an exhibition, institution, and artist on social sites, and connect all of these things in the linguistic realm that is the Internet and human society in a broader sense. As an art critic/historian/curator, I have always considered it part of my job to “translate” art and make the visual verbal, to a degree. Hash tagging does this quickly and publicly and allows me to use a few key words and hot terms or names to basically force people to read what I’m saying (are you still reading, btw?). Which further, brings me even farther over to a massive obsession of mine (and, in fact, the topic of my MA thesis), which is word art. See Baldessari, Rusha, Andre, among so many others, and maybe I’ll get into that whole thing in another blog post. Graffiti art, too, beyond tagging, also forays into the linguistic. While you see many gorgeous murals – figurative and abstract, surrealistic and realistic – you also see some wonderful pieces that are meant to be read (several of which include hash tags). That is one of the things that really fascinates me about graffiti art; it is not limited to a movement, a “look,” or even a method of production…for me it is more like a medium and a culture. It shouldn’t be differentiated from fine art but seen as yet another facet to be studied, appreciated, and (for the artists trying to eat still) collected.

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Street photo, NYC LES, image taken by author

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Leviticus, 2015, NYC, image taken by author

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Shoreditch, London, 2015, image taken by author

Whose Velvet Rope?

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Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Vadim Skyvood, Digital Print

 

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Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Joe Lee, Archival pigment print, matte

I was recently invited to a friend’s art opening, the SVA MPS Graduate Fashion Photography Exhibition for the class of 2015. It is being held at Milk Gallery from January 21st through the end of the month and Jimmy Moffat (the department co-chair) has curated the photographs of select graduate students. Pulling from the cream of the crop of a highly competitive fine arts program, it is a truly impressive collection of fashion photographs. The graduates play off of familiar tropes of the grotesque juxtaposed with the beautiful; bright, primary colors; a uniting of the human element with objects, breaking down the boundary between the born and the man-made, the living and the inanimate; and engaging in the familiar object worship that is a large part of the fashion industry. But, don’t let that last sentence lead you to believe that I found the works hollow or cliché. On the contrary, I enjoyed the show and saw a surprising amount of art historical reference throughout the works. Many photographs reminded me of big names in both fashion and fine art photography’s history: Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nan Goldin to name a few. Beyond that, the use of color and unexpected objects reminded me of Pop Art, Street Art, and the brightly colored minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Rothko. The history of art has not failed to affect modern day photography, a statement that should sound obvious since SVA is the School of Visual Arts and teaches fine art mediums alongside and separate from photography. However, what I couldn’t help thinking of, and the reason why I made such an obvious statement, is that many people do not consider fashion photography to be art and most museums and galleries neither show nor collect fashion photography per se, unless it is specifically related to a fashion exhibition or the artist has created “fine art” photography alongside his/her fashion spreads (and is really famous in his/her own right). At times it almost feels like the art world authorities (museum professionals, gallerists, specialists, and so-called connoisseurs [a questionable title for another time and another entry]) are shunning fashion photography and deny it entrance into the sacred halls of the art historical canon. A very vague but apparent line is drawn and denies access of the commercial, capitalist driven fashion world; a velvet rope, if you will, that separates fine art from fashion.

Why is this? As I already said, all of the photographs that I saw on display were gorgeous and created by talented individuals. They reference the history of high fashion photography as well as art history and its relevant movements. The exhibition was well curated, in a large, professionally lit space, very much the white-cube aesthetic of modern-day art galleries. Each photographer’s work was distinct and showed both the common ties between the selections (fashion, objects, models, etc.) and the vast range of differences (focus, color, medium, angle, lighting, etc.). Movement within the space, a common concern of mine, flowed with ease despite the packed house. It looked like a gallery opening, felt like a gallery opening, had wine like a gallery opening, but it drew a very different crowd than the typical Thursday gallery night in Chelsea (where most of NYC’s contemporary art galleries are located…also, fun fact, they almost always have openings on Thursday nights with the inevitable cheap wine).

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Exhibition photograph, taken by author

So, I ask again, why was this a fashion photography show and not a fine art photography show, or simply a photography show? It would be easy enough to mount the cultural high horse of museums and art historians (not all, but many – think the stereotypical snooty gallery girl who makes you feel stupid for even looking at a piece of modern art) and say that fashion photography is not on the same cultural level as fine art photography. It is commissioned, it is made to sell, it focuses on things instead of ideas. It even reifies the models that are the passive, sexualized subjects (or should I say objects since the subject is often the fashion?) of most magazine spreads. Their often blank eyes and uniformity of body type, alongside their use as tools to sell clothing, accessories, shoes, etc. make them into objects more so than people. It also must be said that many fashion spreads work off of technical and stylistic clichés, leading to their tendency to look the same.

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Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Patrick Rafanan, C-Print mounted on Sintra

Fashion photography, one might say, furthers the capitalistic process of reification that makes people into consumers and breeds want. Fine art photography, on the other hand, is supposed to elevate humanity; show the beauty in the everyday and in the grotesque, capture a moment in nature or our busy lives that reveals something deeper, something amorphous and intangible. But who’s to say that a talented and well thought out fashion photograph cannot do the same? Who lowers it to vulgar marketing and removes the art historical discourse that is apparent in so many photographs created by such great photographers as Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz? Further, fine art is just as driven by capitalism, commissions, and objects as fashion photography. Go to any auction or gallery and you will see collectors drop ridiculous sums of money on paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc. Museums may appear to be hallowed cultural institutions that conserve and oversee the great masterpieces in their collections and further the public’s education, but work in any museum office and you will quickly realize it is just as driven by money as any other corporation.

So, you could say (and maybe I am) that this velvet rope is meant to make the fine art world appear rarified. By denying fashion’s merging with fine art (only allowing it to attach itself – separate by equal? – and be included in museums – like the annual Met Gala – but not actually termed “fine art”), art institutions perpetuate their culturally and thus morally superior reputation. By allowing something so clearly driven by consumerism to be part of art’s “us” category, they would be revealing their own very real link to consumerism and capitalism that cultural institutions try so hard to hide behind their pristine façades.

Interestingly enough, it took years for photography as a medium to be considered fine art. For about the first hundred or so years of photography’s invention and innovation, it was used scientifically and as entertainment. It became a favored medium of observation in science (with the scientist’s eternal hope of being objective), it was used for portraits, picture-books, travel images, in fairs and traveling shows….basically as either the height of scientific objectivity or the consummate spectacle of spectatorship in the industrial era. It wasn’t really until the mid-twentieth century that pictures by photographers like Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, etc. were fought for and finally accepted as a fine art form. The conservative argument was that photography required no actual skill (obviously untrue); there was a widely held belief that you could just point and shoot (perpetuated today with instagram “photographers” and filters, #nofilter, right?). The talent to produce a truly well organized, lit, and developed picture that was also interesting and carried depth was not recognized for a long time. Then, once it was, color photographs were considered vulgar and only black and white pictures were “art.” The point I am trying to make is that the definition of what is and is not art is relative, changeable, and must adapt to ever-evolving technology and taste. Fashion photography is on that interesting cusp and the inclusion of fashion photographers like Ed Steichen, Richard Avedon, and Annie Leibovitz into museum collections shows that it is coming closer to joining the ranks of canonical fine art. This, in my opinion, is all to the good since I saw some interesting works at this exhibition and witnessed a group with creativity and drive to not only produce beautiful pictures of people and things, but also objects that reflect the humanity of those creating them as well as those viewing them and maybe even those consuming what they are commissioned to sell.

Lin

Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Chen Wen Lin, When Time Passes, Aluminum UV print, 23.6 x 23.6 in.

Ortiz

Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Michael Ray Ortiz, Archival inkjet print

Seok

Exhibition photograph, courtesy of author: Various works by Jae Eun Seok, Archival pigment print, matte

Udomsrianan

Exhibition photograph, courtesy of author: Vijchika Udomsrianan, Seymour, 2015, Archival pigment prints, matte, 28 x 20 in.

 

SVA MPS Graduate Fashion Photography Exhibition: Class of 2015

Wednesday January 20th – Sunday January 31st, 2016

 

Milk Gallery

450 W 15th Street

New York, NY 10011

Graffiti on My Mind, Part 1

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Reykjavik, Iceland, 2015, image taken by author

When I think of graffiti a lot of different things come to mind. As a New Yorker, I think of the gratuitous tagging that lines the subway tunnels and concrete walls of the less affluent neighborhoods. I also think of 5Pointz, a towering graffiti covered building in Long Island City that, about a year ago, was torn down to make way for luxury high rises (talk about gentrification). Then, I think of the LES, where I have been working for the past two months, and the surprises of transient and colorful art that are emblazoned across façades and hidden around corners. Banksy, a famous and as-of-yet unidentified artist/vandal (although his notoriety and the recent art market sales of his work, not to mention the measures taken in certain neighborhoods like Shoreditch in London to protect his work, definitively push him over to artist) is another addition as is his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

I have a personal fascination with graffiti-art, though, an interest that causes me to stop and take pictures of the pictures painted on walls. This past year, having been lucky enough to travel across Europe for several weeks during and after my MA program in London, I was able to witness graffiti across countries and was impressed to see the difference in the unasked for public art to be found on the walls of many cities. Despite language barriers, tourist traps, and globalization, each city and each country had it’s own unique graffiti and the visual nature of it all made it understandable and enjoyable to me, the (relatively) ignorant American tourist happily eating my way through cities, taking pictures and enjoying a rest from my responsibilities. New York City’s graffiti will probably always be my favorite. The range, the history, the hidden locations and the ever-changing nature of it due to the constant repainting of building façades and inevitable repainting of more graffiti. London also had a very impressive graffiti scene, particularly in Shoreditch. The murals are more in depth, figurative, perhaps innately artistic, but for me it lost its subversive character because it has become an accepted part of the neighborhood. The walls are repainted often, for sure, but the few remaining Banksy pieces are covered in Plexiglass for protection and it has become part of the tourist network.

Out of the other cities I visited, Berlin, Paris, Venice, and Florence all had excellent graffiti, often hidden and reflective of the history and culture of those particular areas. Berlin’s graffiti centered around the city itself, its rebuilding after the wars, and did not shy away from the wall which itself is covered in a history of graffiti, archaeological in its stratigraphy.

Paris’ graffiti was experimental and suggestive.

Paris

Miss.Tic, Paris, France, 2015, image taken by author

Venice was filled with angels and satirical caricatures of tourists, referencing both the history of Catholicism in Italy as well as the obvious and sad fact that Venice is now more a playground for tourists and honeymooners than actual Venetians.

Florence was weird and artistic, with the same artists producing series across the city with the same characters slightly altered. Fitting for a historically artistic city that houses the Uffizi, one of the greatest fine art collections in Italy, if not the world.

As an art historian, though, graffiti does not interest me on a purely aesthetic level but also on a philosophical level. It has a fascinating history in the art world where it was elevated from vandalism to an art form around the 1980s. Artists like Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Martin Wong among many others were embraced for the art that they created and displayed for all to see as posters and graffiti, on the streets and in the subway, and museum worthy paintings that referenced graffiti and its particular, unstudied style. Graffiti became popular and cool and it remains so to this day. Clothing, accessories, restaurants, and bars center themselves around its aesthetic and collectors buy graffiti inspired paintings and prints, even pieces of graffitied walls, to add to their collections. I, however, am drawn to it in large part due to its inherent transience. Graffiti is not commissioned, it is not asked for, it is (in many cities) illegal, and its practitioners are not (traditionally) trained artists. The canvas that graffiti artists work on, the sides of buildings, walls, sidewalks, etc. are all urban spaces that are visually public but privately owned. The owners can (and often do) choose to paint over the art, sell their buildings, or tear them down to rebuild. The artwork created is not meant to be kept, conserved, and curated but is instead a visual shout, heard by the few who choose to stop and look, conserved by those who decide to take a picture, and curated by social media (instagram, facebook, twitter, pinterest, etc.). The same streets that I walk down every day are forever changing and this reflects the ever-changing nature of the city and its people. All cities change from day to day; the people living, working, visiting, and spending money change every day and every year. A city is a belief and an idea and it is perpetuated by the people who choose to believe in it. Thusly, a city itself is changeable and transient.

New York…I fell in love with it for it’s changeability and it is no longer the city that I moved to three years ago. It changes and it grows, not always for the better in the eyes of its people, but most definitely with inevitably. This is also the very reason that New York makes me sad: prices go up, the rent is too damn high, favorite restaurants and bars close, neighborhoods gentrify and grow, and right now it is really really cold. I mourned the loss of 5Pointz and every time a beautiful or interesting piece of graffiti is painted over it pains me because I was trained to work in a museum atmosphere. There, nothing changes and everything is conserved. But, graffiti art, like the city it lives in, must change in order to continue to thrive. The canvas is constantly whited out in order to be covered by more thoughts, more visual shouts, more beliefs, and conservation is nothing more than stagnation. Posters are plastered across the paintings and other people tag or otherwise mar the surface of graffitied images. That is one of the many reasons that I am interested in graffiti art, it does not mourn the loss and transience, but instead revels in it. It accepts the nature of the city that is its inspiration, its sounding board, its canvas and moves forward, fluid and malleable as we all must be.

Naples

Borondo, Naples, Italy, 2015, image taken by author

LoveMe

New York, 2013, image taken by author