Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Heart of Darkness" at the Walker Art Center

Holland Cotter, writing in the New York Times, reviewing a sculpture exhibit at the Sculpture Center in Queens, said:
The debate over object vs. content, form vs. idea, is tired. Everybody appreciates well-made things. But skill is far from being the only, or even primary, criterion for what makes art art. If substantial ideas are brewing, any package, tight or loose, that delivers them effectively is the right one.
Sure, sure, but give me a well-made sculpture devoid of any ideas over a poorly made piece overflowing with theory any day. If there's one thing wrong with contemporary art today, it's that ideas knock out form and method so completely that bad ideas are getting more attention than they deserve. Just look at the last Whitney Biennial. Or go the the Walker Art Center's exhibit "Heart of Darkness" (which ends on Sunday).

"Heart of Darkness," a trio of "large-scale environments by artists Kai Althoff, Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, and Thomas Hirschhorn," was panned by Minneapolis Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe:
The best thing about Walker Art Center's overblown and hugely disappointing exhibit, "Heart of Darkness," is its evocative title. Alluding to novelist Joseph Conrad's harrowing 1899 indictment of genocidal racism in the colonial Belgian Congo, the title seemed to promise a profound psychological journey into the hidden recess of contemporary culture or, at least, a transformative encounter with the creative lives of the featured artists. Instead, it delivers little more than sophomoric riffs on sexual angst, an unintelligible light show and a cave-like funhouse full of pretentious, empty-headed props and urban litter.
She's right, and it's because ideas got in the way of thoughtful art, the way the barbarians in Capital One's 'what's in your wallet' ad campaign get in the way of the ad: after a while you realize that the creators of the ad or the art installation got so enamored with their subject that they totally lost sight of their message.

I'm thinking of Kai Althoff's "Solo für eine befallen Trompete (Solo for an Afflicted Trumpet)" specifically. It's as if he recreated a giant dirty living room to distract us from his forgettable paintings, which appear on walls amid the soiled carpet and old furniture. What's the point? Anything he says could just as easily make sense or sound like gibberish. There is no apparent message and we don't even enjoy the spectacle. It's bad packaging to disguise a lack of ideas. The Walker describes it with euphemisms: "The artist envisioned an uninhibited room, a sort of sovereign land where bourgeois codes of order, tidiness, and beauty are suspended." Yeah, it's a dirty living room.

Forgive me if I gloss over Gallagher and Cleijne's 16 mm film installation, "Murmur: Watery Ecstatic, Kabuki, Blizzard of White, Super Boo, Monster" (2003). It made me feel nothing.

The last installation succeeds on the levels of skill and work -- at least in a way. Hirschhorn's "Cavemanman" (2002) is literally a cave constructed of cardboard and packing tape. It's huge and creaky and musty, and its five giant rooms are a pleasure to navigate. I have no idea what it means, and I'm inclined to agree with Abbe when she says that "in the end, taping somebody else's big ideas to the walls of a faux cave isn't the same as having big ideas of one's own. Only on the loopier fringes of the art world can Hirschhorn's metaphor seem profound."

The cave is full of empty pop cans. Taped to the walls are books about philosophy and criticism. And the artist tries to evoke France's famous prehistoric cave paintings by using a video monitor to show Lascaux II, described by the Walker as "a theme-park recreation of the prehistoric painted caves in Montignac, France." That's too many removals from the real thing; it's just lazy.

But I had great fun wandering through it. It reminded me of the forts I used to make as a child with masking tape and appliance boxes. And I swear I saw the novelist Charles Baxter walking through the cave.

So back to Holland Cotter's point. Hirschhorn's "Cavemanman" is a well-packaged interactive idea void. Compare this to a work by one of the SculptureCenter artists, Monica Bonvicini -- a few years ago she put industrial fans in a gallery at P.S.1. Nice execution, but what does it mean? Maybe it doesn't matter in the end, because like "Cavemanman," it made you feel something, even if it was just wind.

Take Amy Heckerling's 1995 movie Clueless. At first, and to the teen audience, it's a smart drama about a rich girl in Beverly Hills playing matchmaker with her highschool chums. But it's also a smartly-made update of Jane Austen's Emma. Why couldn't Hirschhorn's packing tape cave stand up like that? It was, in its own way, a remake of the Lascaux caves. What went wrong? Lack of focus for one. Trying to do too many things, and succeeding in only one (making a really amazing cave out of tape).

Art has to work on a number of levels to be successful. It has to give us something to look at, and then something to think about, and then something to remember, and then something to haunt us, to make us think again. It should reward us for examining it by showing us more layers, deeper meanings. But it has to work on the surface, too.



Anonymous Sarah said...

I share your opinion on the foolishness of art that looks like crap and is touted as being all about process, but I have to point out that Cotter wasn't defending crap--the review says that the right package delivers ideas effectively. The whole problem with process art is that you can't know the thought that went into it until you read the multi-paragraph explanation that's posted on the wall next to the pile of debris...suddenly I'm having a brilliant idea. I'm going to mount an expedition at a major gallery consisting entirely of wall plaques next to empty spaces, all of them giving a different justification for my demanding that an look at these specific empty spaces. But given my luck, someone's probably done it already.

2:14 PM  

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