Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Art in America/Marta Minujín

Codes of Conduct

In 1968, Argentine artist Marta Minujín found her nose pressed against the window of the intimidating social web of New York City (and its even more Byzantine art world). But rather than become a mere spectator, Minujín used her outsider status to her advantage, and conceived of a genre-defining artwork that helped her make sense of a world where knowing the right social moves was they key to upward mobility. "I got a lot of fame [at a young age]," recalls the artist, "for work I did in Buenos Aires and in Paris. I was interested in fame and in media. When I arrived to New York, nobody knew me." That soon changed, and in response to her interest in the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, as well as her intrigue with the New York cocktail party scene, she created the multimedia happening and film piece, Minucode (1968). For the piece, Minujín staged four separate cocktail parties with elite members of the worlds of politics, business, art and fashion. The work was commissioned by Stanton Catlin, the original director of the art gallery at the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society). 42 years later, a portion of the remaining piece is again being exhibited, through June 12, at the Americas Society.


Intent on reversing the power structures inherent in social gatherings, Minujín began Minucode by placing advertisements, in the form of questionnaires, in a variety of New York City newspapers. Each questionnaire invited participants to code themselves by placing their occupation under Business, Politics, Fashion or Art. The questionnaire, to give an accurate depiction of the time the piece was written in, also asked participants to list "What type of materials turn you on?" and, as a sub-question: "do you like to play with your shadow?" Despite this playful manner of questioning, which one would think would make the political set run for the hills, the artist received roughly 1,000 mailed-in questionnaires. Dividing out the respondents to their respective professions, in the third week of May in 1968 the artist created a series of four cocktail parties (only business people would attend the "business party," etc.). When questioned as to why she felt the piece was so thoroughly accepted by guests "It was because I did it at the place that was [affiliated with Rockefeller," says Minujín. "I did it in the right place, at that moment. It [Center for Inter-America Relations] was a snobbish place, so that's why the politicians, who never came to [art events], came to these. [And] for me, the social situation was the work of art."

What occurred at these parties, claims Minujín, was a startling similarity in codes of behavior. "The only difference was the clothing," claims the artist. "The politicians were all in black, the business people were all in brown, the fashion people were all in pink and gold (with Diana Vreeland as headmaster), and the art people (John Perrault and Al Hansen, among many others) were in red and blue." Minujín filmed each party, and then displayed the films in the gallery space, dividing the film of each party into intervals. Of the visual experience, says Minujín "It was 10 minutes black, 10 minutes brown, 10 minutes pink and gold-like that." Unfortunately for the films, after the artist left New York, she got caught up in another social milieu, to dire consequences: "I became a hippie and traveled all over the world-and [all the Minucode films] got lost. It's a real miracle we found the film from one of the projectors, containing images of the four cocktails from one angle. [It] was found in LA, and someone who worked at Americas Society had it and gave it to (deceased art critic) Olivier Debroise. Then it was found by Cuauhtémoc Medina in Mexico (Tate curator at the time and friend of Debroise), who took it from [Debroise's] room after his death and brought it to me in 2006."

The film now showing at the Americas Society is projected oversized on four walls, and just by viewing one's shadow implicates you as an attendee of each cocktail party. The films come with still images from the parties, mostly portraits, and an interactive slideshow that the original guests created with artist Tony Martin, the then Visual Director of The Electric Circus. A panel discussion held earlier in the month was titled "The World is So Boring," in honor of New York Times critic Grace Glueck, who borrowed this quote—"The world is so boring, I have to think of things continually to keep myself tense"-from artist Nam June Paik, and who wrote extensively on Minujín's work. Included on the panel was the artist Carolee Schneemann, though Minujín laughs: "Carolee isn't even sure she came [to Minucodes]! There was a lot of drinking then. We were all drunk." But, as this show proves, friends-in attendance or absentia-are always key to any art movement, not just the movement of "happenings" that Minujín is most often credited to. Also exhibited in the show are letters and articles related to Minujín. One particularly poignant letter came to the artist by way of critic and philosopher Pierre Restany, who awarded Minujín the 1964 Torquato Di Tella Institute prize. The note advises Minujín to keep her spirits up in the face of New York's "whole subtle blend of social standing, art world politics, self-interested friendships and scheming."


Monday, April 19, 2010

The Last Magazine/Shirin Neshat



Perhaps this is an obverse comparison, but I can’t help but juxtapose Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s first feature-length film, Women Without Men, in comparison with Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev’s Men Who Hate Women (in the US, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Both films are adaptations of novels, and both use political struggles as their backdrop. Neshat’s depicts the 1953 CIA-led coup d’etat in Iran, which was reportedly prompted by the British government’s fear of Iran’s plans to nationalize its oil industry. Oplev’s film explores Swedish businessmen whose longstanding devotion to the Third Reich is barely hidden beneath a protective screen of money and power. Housed conspicuously within both films’ political agendas are extremely disconcerting visions of female subjugation and sexual assault. Unfortunately, Oplev’s film treats this type of assault as just short of fetish, with its lead female character as a vector for an extremely unrealistic and grotesque revenge fantasy. Neshat’s film, despite its pretty, color-washed views of Iranian landscapes, is a far more authentic (ergo more painful to watch) depiction of bodily violence against women. A devoutly religious female character, Faezeh, is assaulted, and her disassociated psychic state is rendered in perfectly calibrated images constructed by Neshat, who has long been known as a fine artist who produces aesthetically and conceptually evocative film works around the political, social and psychological lives of Iranian women. Many of the scenes in Women With Men were screened at the Gladstone gallery in New York over the past 5 years, and to see the work in completion is to place all the pieces together in an affecting narrative. The film will open in NYC in May. Rizzoli is publishing a monograph of Neshat’s work, due out on April 20. And, for those who wish to see the artist in person in NYC, the School of Visual Art’s great Art Criticism and Writing MFA program will be hosting a talk with Neshat on April 22 at 7pm, at the SVA Theatre (333 West 23 Street).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Art in America/Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia

Wikipedia: A Wide Net

"Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge," was the presumably utopian mission statement issued by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales last Thursday night, at the beginning of his PowerPoint presentation hosted by the New Museum. Wales, who was honored as part of the museum's ongoing Stuart Regen Visionary Series (an annual series that began in 2009 with choreographer Bill T. Jones as the inaugural honoree), is founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the archive edited by unpaid amateurs guided by "traditions" of objectivity and neutrality.

Wales' presentation was set up in the midst of the museum's current exhibition, "Skin Fruit: Works from the Collection of Dakis Joannou." While the artworks in "Skin Fruit" explore the simulated human form (figurative sculptures by Maurizio Cattelan and Robert Gober, among others, are psychic interpretations of the uncanny), Wales' talk was washed clean of anything overtly-or one could say problematically-human. Much of his marketing-savvy lecture (replete with grandma-friendly heart-shaped cloud graphics) was pure 1950s, whitewashed optimism.

Yet a compulsion to collect bodies, be it in web "clicks," seems to unite Wales with Joannou. Wales delights at the growth of Wikipedia: "Tell students to not use Wikipedia? You might as well tell them to not listen to rock 'n roll," he exclaimed, harkening, not untruthfully, John Lennon's infamous proclamation that "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus." His good-humored excitement seemed to infect the crowd with an equal desire to see Wikipedia "win"—much of Wales' discussion centered around just how ubiquitous his network was. Following the grandiose promise of his aforementioned mission statement, that gave the museum's downstairs lecture center the air of a pep rally. Like art collections and museums, web sites that share and deliver information are not free of the ideologies of their founders. And in the case of Wales, one has to wade through a lot of rhetoric and media-savvy lingo to get to what those ideologies really are. PHOTO COURTESY THE NEW MUSEUM

Wales began his talk with "proof" that culture was getting "smarter"—and that the rise in popularity of infotainment sites like Wikipedia proved how our culture was intent on bettering itself via consumable chunks of amateur-built knowledge disseminated on the web. Wales chose, in an attempt to verify the ascent of our group intellect in web-based education, to ground his theory in television. His message? Where we once watched television shows like I Love Lucy and Dragnet, claimed Wales, we now watch relatively complicated programs like Lost and The Sopranos. Certainly this proves that sometimes television—replaced by the Internet as the Beezlebub of cultural degradation—sometimes provides its viewers with relatively sophisticated approaches narrative and not just slapstick or camp. More than providing evidence that our culture is smarter because contemporary television is (minorly) more erudite and less shallow, this seemed like a chance for Wales to plug Wikia, his for-profit site which allows people to contribute information to various fan-site Wikis. Lostpedia, a site devoted to Lost fans, is featured prominently on the site.

If there is a singular mind behind Wikipedia, it is Wales'. While philosopher Larry Sanger is credited as a co-founder, he has distance himself from the site, and is now Editor-in-Chief of the Citizendium, the Citizens' Compendium, which his website describes as "A wiki encyclopedia project that is expert-guided, public participatory, and real-names-only"—i.e. very different than the amateur-guided, anonymous Wikipedia.

Wales went on to make impassioned, culturally, politically and intellectually informed statements when discussing Wikipedia's place in the censoring internet climate of China. Wales desired to hold Google's "feet to the fire," for "compromising to participate" in China's policies of censorship, saying he felt Google did this "just to make money" (he also considers Microsoft's complicity "unconscionable").

Critique of Wales' ideologies of online culture can be found in early Virtual Reality pioneer and techonologist Jaron Lanier's recently-published critique of internet culture, titled You are Not a Gadget. Lanier specifically targets Wikipedia in for working on what he describes as an "oracle illusion," in which "knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give it superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present the same problems."

When Wales discussed Wikipedia's place in global culture, he cited statistics about the interests of respective nations. Analyzing data depicted on bar graphs, he made sure to point out that Germans had a significant interest in geography and the Japanese in pop culture—while the French did not research sex very much because "they were probably too busy having it." The comments were obviously flip, but the underlying expectation is that one shouldn't argue with statistics. It was chilling to witness a leader in new technology using information to endorse cliches—particularly when the facts are based on faceless, quantitative studies.

During the talk, Wales said he hoped Wikipedia would help journalists with their craft. He recounted how often he had been asked when he founded Wikipedia, which he found to be annoying—he felt they should've looked that up beforehand. And here we come to the fundamental discrepancy between journalists—professionals trained with a skill—and the undifferentiated authors of Wikipedia entries. Journalists often ask their interviewees questions they may already know the answer to, because they are trying to engage a discursive discussion that would lead to something new, something interesting. Journalism, like invested scholarship, is not merely objective info-gathering. It is, at its best, an in-depth exploration of a subject that yields new "knowledge"—sometimes by treading back over the known facts and posing questions from different angles.

As the 45-minute talk wound down to the question-and-answer period (which was defined by softballs and accolades), I posed to Wales an audience head-swiveling question: "Why is his mission statement so grandiose? Instead of a site that provides every single person with the sum of all human knowledge, why can't Wikipedia be described as a tool that a certain kind of person (i.e. one with the desire to use Wikipedia and Internet access) could use to gain access to a certain kind of knowledge, not unlike an online dictionary? Wales answered that being grandiose was "his job"—he wanted his statement to "capture people's imagination." He quipped that his "sum" was actually "a summary," and not the whole, but the gist. Spectacle may be spectacle, in the hands of CEO magician. But how does the everyday user of Wikipedia, which is unfailingly the first answer to every question posed on Google, distinguish a form of amateur-produced information from true scholarly knowledge?

Monday, April 12, 2010

V Blog/Francesco Bonami


Text Aimee Walleston

Florence-born, New York City-based curator Francesco Bonami is writing a book about bad real-artists and good fake-artists. "I believe there are bad real-artists, like Jim Dine; and there are good fake-artists, like Jason Rhodes," Bonami explains. "I think you can learn to be a good fake-artist—or you can be a real artist, but be really bad. Bill Viola is a bad real-artist. [One] cannot articulate why it’s bad—but it is bad. Real bad."

Bonami, on the other hand, is a real good curator. He was born in Italy and lived there until the mid-eighties, when he moved to New York. In 2003—the year he curated the Venice Biennale—Bonami’s name began to pick up a great deal of steam. That same year, he also partnered with designer Raf Simons to create the exhibition The Fourth Sex (“that’s my title,” Bonami asserts), a luminous catalog of the aesthetics of adolescence shown at both the Fondazione Pitti Immagine in Florence (where Bonami is the Artistic Director) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (where he was Curator at Large until 2008). Titles aside, the exhibition "was a true collaboration," according to Simons. "We did not split up the work. We decided together on the list of artists, fashion designers, and photographers, as well as the whole structure and look of the exhibition [...] I learned a lot from him. But at the same time it all felt very natural, and we always agreed with one another. I still regret that the exhibition [was too massive] to travel, because very few people have seen it.”

What most of the New York art world has seen, by now, is the 2010 Whitney Biennial, which Bonami co-curated with Gary Carrion-Murayari. As the dust settles and the critical pronouncements are made—praise for the show's elegant, refined character; slight punishment for its lack of daring—the question that remains is how Bonami created the show he did. Once upon a time, New York could count on its artists for one thing: renegade behavior. Now, it seems a game of musical chairs has taken place. Now, it's up to the curators to be both bullies and bull’s eyes; they must take the risks, and reap the criticism, good or bad. Fortunately, Bonami has an outlook and disposition almost perfectly tailored to the role of the contemporary curator. Along with his investment in parsing the good from the bad and the real from the fake, he is resolved in his personal vision, which results in curations that seem to balance the sensuous pleasure of looking with a degree of ethical awareness.

Included in the Biennial is a film by Josephine Meckseper called Mall of America (2009), wherein the artist explores Minneapolis’ enormous ode to mass consumerism. “The underlying horror of a shopping mall promising satisfaction and surplus is that it becomes a trap. [It is] designed to recruit young soldiers by strategically setting up shops that sell fantasies of war and adventure, next to recession stricken stores and fast food chains,” Meckseper says of the piece. While her work has a strong and steady heartbeat even before it was selected for the Biennial, the artist herself had a decidedly less focused experience when she first met with the curators. “Francesco and Gary came over to my studio last summer. While I screened the film, I noticed that Francesco wasn't really watching. He was busy typing into his Blackberry,” Meckseper explains. “I thought, ‘This is obviously not going too well.’ Gary was then texting and typing, too, so I assumed they getting ready for their next appointment. When they looked up from their phones and asked if I wanted to show the film in the Biennial, I was completely surprised. Apparently, [this is what] they had been texting about.”

This playful sangfroid, belying intense focus, has become a part with the Bonami experience. As a curator, he appears relatively nonplussed by negative criticism—particularly regarding the Venice Biennale, which was very harshly received. “The Venice Biennale is, only and exclusively, a power trip. For Italy, it’s like becoming the Pope. But as an Italian curator, it is something like a cancer. If you don’t get to it, it stays inside of you and devours you. So the fact that I got it was a relief—I didn't have to shoot for it anymore," Bonami explains. "But the Whitney Biennial is an accomplishment. It meant more to me as a curator. For me, it is always a super big deal.” And as for his partner? “Gary doesn’t care," Bonami says. "I thought I was cool, but then I was totally overshadowed by Gary’s coolness.”

Caring, particularly when it involves a desire to be number one, seems to be the raison de Bonami. “In Venice I was very happy that I was the first American [he received his US citizenship in 2001] to do it, just to spite [American curator] Rob Strorr," he says. "I enjoy stupid things [like that]. And right now, I am the only Italian that did the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial. So it’s record—a really stupid record. But I’m trying to maintain it for a long time."

In a sense, Bonami's methodology recalls athleticism more so than artistry—though it may be a mistake to discern a clear difference between the two. To wit: To celebrate the Biennale's 75th anniversary, the fifth floor of the Whitney currently houses an exhibition of Biennial works past—a sort of ode of remembrance. Featured are early works from the Drawing Restraint series by Matthew Barney, the sine qua non athlete artist. Not all art, nor all curation, is made with the intent to triumph over adversity, to trump the competition, to “win.” But Barney’s is; and Bonami’s curation is made that way—although the latter is quick to point out the bigger picture. “There are plenty of people who don’t think that being in the Biennial is such a big deal,” he says, then advises them to “go to the fifth floor. There are a bunch of artists who you never hear about, but they were in 15 Whitney Biennials. ‘Nobody knows me, nobody remembers me, nobody buys my work—but at least I was in 25 Biennials.’ It’s like eating 150 hotdogs," he laughs. " ‘I didn’t win the gold medal in the Olympics, but I am the champion of eating grilled cheese sandwiches!’”

Under Bonami’s regime, the Biennial showcased artists who work was in the right moment—including artist, critic, feminist theorist, and septuagenarian Lorraine O’Grady, whose work is now garnering a great deal of attention after years of being overlooked. “One of the issues was to not make it the ‘old glory’ Biennial,” says Bonami. “With Lorraine, it was about that work. We told the artists, young and old, unknown and forgotten: ‘We want you to propose work and we want to talk about the work.’ We didn’t want to just put in the names in.” For her part, O'Grady claims she “had no idea—and still don't—why I was invited to be in the Biennial. When Francesco [and] Gary to my studio in late September, I thought perhaps they knew a little about my work or myself. But then again, I am hardly a household name.” O'Grady's photograph diptychs featured in the exhibition, titled The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010), spring from an idea that came on the fly. “When Francesco asked at the end of my run-through, ‘so what would you do for the Biennial?’ I found myself combining two obsessions right on the spot,” O’Grady explains. “[I answered] ‘Four diptychs of Michael Jackson and Baudelaire.’ He simply said, ‘that's fine. How much space would you need?’ I asked, ‘You mean I'm in?’” And Francesco just shrugged his shoulders, ‘Of course.’" O’Grady’s piece hangs on the fourth floor, opposite the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s We Like America and America Likes Us, a hearse-drawn ode to both Joseph Beuys as an absentee dad and, oddly, Billy Joel’s video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire."

All of the above circle back around to Bonami’s book, and the idea of the real versus fake. “Me and Gary, together, we could be a very good collective. We could make good fake-art,” muses Bonami. “We could format a show in Chelsea that people would not destroy. People would say, ‘this is not great, but it’s interesting.’” And it would all be fake? “Not fake,” says Bonami. “Real fake,” says Gary.