Wednesday, April 30, 2008
If anyone ever wanted proof that art is useful, here it is. Apparently this little fly, etched into the porcelain of the urinals at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, improves aim and thereby reduces spillage by 80%. More here. The choice of image is brilliant, the perfect target. Who, besides Albert Schweitzer, has ever looked at a fly without wanting to hit it?
And since we're on the subject, I'll share this poem. Written by a student for my Senior Seminar at Chicago's Columbia College where I did a term-long stint as a visiting artist in 2004, it's an ode to Duchamp's Fountain:
R. Mutt 1917
Commemoration of the family pet, perhaps?
This drain profane
on its back like an insect
Monsieur Duchamp detours
and shows us its other face.
The sensual curves of this prosaic pot
suggestive of the lowly bedpan
It is no throne, for there is no place to sit.
Taken for granted until celebrated
Public, yet removed and indestructible
We join at the communal well
to cleanse, to linger, to dream.
Baptism’s sacred font
to purify the sins of the masculine
He is reborn, revived, renewed
Flushing, gushing fluid
Springs forth the liquid
from one fountain to another
Man makes his way, and voids himself of a night’s refreshment.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, as photographed by Alfred Steiglitz in 1917.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Prince covering Radiohead's "Creep" at Coachella last weekend [via BBP] Wish I'd been there. However in 2003, when son Matt wangled me a single ticket for Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" tour, I drove a couple of hours by myself to the Tweeter Center near Boston, spent at least another hour sitting in concert traffic so that I missed a good portion of the show, but got there in plenty of time to stand in the suffocating August heat and hear Thom Yorke unexpectedly sing "Creep." It was more than worth it.
Iceland, 2006 (Photo: Carol Diehl)
Friday, April 25, 2008
Olafur Eliasson, Eye See You, 2006, lamp, installed in a window at Louis Vuitton 5th Avenue & 57th Street, NYC. (Photo: Carol Diehl)
“But I guess he's like James Turrell—you need to experience it to truly appreciate it, pictures and words just ain't gonna cut it.”
This from a comment on my last post about Olafur Eliasson, which made me think of my first post ever, almost a year ago, about how sometimes the knowledge we have about what to expect from art (or anything) can interfere with the actual experience. There I told about how, when I tried to shush up the guy sitting next to me in Turrell’s open-to-the-sky room at PS1 called Meeting (after Quaker meeting, a practice based on meditation), he corrected me by saying, “This piece isn’t about silence, it’s about light.”
In other words, sometimes we get so caught up in what we know about a particular artist’s intentions, or where s/he fits into art history, that we forget to rely on our senses.
So it happens that while one reviewer, Charlie Finch of ArtNet, complains bitterly that Eliasson’s work in his MoMA mid-career survey isn’t aesthetic enough (or at all), Holland Cotter in the NY Times ("Stand Still: A Spectacle Will Happen") suggests that it could be too aesthetic, questioning what he calls “the politics of enchantment.”
It appears that Finch couldn't move past an assessment of the purposefully mundane objects to the ambiance each creates, while Cotter seems fearful of being overly enthusiastic. He writes, for instance, Eliasson's work is “too intent on appealing to our appetite for passive sensation” as well as “intellectually stimulating” --which, if you can get both those things to happen at once, sounds pretty cool.
Referring to Eliasson's involvement with BMW , Cotter finds the work “too readily adaptable to corporate design”—an odd statement, in light of Eliasson's heightened awareness of his place in the consumer culture (see Madeleine Grynsztejn's essay, "(Y)Our Entanglements: Olafur Eliasson, the Museum, and Consumer Culture" in the exhibition catalogue), and I think part of Eliasson’s brilliance is in using corporate commissions to make anti-corporate statements. His 2006 light pieces, installed at Christmastime in the windows of 350 Louis Vuitton stores worldwide, utilized the same acrid color-draining yellow light that’s now in the hallways at MoMA. Entitled Eye See You, the lamps, like giant eyeballs, seemed to spotlight potential shoppers with the question “What are you doing shopping for luxury goods when people are suffering? (Eliasson, who has two adopted Ethiopian children, donated the proceeds to a fund he and his wife established to support relief initiatives in Ethiopia).
And somehow, taking a BMW hydrogen-powered race car, enshrouding it a shroud of steel mesh, mirror-coated stainless steel, and many layers of ice and titling it Your mobile expectations hardly seems to pander to its sponsor. (The piece, which was in the SFMOMA exhibition, didn't travel to New York.)
Olafur Eliasson, Your Mobile Expectations, 2007. (Photo: SFMOMA)
I'm with Peter Schjeldahl who wrote in The New Yorker: "Here's someone for whom beauty is normal. His character suggests both the mental discipline of a scientist with the emotional responsibility of a poet."
The MoMA exhibition is entitled Take your time…on purpose. And you can only experience Eliasson’s work fully by seeing the installations at both MoMA and PS1, only 15 minutes apart on the E and the V. And if, in between, you need sustenance, there’s the downscale and tasty Gaw Gai Thai Express at 23-06 Jackson Ave, LIC, across and a little down the street from PS1. I think it has an orange awning.
Charlie Finch, "Fake it 'Til You Make It," Artnet
Cynthia Zarin, "Seeing Things," The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.
Carol Diehl, "Olafur Eliasson at Tanya Bonakdar" (review), Art in America, December, 2006.
Carol Diehl, "Northern Lights," Art in America (cover article), October, 2004.
Madeleine Grynsztjen et. al., Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson (exhibition catalog), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/ Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
[Clarity in art writing] is not something one ought to condescend or resort to, simply in the interest of communicating with the general public – it’s something any theorist or critic ought to be striving for at all times. It’s simply best practice as thinking.
This came as part of a long and pithy comment (which includes a 1992 quote from philosopher John Searle : "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself") from CAP on Parsing Martspeak below, and I'm posting it here to make sure it isn't overlooked, as it is at the crux of the entire debate. Reading it I realized that the reason I’m so invested in the subject is because this is the joy of writing about art for me. Some people play Sudoku, I try to figure out what makes Robert Irwin tick.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Monday, April 21, 2008
Interestingly, except for C-Monster, Tyler Green (who wrote “If I were a contemporary museum director and if I’d just read two weeks of posts about how curatorial writing about contemporary art is an embarrassment to the profession [which it is], I’d give potential hires a writing test”) and Richard Lacayo of TIME Magazine (who called such writing, “a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid to say in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at” for fear of getting it wrong), Gibson and most bloggers responded to my post on curatorial writing as an attack on art writing in general, with which they either agreed or disagreed. Infuriated by Lacayo's ironic call for a "ban"on certain overused terms, Catherine Spaeth, in a post entitled “Being at Ease With Difficulty” defended the academic tone by saying, “the blogger culture lends itself to an anti-intellectualism that has its way of raising its heads in a gang.”
The anti-intellectual label is easily hurled, as is the accusation that anyone who suggests that ideas might be rendered in a readable and understandable manner is somehow calling for a “dumbing down.”
So when Hrag Vartanian states, “If the ideas are complex it is because they often grapple with concepts that resist simplification,” I insist on distinguishing between "simplification" and "clarification." It is not necessary to simplify in order to clarify. Further, I'm suspicious of any idea that can’t be clarified.
What I’m calling for is not a “dumbing down” but a “smartening up.” I’m asking for readers of the fatuous phrases that litter artists’ statements, press releases, and museum text not to swallow them whole, but ask themselves: “What is this really saying?” “Does it make sense?” And more, “What does it have to do with the art at hand?”
In an email, Janice Gewirtz, a reader of the Wall Street Journal, thanks me for my criticism of what she coined the “Emperor’s New Biennial” and says, further, “These overblown installations say nothing cogent about the subjects they ostensibly tackle. Rather, they reference ‘pop culture,’ or ‘sexuality,’ or even the notorious ‘fluid communication structures’ (whatever that is) as buzzwords.”
Exactly. That's what I was referring to in my posts here and here about Doris Salcedo’s crack in the floor of London’s Tate Modern, which is billed as “addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.” Sometimes a crack is just a crack.
Idly Googling “artspeak” the other day (procrastination is a wonderful thing), I came across an essay by John Haber, written in 1997, where he nails the origin of this language:
…am I imagining it, or do they blend together—the gallery press release and a parody of management jargon?…. It may have its roots in academia, where scholars hope to share their hesitant insights with students and peers. It may look back to art journals, where critics fumble for words to describe works of art rich in emotions and ideas. However, that is not where artspeak begins, and complaints about it hide its origins all too well.
Worse comes to worse, academics will trip up on their own humanity. Worse comes to worse, they will stumble on insights as unfamiliar and unpronounceable as art itself. Artspeak really starts sometime later, when critical clichés pass through the gallery system and into the marketing departments of major museums, eager for a larger public and bigger institutional gifts.
Promoting art is business, big business, and money talks. I call its language martspeak.
So perhaps now that it’s been defined for us--the language of two industries, academia and the art market, who have joined together for their mutual economic benefit--when we see it, we'll more easily recognize martspeak for what it is.
Words never contain a work of art. Words can, though, encourage its reconstruction. They can create small openings in the walls that already exist, so that others may begin to look—and to see….
Art asks one to enter into a broken conversation, a half-overheard dialog between the work and the world. Newcomers to art distrust that demand. Most, often, too they would never know how to begin. A critic’s job is to break the ice.”
Something that all of us who write about art—be it our own or that of others—would be wise to remember.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
My rants about museum wall text and artists' statements come from a strong belief, derived initially from my study of Robert Irwin and his work, in the experience of art being unmediated and individual--that art which truly fulfills its purpose as art, requires no explanation. Olafur Eliasson, who I have also written about extensively, follows in Irwin’s footsteps and takes it one step further, viewing everything--from the publicity around an exhibition and the expectations it raises, to whatever personal interactions occur in the museum as well as the physical situation itself (including temperature, sound, and the presence of other people)--as contributing to the experience of the art. As he said yesterday at the press preview for his mid-career survey, which opens Sunday at MoMA and PS1: “I don’t want to interpret the work for you. My interpretation is not your interpretation.”
His pieces are not accompanied by wall text.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Sunday, April 6, 2008
...Thomson's inherently conversational practice both gamely Pop-ifies its often antiaesthetic historical precedents and resituates that generation's thought experiments in the social realm. (Suzanne Hudson on Mungo Thomson)
Friday, April 4, 2008
Short of requiring by law that all wall texts be written in haiku—try cramming “problematize” into that little compartment—I’m not sure what can be done about this….Here might be a modest way to start. Let whoever edits museum catalogues—does anyone edit them?—ban just these five words, which are arranged into rhetorical daisy chains in every other catalogue I see.
3. References (as a verb)
To those I would add “juxtaposition” and “informed” as in “his work is informed by…”
You are free to add your own.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful? Why is it so clogged with the decrepit formulations of academic artspeak? Why does so much of it sound like it was written by an anxious schoolkid delivering a labored term paper?
My first assumption is that there’s a generation of curators who went to college and grad school in the 1980s and ‘90s, when the congested language of Deconstruction, Critical Studies and so on still seemed important, intrepid, and even a little glamorous. I get the impression that even if a budding art writer wasn’t fully committed to those lines of inquiry, the incredibly turgid writing they produced infected the academy in all directions.
But the industrial strength rhetoric of so much museum writing is also, I suspect, a defense against anxiety by curators and catalogue essay writers afraid to simply say out loud and in plain English what they suppose the work might be getting at. What if they get it wrong? Better to fall back on clichés that stand in for thought without furthering it.
Finally bad writing is just insider talk. It’s not directed to the public at all, but pitched to the coterie of other curators and academics who use jargon to signal to one another their initiation into the world of…jargon.
Read complete article
Richard Lacayo in TIME on the Whitney Biennial
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Then there’s “spectatorial”--as in a “unified spectatorial vantage point” which I take to mean a “unified spectator vantage point” but with better clothes. However my absolute favorite is “problematizing” for which I can see myriad uses in the vernacular, and is certainly more concise than “making mountains out of mole hills.” You could say, “I had to leave the meeting because of all the problematizing that was going on” and everyone would know exactly what you meant. And don’t we all know people who are problematizers and never had a word for it? Or maybe I’ve just been in that interstitial space between understanding and confusion far too long.