In 1973, Chris Burden bought a month worth of late-night ad time on a local TV station in Los Angeles, and aired a 10-second film clip of Through the Night Softly, a performance where Burden, clad only in bikini underwear, crawls across a parking lot full of broken glass with his hands behind his back.
Below is a video of Burden explaining the work, its background, and its reception. [It’s taken from a 35-min. compilation reel where the artist documents some of his performance pieces from 1971-4, which he exhibited in 1975. The whole thing is at UbuWeb.]
The poetic title, Through the Night Softly is mentioned in an intertitle in the commercial itself, but the piece is treated separately. Burden calls it “TV Ad,” and “TV Ad piece,” as in “The TV Ad piece came out of a longstanding desire to be on television.” Burden’s ad is preceded by a Ronco record ad and followed–almost too perfectly–by another naked guy, lathering up in a soap commercial.
In retrospect, Burden’s ideas for the piece are almost quaint. He wanted to be on “real TV,” which he defined at the time as “anything you could flip to on a dial. Anything else–cable, educational, video–was not real TV.”
And he also expressed “satisfaction” at knowing that 250,000 people a night would see his video “stick out like a sore thumb” and “know that something was amiss.”
The juxtapositions certainly look absurd, or surreal, anyway, but did the work really generate the cognitive dissonance Burden hoped for? The artist’s action in the film reminds me immediately of the kind of head-down, low army crawl that would have been a familiar experience for veterans–and a common sight from news coverage of Vietnam, the “First Televised War,” which was, by 1973, one of the longest-running shows on the air.
I haven’t really read much about Burden in terms of politically charged art, and his slightly self-absorbed narrations of these early, controversial pieces don’t betray any real hints of the political references–about crime, gun control. domestic violence, war, Vietnam–that have been ascribed to them.
Still, Burden made directly political work later on–the video I linked to yesterday shows him talking about The Reason for The Neutron Bomb (1979) and how he used 50,000 nickels and matchsticks instead of commissioning 50,000 toy tanks because being stuck with a garageful of toy tanks was as the same kind of crazy as amassing the real things on Europe’s border, just on a different scale.
And his 1992 work, The Other Vietnam Memorial, The giant copper Rolodex containing three million computer-generated Vietnamese names, representing the missing and killed–soldiers and civilians alike–who weren’t mentioned on Maya Lin’s walls, blew my mind when I saw it in 1992 at MoMA.
As Christopher Knight pointed out at the time [in the run-up and aftermath of what would later be renamed the First Gulf War], the power of Burden’s work lay in its contrast to the gut-wrenching personalization of The Vietnam Memorial, its unflinchingly cold acknowledgment of Americans’ general lack of interest in the specifics of the wars being fought in our name:
Transcending topical politics, the hoary conception of a Homogeneous Us versus an Alien Them allowed the fruitless slaughter. “The Other Vietnam Memorial” is as much an officially sanctioned tribute to American fear, ambition and loathing as it is to slain men and women. Its shocking moral ambivalence is the source of its riveting power.
It all makes me want to see a Burden retrospective on The Mall. Would the Hirshhorn or the National Gallery ever be up for the challenge? Come for the flying steamroller and the Erector set skyscrapers, stay for the excoriation of our national indifference to the predations of the Military Industrial Complex? Hmm, the pitch might need a little work.
According to the very slowly reported story  in the Wall Street Journal, the Obamas have been selecting modern and contemporary art for the White House from among pieces in national and museum collections. The artists they requested includes several African American artists, including the wonderful DC abstractionist Alma Thomas, whose paintings from the Hirshhorn are already installed in the White House’s private quarters. But they’ve also chosen plenty of white contemporary artists, too, though the Journal obviously doesn’t identify them as such: works by Ed Ruscha, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson and Jasper Johns all came from the National Gallery, for example.
The Obamas’ decorator Michael Smith apparently insisted on borrowing only works that were not currently on view. Hmm, African American artists, in national collections, not currently on view. Why didn’t they ask–or why didn’t the National Gallery offer–a major work by the art world’s longest-time-coming overnight sensation, Barkley Hendricks?
I’m dying to hear the story of how the National Gallery came to acquire their awesome, awesome Hendricks, Sir Charles, aka Willie Harris, 1972, in 197-freakin-3, when the paint was barely dry And as soon as that story’s finished, someone tell me how it is that the intensely classical triptych portrait–inspired, we are told, by van Dyck, Rubens, and Botticelli, with a little Shaft thrown in for good measure–is not only not on display now, but has never been exhibited at the National Gallery, ever.
I’d certainly be willing to look at one less Thomas Demand mural of the Oval Office in exchange for three Willie Harrises. And I’d trade all five Demands to see Harris in the Oval Office itself.
Holy smokes, the comments are a seething pit of powerless white guy rage: Changing the Art on the White House Walls [wsj]
 Though the story’s filed 5/22, Kerry Brougher is quoted as acting director of the Hirshhorn, a position he hasn’t held for over a month.
Hans Ulrich Obrist – My last question, Olafur, is one I’ve asked you many times before: what is your favorite unrealized project?
Olafur Eliasson – I would like to build a museum–to reevaluate the nature of a museum and build it from scratch, not renovate an old one. It should be both an art school and a museum and in between the two there should perhaps be a little hotel–a place where people come and spend time.
HUO – A relay?
OE – Yes, and maybe the rooms themselves will be the artworks. Maybe the way people end up spending time in the hotel rooms will be what the students do and the museum shows. Maybe the life in this building is what, from a museological point of view, will be the performative element. And the building itself is just the form — it’s a content machine.
HUO – Ah, yes–another vessel! This is our vessel interview, and that should be part of the title.
OE – A vessel interview–it’s its own vehicle.
HUO – Thank you so much.
from “The vessel interview, part II: NetJets flight from Dubrovnik to Berlin, June 2007”, published in Olafur Eliasson & Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Conversation Series: Vol. 13 [also in pdf: part II]
Especially interesting since Olafur was just coming off a soon-to-be-unrealized renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
Also, I would like to see this blanket of which they speak, Skyblue versus landscape green, the one NetJets Europe commissioned from Olafur in 2005 in exchange for use of the plane.
I’ve been all ’round this great big world, and I’ve seen all kinds of Turrells, so I couldn’t wait to get to the Hirshhorn last night for the sweetest Turrell lecture in the world.
What a horrible opening. Turrell and Richard Andrews, who’s now running Turrell’s foundation to complete the Roden Crater, spoke about the artist’s work last night, building up to several reveals about the progress and program of the Crater itself.
Encountering a Turrell work almost always involves a moment of realization–yes, someone did call it an “Aha! moment” last night–that the solid-looking object or space you’re looking at is, in fact, light. And the artist told a few funny stories–well-polished like a favorite stone he carried around in his pocket–about getting sued by a woman who leaned against the wall “that wasn’t there”; the reviewer who dismissed a piece at the Whitney as “uniformly painted”; and the viewer who leapt into that same piece because she thought it was solid, which makes no sense if you think about it, but it’s funny nonetheless, and we all laugh knowingly, which is the artist’s point. I remember parking myself in MoMA’s A Frontal Passage when it was first installed, watching peoples’ reactions in the dark as they “got it.” Of course, more than once, what surprised them was that there was someone lurking in the dark space with them, and a couple of people freaked when I moved because they thought I was a sculpture. The Observer Effect apparently applies to Turrells as well.
I’ve always felt that there had to be more to Turrell’s work than the Aha moment, the threshold when you realize what you’re seeing–or to use the artist’s favored term, perceiving. Andrews told a story of turning a whole floor over to Turrell for what, he didn’t know, at the about-to-open CoCA in Seattle in 1982. A whole team of volunteers worked feverishly for weeks, not knowing what the piece would really be, and then Turrell hit the switch, and “Aha!” But of course, it was no surprise for Turrell himself; he had known what he was working toward. He’d seen it in his mind, and had only to construct it.
The artist himself was toggling, then, between an awareness of the tangible state of light and the awe of the moment or process of perceiving it. Even as he said outright, “I am not your guru,” the religious terminology peppering the discussion–koans, “taking it on faith,” enlightenment, revelation–seemed entirely appropriate.
When he got to the slides of his Quaker meetinghouses, Turrell recalled the instructions his conservative Quaker grandmother had for attending a silent, meditative service: “Go inside–meaning inside yourself–and greet the light.” It was a tall order for a fidgety little kid, but given how clearly it resonates with the experience of Turrell’s work, it clearly stuck. What else is clear, though is that Turrell sees a greeting for what it is–the beginning of a conversation. [images, greg.org, c2009 james turrell via moma]
LIFE Magazine’s digitized photo archives includes a few sweet pictures by Gjon Mili from the opening party at the Hirshhorn Museum in 1974. [here’s a great shot of a whole gallery full of Giacomettis. Do they still have all those Giacomettis?]
Besides the fashion and the hair and the realization that the Hirshhorn came into being in the Nixon and Ford administration, [The opening was in October 1974, a couple of months after Nixon resigned.]–well, actually, that’s quite a lot.
Anyway, I’ve tried and failed to figure out the artist who made this chrome Formula 1 race car sculpture. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them. Or I could ask Jeff Koons about it; didn’t he work as a valet parker at this party? [see the full size image] Trova. Mister Ernest Trova Thanks to Peter Reginato for identifying Study: Falling Man (Carman), 1965, one of Ernest Trova’s series of Futurist-meets-Surrealism Falling Man sculptures which explored the changing nature of man in the technological age. Carman is the largest of the 14 Trova works [three sculptures, a portfolio, some other prints] that were part of Joseph Hirshhorn’s initial bequest. It wasn’t included in the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s 2007 Trova retrospective; maybe they used another of the edition of six.
As Peter points out, a streamlined, nickel-plated Falling Man study used to be in the lobby of the Whitney “forever.” I tried to look it up, but–is this right?–the Whitney Museum’s collection is not searchable online? I remember the Whitney being one of the first museums on the web, hosted at my old ISP/BBS, echonyc.com/~whitney. But that was 15 years ago. It seems like they’ve been behind the curve ever since.
I’ve been searching for more critical acknowledgment of Fischli & Weiss’s Der Lauf der Dinge as an edited construct instead of the miraculous documentation it’s normally perceived/presented to be.
Though he’s talking about another Fischli & Weiss piece [above], artist Vik Muniz, who just curated Der Lauf der Dinge into “Creating a Rebus,” his show at MoMA, nails some very relevant aspects of the duo’s work:
It’s about this connection between mind and matter — how something is conceptual and formal at the same time. Fischli and Weiss are artists that I admire for this: They manage to put an enormous amount of craft into their illusions. I remember when I first saw this piece at Sonnabend Gallery, people didn’t think these objects were constructed, but they are all cast pieces. It takes a lot of labor to make something look accidental.”
Vik Muniz on Creating a Rebus [artinfo.com, image: matthew marks gallery] update: In a short podcast with Mexican artist Pablo Helguera, Hirshhorn curator/researcher Ryan Hill mentions F&W’s dissolves a couple of times, and how exhibiting the film on a loop can trap visitors who keep watching the procession go round and round. I don’t know why there’s no way to search, sort of link directly to the many, many podcasts on Hirshhorn’s site, but here’s the mp3 file [hirshhorn.si.edu]
But now it wasn’t so obvious. It had taken W+K 606 takes to get their 2-minute sequence perfect, and even that turned out to have been edited. [It’s really two one-minute sequences edited together where the muffler rolls across the floor. Watch the floorboards.]
Sure enough, there are edits all through Der Lauf der Dinge, mostly dissolves executed by taking the camera in close to something abstract–a spinning garbage bag [2:00] or a pool of foam [2:55, 3:43] smoke from dry ice [7:22], more foam [9:31]–or something abrupt and distracting–the flare of a lightbulb [11:09], the firework exploding on the side of a tire [12:04], a flare of a fuse [13:21] or a candle [13:47] . If F&W had had script girl on set, she might have noticed that a fuse appears out of nowhere at the edge of the flaming pool [14:11], or that the lighting is significantly darker in the second shot.
Actually, that 14-min. cut marks something of a second act. The sequences that follow are all darkly lit, which accentuates their flames and fireworks. There are two more hard-to-spot cuts [15:51, burning hay], [17:26 bucket glare] before a bold, smoky dissolve [18:33] and an even more conspicuous–well, it’s really a montage, what else can you call it?–set of a weighted doll-like device tottering off a plank [19:17]. A dissolve in the blackness at the center of a wheel brings the lights back on [20:18]. More pools of flame on the floor [21:28]. Explosion under a teapot [21:51]. The close-up foam dissolve is now an official motif [22:22, 23:33]. As is the flame-on-floor [24:57]. And the dry ice [25:25].
They’re reusing props, too. The orange board that was so obviously being manipulated off-camera [8:00] is now a simple ramp [20:40]. And there’s that air mattress [1:15], now turned and folded [26:00]. Foam [27:00]. Smoke [28:54] whoa, fade to black. [29:02] the end. An edit to nothing, effectively.
23 edits in a 29 minute film, including one seemingly unnecessary one at the very end. Re-used and staged props. If you studied the walls carefully, you’d see the devices are not wrapped around a giant factory, but are staged in the same general strip of space. It turns out The Way Things Go is not the way things are purported to go. Which made me wonder who’s doing the purporting, and who’s doing the assuming?
The artists and their production companies and distributors seem happy to perpetuate the idea that Der Lauf is one, giant, continuous Lauf. Here’s the copy on my DVD case:
Inside a warehouse, artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss build an enormous, precarious structure 100 feet long made out of common household items…Then, with fire, water, gravity, and chemistry, they create a spectacular chain reaction…
Guess they forgot to mention the editing. I haven’t found reactions to the film’s debut in the summer of 1987 at Documenta 8, but when it was first shown in the US, at PS1 in 1988, the NY Times critic marvels at the duo’s “masterpiece to date,” where “the artists manage to sustain a chain reaction of ever-more-absurd materials and events for 30 minutes.”
The edits are clear, even obvious in places, and yet casual observers and critics alike appear to miss or ignore them, preferring the enjoyable spectacle of a 30-minute, non-stop trick. I’ve never heard of this dichotomy discussed in terms of Fischli & Weiss’s work, certainly not in regard to this piece. A cynic could have a lot of fun with the idea that people choosing to believe something enteraining but self-evidently false is, in fact, The Way Things Go.
I should have mentioned much earlier that all my Der Lauf der Linge questions might already have been answered. This whole post might be another in an embarrassing series of RTFM-themed posts, where I could just get the damn book and find out what’s going on. Jeremy Millar wrote a book-length paean to The Way Things Go, the publication of which coincided with a 2006 Fischli & Weiss retrospective at the Tate, which went to Hamburg and Zurich.
And then there’s Making Things Go, a making-of documentary by ex-critic/curator Patrick Frey, who had filmed his friends Fischli & Weiss in 1985 experimenting [rehearsing?] with their various entropic stunts and devices. Though, reading Frey’s account in Tate Magazine, the answers may not be there at all:
The first version was a relatively short loop, which Fischli/Weiss call Sketch for The Way Things Go: a three-minute Super-8 film, in which key sequences of the later 30-minute 16mm film are outlined and tested.
The present film documentation was created during the three-day preparations for this ur-version of The Way Things Go.
Christie’s engaged Frey to lecture on Der Lauf der Dinge as part of the pre-auction excitement, but I haven’t found an account of the event online.
But back to the other anomaly, the “originality” of the million-franc version of Der Lauf der Linge. The piece Christie’s sold was from the collection of Alfred Richterich, and though the auction house’s press release [pdf] includes lofty quotes about Richterich’s foundation using the proceeds to support new generations of Swiss artists, there is no mention at all about his own apparently seminal relationship to the film–even though it seems intrinsic to the existence and nature of the work itself.
Richterich is an heir to the Ricola cough drop empire, such as it is, and he pursued his family’s tradition of collecting art and supporting various creative endeavors. According to the monograph of Herzog & deMeuron, who received early commissions from Richterich, he was “instrumental in facilitating” the production of Der Lauf der Linge. Sure enough, Richterich’s film production company is credited on my DVD case, right alongside T & C Film, the production company who provided the crew–and who had produced Fischli & Weiss’s with their earlier film projects.
I had always assumed that Matthew Barney pioneered the art of financing films by packaging props into more easily monetizable vitrines, but Fischli & Weiss had him beat by a full Documenta.
Did Richterich receive a somehow definitive version of Der Lauf der Dinge along with his two vitrines full of ephemera in exchange for funding the production? Was his film reel more “original” than the prints that museums and collectors used before the advent of decent video transfers? Is it the artists’ actual negative or master print? Or is the market’s throwback preference for “objects” as opposed to “art”–even when it comes to the sale of this “icon of Swiss art”–just the way things go?
 the artist’s chosen English title is The Way Things Go, which lacks the flowing, riverlike connotation of the direct translation, The Course of Things or The Current of Things.
 Of course, it’s slightly less awesome for Christie’s and Richterich, because the pre-sale estimate was CHF1-1.5 million. With premium and VAT, I calculate the hammer price at CHF 790,000, which is an odd increment and well below the low estimate. Looks like even the “icon of Swiss art” market is down these days.
 Whatever its knockoff-ish crimes, “Cog” is rightly praised as one of the greatest commercials ever made. It took dozens of people months to design, engineer, and produce. It involved taking apart one of just six pre-production Accords in existence, cars that had been hand-built by Honda. In fact, I’m going to watch it again right now, I’m so jazzed by writing about it.
 this one is almost a jump cut; the camera ends up on the other side of a metal sawhorse when the candle ignites its target.
I’ve had some intense conversations with people who wanted to know what the US presidential candidates thought about the arts, who is advising them, and what their policy statements were on the matter. Frankly, I couldn’t have cared less at the time, and now that I know the answer, I can hardly think of a less significant or important issue on which to base a decision. What the two presidential candidates do and say in other realms–in fact, their entire governing philosophies and the way they would lead the country–will have exponentially greater impact on US’s culture, arts, and artist communities than whatever handful of legislative bullet points they throw out in a campaign.
Which incorrectly makes it sound like both candidates have even thrown out some bullet points. John McCain’s arts policy is apparently not to have one. His website doesn’t mention the arts, arts education, or federal arts organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts at all. His stated education policy makes no mention of the arts at all. I have a hard time trying to imagine an issue that would matter less to McCain and his campaign, much less to a McCain administration, and when the campaign can’t pull together a comprehensible policy for technology and the internet, an articulated arts policy seems unlikely to come during McCain’s lifetime, even.
In place of any official position of the McCain campaign, I took a look at the GOP’s 2008 Party Platform. Which turns out to be a kind of grass roots/YouTube stunt to allow everyone to write the platform together. Interactively! There are five submissions that mention the arts. One is a cutnpaste 10-point “bipartisan” position paper from Americans for the Arts.
John from Damon, TX recommends eliminating most cabinet-level government departments including the “department of veterans affairs (I think the world of our veterans, but they don’t need a cabinet position), and if you need more, take out the department of engery (they haven’t done anything use full to date). then turn our attention to social programs. Most should be eliminated over time. Grants to the fine arts should be eliminated NOW (including PBS).”
Two others mention liberal arts in school, and then there’s Stephen from Coopersburg, PA:
I would like to see martial arts added to the standard curriculum in schools, Not only because I teach Tae Kwon Do to kids age 4 & up, (and that would be a sweet job) but because it teaches them to focus, helps them with agility, and cardiovascular training, instills self confidence, dicipline, and teaches them how to overcome obsticles & fear (as well as kick Butt if needed).
I don’t see McCain’s folks improving significantly on these proposals, frankly. I think they should just go with these.
As reported on Artsjournal, Barack Obama does have an arts policy, freshly drafted by a 33-person arts advisory committee. The policy, grandly titled “A Platform In Support Of The Arts,” [pdf] closely mirrors the issues championed by the Arts Action Fund, an advocacy group and PAC associated with Americans for the Arts that’s hosting the document. It’s a tiny bundle of noncommittal platitudes and proposals [“reinvest in arts education,” create an inner city “artists corps”], expressions of support for existing programs [public/private school partnerships, the NEA], general campaign issues that impact the arts world [universal health care, US stops acting like a total dick to rest of world], and a tax code tweak proposed by Senator Leahy that lets artists donate works to museums at fair market value. That’s it. You feeling the Obamamentum yet?
The advisory committee, too, seems as slight as the platform they propose. It’s headed by the veteran producer/director George Stevens Jr., whose name you might recognize because he was an uncredited PA on two of his father’s landmark films, Giant and Shane. His own work tends toward the Kennedy Center Presents programs, celebrations of what passes for culture in Washington, DC. The other co-chair is Margo Lion, the Broadway producer behind Hairspray. Then there’s Michael Chabon, and a raft of arts industrial complex types: foundation directors, a few philanthropist/trustees, arts council and university folks. Despite the prominence of the artist tax deduction–it’s the only legislation in the proposal–there doesn’t appear to be a single person affiliated with a museum or associated with fine art. update: poking around Americans for the Arts’ website, I found ArtsVote 2008, an attempt to raise awareness during the presidential campaign and conventions for the arts industrial complex. There’s a page with links to policy statements by all the candidates. All the candidates who responded and submitted them, anyway. Which is to say Obama has three statements. McCain, none. Also, John Baldessari made a poster.
Have Mexican artists ever met an obelisk they didn’t want to make portable and drive to New York? Obelisco Transportable, 2004, Damian Ortega, on view with the Public Art Fund, thru 10/28 [image: Ortega’s gallery, kurimanzutto]:
We can’t help here suggesting that Ortega should give Ikea permission to mass produce and sell his reusable memorials, because, firstly, we like to imagine them multiplying exponentially in public spaces everywhere (and no, there is still not nearly enough memorials), and, secondly, we also like the image of people scouring the city–a sort of pre-funerary cortege mixed in with some urban sightseeing–for an abandoned obelisk, one commemorating something already forgotten in the collective memory.
Which suddenly reminds me of Sam Durant’s powerful, obelisk-filled 2005 show at Paula Cooper. [Here’s Jerry Saltz’s review] Titled, “Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C.,” Durant’s idea was to move all the obelisks and markers from their far-flung battlefield and massacre locations and arrange them on the Mall in DC. I know, I know: technically, Durant’s not Mexican. But he IS from LA. Also, Indians are brown. 2016 update: I’m re-reading this in preparation for linking to it, and I cannot figure out wtf I meant by that last line, about Indians being brown. Maybe it was a reference to the “White and Indian” in Durant’s title? I have no idea, but reading it cold right now, it sounds more racist, certainly more insensitive, than I would have thought at the time. Time does that, I guess.
By which she means, I assume, that only in DC could virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell perform at a subway station during rush hour and be recognized by only one of the six people who stopped for more than a moment to listen.
It was a stunt concocted by the Washington Post which, at first, I thought was brilliant. But the more I think about it–especially considering the title of the article–the more I think it was a condescending slap by a paper that has very little claim to cultural awareness itself, never mind superiority. Pearls Before Breakfast [washpost via tpm]
[update from the Saw Lady’s blog: “The thing is Joshua Bell is a great violinist but he doesn’t know how to busk…A busker is someone who can turn any place into a stage. Obviously, Joshua Bell needs an actual stage.” ]
Hiroshi Sugimoto created a stage for a Noh performance at Dia; unfortunately, it was in October 2001, not a real hot time for cultural diversions in downtown New York City. Missed it.
The Noh stage was reinstalled at the Mori Museum at Roppongi Hills, which we also missed.
Now, tonight at the Hirshhorn, two musicians are premiering a piece created for the artist’s exhibition. Then after that, Sugimoto himself will perform as benshi, or stageside storyteller/narrator, for Kenzo Mizoguchi’s 1933 silent masterpiece, The Water Magician. Japanese silents are rarely, shown anywhere these days.
6 and 7 pm:Specification Fifteen, a live world premiere of a new musical work created especially for the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibition, Lerner Room. For more information about Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree, visit their websites at http://www.3particles.com and http://www.12k.com. 6:30 pm: Curator’s tour with Kerry Brougher, second level 8 pm:The Water Magician, 1933, Ring Auditorium. Film courtesy of the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
Please be advised that seating in the Ring Auditorium is limited, and we anticipate a high turn-out for this event. Ticket distribution for the film, The Water Magician, begins at 7:15 pm. Please form a line just outside the Emergency Exit doors to the right of the Information Desk. Guests may enter the auditorium beginning at 7:45pm. Entry to the auditorium will not be permitted after 8pm. Please plan your visit accordingly.
I’ve been a big fan and collector of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work for over 13 years now [wow. Typing that just now makes me hyperaware of the passage of time, which is par for the course for Sugimoto.] So when I had a chance to meet the artist at a preview of his retrospective show at the Hirshhorn yesterday, I jumped.
It’s really quite a gorgeous show; stunning, even, which I think is atypical of Sugimoto’s work. For all his conceptually driven series, he’s always produced extremely beautiful photographs, don’t get me wrong. And in the last few years, I’ve seen references to the importance of the old-school technical aspects of photography as well. I’m wary of reading it too much as a “Japanese” sensibility, too, even though the Japanese tradition of modernism and minimalism really is a worldview apart from that of the West; but it’s seductively easy to fall back on the myth of the Inscrutable Oriental–or worse, the pathetic, westernized Pop Zen–when praising his work.
Still, let’s face facts: the man has photographed an icon of Buddhism in Kyoto [the sanjusangen-do temple], he’s designed a Noh stage and a Shinto shrine, and his longtime profession has been a dealer in Japanese antiques. And you can’t get much more self-consciously Japanese than all that. But maybe it’s like being an American in Paris being a Japanese in New York; your awareness of difference is enhanced.
Back to the stunning, though. Sugimoto’s recent forays into architecture and spatial design are (coincidentally?) timed with a waning–or an impending extinction, to hear him talk about it–of photography as a medium for him. The recent discontinuation of his favored materials and the ascendance of digital photography are rendering him obsolete. Not wanting to go the Sally Mann route by adding another layer of meaning onto his work by choosing to homebrew his materials, Sugimoto said he’s just printing as much as he can while he can, and is looking to other mediums for his work.
The result, oddly enough: giant prints. While some of his newest work, wax figure portrait photos and those mathematical model images, were always larger-than-life-size, with this show, Sugimoto has gone back and printed older work in seductive, giant formats. There are museum dioramas, a movie theater, and, stunningly, seascapes. These giant prints are really objects now, not images; conceptually, maybe that’s always been the case, but it’s certainly a much clearer assertion of that idea than Sugimoto’s ever made. This is doubly true for the dramatically lit Seascapes in the massive, blackout gallery [the museum removed some non-loadbearing walls, and they should never put them back; this is probably the most breathtakingly sublime space the Hirshhorn has ever had.]
But I’m not sure that’s entirely a compliment. Large prints are the new market hotness, and since his most popular works, the seascapes, had long ago sold out their editions, there was little opportunity for the artist to be rewarded for his pioneering work. Now, though, he gets a piece of the action himself, and new collectors get the impressive Sugimoto-brand wall candy they crave; it’s win-win. I guess.
But then I have to look back and wonder; it wasn’t “development” who tore down the movie palaces in Sugimoto’s now-deeply nostalgic photos; it was developers. At one point, his work was not only beautiful, it was marginalized, radical, even, as well as conceptually rigorous. And now, well, this show just arrived from the Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills, and you can’t get any more “developer” than that. [And I say that as someone counting developers among my family and close friends. But still.]
Of all people, I’m stoked when artists have the freedom to pursue their vision, and I wouldn’t want to stick Sugimoto in the twee realm of master photographic craftsman if his interests lie elsewhere. But at the same time, when I am instantly blown away by beauty in art, I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical.
I took an old catalogue for him to sign (Sugimoto’s actually doing a signing and a speech this evening, starting at 6, but we can’t make it), and he graciously dashed off a dramatic “S” and some illegible stuff with a silver pen. When I got home, though, I compared it to a catalogue he’d signed for me eight years ago; it was sober, meticulous cursive, as if he were signing a will, not an autograph. And somehow that seems to make sense.
Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Hirshhorn
Previously: greg.org on sugimoto
Another cover from Life“the lunar surface photographed by the Apollo astronauts in 1969” yields a comparison to Smithson’s cover for Artforum published just a month later: a distribution of mirrors across a square of parched earth, one of a number of illustrations from his “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan.” Placing these images together, which speaks to an argument about travel as a form of cultural repetition that suspends an experience of the present, demands a great deal of archival legwork on Reynolds’s part.
In one of the most striking passages of art history I’ve read in a while, Roberts connects a Mannerist altarpiece Smithson studied at length with the abstract sculpture he began making in the mid-’60s, by bridging a discussion of Jacopo Pontormo’s Descent from the Cross, 1525-�28, a deposition image composed around the rotational forms of its sacral actors, to the spiraling forms and crystalline structures of works such as Gyrostasis, 1968. What connects them in Smithson’s oeuvre, Roberts argues, is their attitude toward the deposition of time: Pontormo’s languorous Christ now exhibits a “depositional temporality,” whereas the growth process of a crystal is itself called a “deposition.” It says something about Roberts’ gifts as a polemicist that she can make this leap wholly convincing for the reader. More art history should be written with the kind of imagination and verve displayed here.
Last Sunday at the Hirshhorn, I saw a great documentary about one of my favorite artists. Juan Carlos Martin followed Gabriel Orozco around the world for three years, filming and taping the meandering artist’s creative process, his installations, and the art world’s reactions to his work.
To my eyes, apparent slightness is one of the most powerful aspects of Orozco’s work. Martin’s film reveals the intensely sustained effort Orozco’s effortless-looking art requires. Weeks of tedious fabrication in a small Mexican hamlet translates into an unassuming beachscape in a German museum. The objects exhibited in The Penske Project turns out to be the tip of the iceberg of searching, alteration, and driving in the rental truck that gave the show its name. “When I’m enjoying the process, I know the result will be OK,” Gabriel’s voiceover explains.
With palimpsest voiceovers and interviews, raw camera movement and editing, and a marked lack of self-importance, Martin’s film is a standout in the deathly boring artist documentary genre. (Think talking academic heads, the artist walking on cue, and endless tracking shots through an empty museum.) But this light-n-lively touch has its drawbacks, and they still bug.
Gabriel Orozco usually installs his photos interspersed with other works–drawings, collages, and sculpture. The Hirshhorn show which opened last week is the first time they’ve been shown alone. The show felt instantly familiar, and not because I’ve been a follower, fan, and collector of Orozco’s work for almost ten years. In that time, the artist has published several text-free collections of his photography. The exhibition feels like one of these artist books.
Each image on its own is almost incidental. This is purely intentional. From one of the earliest, most literal works in the show, My hands are my heart, Orozco takes the gesture of the artist as his theme. The gesture, no matter how slight, is at least one degree more concrete than that holy Duchampian standard of Artistic creation, the idea. But that doesn’t mean a gesture is any more substantial, just the opposite.
Traces of the artist’s breath on a grand piano. Condensation inside a recently removed wristwatch. Ripples from a stone thrown into a rooftop pool. Damp, cyclical bicycle tracks on an empty street. Orozco relentlessly experiments to discover the outcome and significance of even the most fleeting, insignificant gesture. That these gestures won’t last even a few minutes is just fine with him.
In some of his work, it’s hard to even tell what, if anything, Orozco’s done; it’s as if he’s playing a game of Where’s Waldo with us, challenging us to find his intervention. And just as often, especially in the photographs, the gesture is in the snapping of the shutter, the framing of the image. Through the camera’s lens, Orozco invites us to see the world differently, to see it through his eyes.
Given the art world’s current penchant for photography–especially for giant Gursky- and Gaskell-sized c-prints–Orozco’s small format photos seem almost quaint. [Only recently has the artist given in to market pressure and printed his photos in larger sizes. Fortunately, none of these super-sized prints are included in the Hirshhorn show.] Their effect on the viewer doesn’t come from easy, overwhelming spectacle, but through the accumulation of small elements over time. As the Japanese saying goes, Chiri mo tsumoreba, yama to naru (dust, too, piled up, can become a mountain). And this is where the great power of Orozco’s work lies, and where the Hirshhorn show doesn’t quite deliver. Orozco’s evanescent gestures gain cumulative power when they’re manifested across various mediums, an effect which is muted by the photographs’ formal homogeneity. But put the concentric ripples in a pool next to a boarding pass with compass-drawn circles on it next to a video of a soap bubble floating down the street next to–no kidding–a sculpture consisting of a clear yogurt lid pinned to the wall, and, to the viewer’s surprise and amusement, the specific and banal becomes universal and profound. And I guarantee, you’ll never see a bubble or a cue ball the same way again. You’ll be playing Where’s Gabriel wherever you go.
Related: It’s almost two years since I took New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl to the woodshed over his negative review of Orozco’s work. So Tyler, you’re in good company.
Buy Extension of Reflection, the excellent exhibition catalogue, or From Green Glass to Airplane, the even better collection of stills from Orozco’s video works.