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Selfie stick: in hand. Move through the museum; photograph any object that piques one’s interest; apply filter; glance at wall labels if conveniently nearby. Some artworks become sites for group portraits while others—contours carefully (or not) framed within the familiar rectangle of the iPhone screen—warrant a photograph of their own. Lack of discrimination is fine: 16GB of storage can surely hold this many digital files. Move on.
The experience is a familiar one, one certainly known, if not first hand, through inadvertent observation. The facility of digital photography, via the ever-present smartphone, has accelerated the act of looking in the museum. The discourse around this phenomenon is often presented in negative terms, terms frequently indebted to Walter Benjamin’s essay on mechanical reproduction, terms which remind us to be self-critical about the cultural baggage of outmoded concepts like the “original” or “authentic,” and to consider carefully the status of the replica.
The medium of painting, sitting comfortably atop the hierarchy of artistic production, is an obvious lodestone and conceptual linchpin here. To take a single work as an example, artist Ken Okiishi’s commission for Frieze Projects London in 2013—a Perspex walled space with windows on all sides containing visitor-activated paintball guns spewing fuchsia and saffron orbs—was conceived to function both in temporary installation as well as in endless proliferation on the web, as representation. As Okiishi put it:
On a technical as well as on a formal level, it’s a piece that is designed to be photographed, posted and reposted rapidly and with great enthusiasm […] These explosions and smears and drips that happen will become very desirable to be photographed, to be videoed, to be sent on Instagram or Vine or whatever.
As two poles of a conceptual spectrum (unique site of creativity on the one hand; ultimate proliferator on the other), painting and the screen become, paradoxically, easy bedfellows. In the Frieze installation, paint splats multiply across transparent windows and layer atop those on the walls behind; the screen of a smartphone creates yet another layer. Meaning is both lost and gained. Click and run.
This summer, two museum shows grapple more broadly with the implications of repetition, the archive, and digital technologies of replication. The Jewish Museum’s Repetition and Difference (on view through August 16, 2015) and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ salt 11: Duane Linklater (on view through August 2, 2015), open up for questioning, from two different angles, the ontology of the museum object vis-à-vis artistic techniques of replication, whether eighth-century BCE or contemporary, analog or digital. Most striking is the extent to which both shows welcome the issue of replication—understood as both material process and conceptual construct—as an opportunity to be transparent and self-critical about aesthetic assumptions, colonial influences, and, ultimately, collecting biases. Said differently, repetition, sameness, difference, and authorship are bared as the gatekeeper’s invisible hands.
In four galleries at the Jewish Museum curated by Susan L. Braunstein and Jens Hoffmann, historic, ritual objects sit alongside contemporary works. Ancient fertility figurines juxtaposed against bronze casts of cheap polystyrene mannequin heads, for example, prompt questions about individuality, uniqueness, and intransience. Elsewhere, vast stylistic divarication of dozens of gold and silver spice containers, with dates spanning a hundred and fifty years, attest to the prototype’s status as concept rather than physical model. Each one’s components—leaves, stem, filigreed fruit, with an animal atop (here an eagle, there a squirrel)—are only nominally alike; in form, contour, and pattern, they demonstrate delightful variation. Acting as a foil to the artisanal imitation of the spice container’s conceptual ideal are a series of Polish and Ukrainian menorahs from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Taken from the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection, some of these Hanukkah lamps, many comprised of the same motif, are direct ancestors of others on display. Acquiring dings and losses through years of use, a well-loved menorah might then be used to cast new models, which in turn retain the flaws of its parent. Here, we confront preconceptions about aesthetics over function, high over low.
In Salt Lake City, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts invited artist Duane Linklater as the eleventh participant in its salt exhibition series, which features work by international emerging artists. Linklater, who is Omaskêko Cree from Moose Cree First Nation in Ontario, Canada, selected eight three-dimensional and nine two-dimensional ethnographic artworks from the museum’s permanent collection for replication through digital technology. Clay pots, masks and headdresses, totem poles, and a kachina doll—all with unknown makers—were scanned and 3D printed in collaboration with University of Utah library’s 3D printing facility; images of textiles Linklater selected remotely from the museum’s collections database were printed on linen.
Both processes reveal the limits of technology. Linklater never saw the Museum’s textile works; instead of using an extant, high-resolution file, he exploited the weaknesses of digital technology by photographing an image of the work as it appeared on his computer screen. Forced through a series of cyber transfers, the image is degraded, and information—resolution, saturation, scale, orientation—is lost. The textiles are literally flattened, losing the peaks and valleys of warp and weft while gaining moiré-pattern optical illusions. Such distortions are byproducts of the photographic process; they are not present in the ethnographic object. The reproduced sculptures, 3D printed in milky-white plastic, are drained of color. Due to the imperfect translation of pixelated data through technological leaps, they are bumpy—materially built-up—where the prototype wasn’t, and seams attest to their very different modes of production.
Though salt 11: Duane Linklater comprises only one gallery, it packs a big punch, not least because some of the objects that inspired Linklater’s project are on view in an adjacent gallery, such as a Navajo or Diné Chief’s blanket. As curator Whitney Tassie—who admits she was “a little apprehensive” about opening the museum to criticism—notes in her smart catalogue essay, the artist’s “copying process physically expresses the loss of information that occurs as American Indian objects transform into Westernized ethnographic objects.” Linklater makes visible this complex and often invisible process, drawing attention to the museum’s history of power relations, its colonial legacy, and its collecting biases. As philosopher Roland Barthes put it in 1963,
…to reconstruct an “object” [is] to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the “functions”) of this object. Structure is therefore actually a simulacrum of the object, but a directed, interested simulacrum, since the imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible in the natural object.
Linklater’s process of reconstruction, repetition, or replication produces a second physical object alongside the first. This not only forces consideration about the museum’s past archival choices (and all the obscured motivations therein), but also—inevitably, by comparison—about the museum’s contemporary collecting practices. Will Linklater’s 3D sculptures, credited as courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries Gallery, be acquired by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts? (If not, why? How would they signify in a different museum collection, prized from proximity to their sources? Would this reenact, on another level, the initial loss of context endured by the ethnographic objects when they entered the museum in the first place?) At stake is the ontology of the object in the wake of digitization’s ongoing collapse between things and information. These are matters of classification (is it a work of fine art, a facsimile, a reprint?) and quantity (can more be printed on demand, and if so, how many and under what conditions?). Asking these fundamental questions about the status of the artwork brings us to the heart of the museum’s function and the subjective collecting decisions it makes. Inviting the practice of replication into its living room, the museum can’t help but be frank with visitors about navigating these issues.
This is true at the Jewish Museum, too. Despite the fascinating and conceptually-thorny questions its ritual objects invite, the show’s real revelation came tucked in an unexpected corner. There, an inconspicuous label, unadorned and not proximate to any artwork, relays the logic of a bespoke wallpaper created for the exhibition. Hung so high in each gallery of Repetition and Difference so as to be nearly impossible to see, the wallpaper, the label tells us, depicts miniature photographs of the Jewish Museum’s Warburg House at different moments in its history. The text continues:
These wallpapers evoke the way pictures circulate in reproduction, and point toward the concept of the museum as a repository of art and culture. Culture itself is an archive: humans collect objects that (we think) have taken art and ideas to new places, artistically and intellectually, aesthetically and politically. Our process relies on the principal [sic] of difference and repetition: we affirm what came before and we deviate from it. When we affirm too much we are conservative; when we deviate too much we are radical. The museum is a collection of objects that represents this process of affirmation and deviation.
The museum is not exempt from this critical investigation of repetition. By papering its own walls with images of itself, the Jewish Museum not only acknowledges its role as place of inquiry, but also subjects itself to the same conceptual scrutiny as any other object in the exhibition. A glimmer of institutional self-criticality among a slew of otherwise clever scenographic or design choices—reflective surfaces adorn gallery passageways, signage indicates “Exhibition repeats” (rather than continues)—this moment of transparency underscores that the intellectual pursuit of repetition, which permeates so many aspects of our lives, cannot be contained to the aesthetic or art historical realms. Repetition provokes self-reflexivity.
Artists, to be sure, have been critiquing the museum for decades. Andrea Fraser/Jane Castleton, Louise Lawler, and Fred Wilson, among others, immediately come to mind. It seems, however, that there is something specific about the contemporary ease of digital reproducibility that compels institutional self-consciousness; in other words, that this self-criticality is built into the curatorial conceit, and implicates one’s own museum rather than museums in general. (Another project in this vein was Triple Canopy’s installation, Pointing Machines, for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.) One often hears the caution that museums must fight to stay relevant alongside the rise of digital image proliferation—as if iPhone photos could become suitable substitutes for physical experience. Indeed, if visitor statistics are a valid metric, the opposite is true: the Metropolitan Museum announced a record for 2014 (6.3 million), a figure dwarfed by the Louvre’s 9.3 million. If this popularity is related to the accelerated rate of viewing—snap and run—that actually occurs in the gallery, it also seems to map onto a culture of the subsequent curating of those images on social media. A simple Internet search along these lines yields over half a million results: a whole cottage industry of suggestions and tips on how to present one’s best self on the web. That curating is the word attached to this organizational enterprise is not coincidental. Cognizant that the taking, editing, shuffling, and sharing of visual information—an act of replication and repetition par excellence, or what David Joselit calls “saturation through mass-circulation”—has become a crucial part of contemporary existence, museums are transforming their spaces into sites that invite audiences to think critically, with them, about the considered presentation of visual information and all of its underlying motivations. It is at this level that the museum calls on the hermeneutics of repetition—slyly, and by tipping its own hand—to slow us down.
On April 27, 2015, IFA PhD candidate Anne Wheeler and IFA MA alumna Sarah Zabrodski sat down to discuss the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s current exhibition, On Kawara—Silence. Wheeler is the assistant curator of the exhibition. Zabrodski blogs at emergingartcritic.com.
Sarah Zabrodski: On Kawara proposed most of the exhibition sections and was a close collaborator in the early stages of exhibition planning. What was it like working with the artist?
Anne Wheeler: Senior curator Jeffrey Weiss met On Kawara in 2005, in the process of acquiring the painting Title (1965) for the National Gallery of Art, so he had a relationship with Kawara before approaching him in October 2011 about doing the Guggenheim show. I came onto the project full time in April 2012, and worked for about a year before meeting Kawara himself. We first met almost two years ago to this day, on April 28, 2013—a day I remember clearly—a Sunday. Kawara sent Jeffrey and me a map of a park, with a dot drawn in the location where we were to meet him. We went, and we waited, and finally he came walking toward us, and brought us to a picnic table where we sat and talked with him and other members of his family until the sun went down.
Kawara was very deliberately not a public figure—he was infamous for his refusal to grant interviews, show up for openings, or make public appearances. He told us early on: “I am an artist that never made any public statements,” and we always tried to be extremely respectful and protective of this choice, and of his privacy. Jeffrey took Kawara on a walk-through of the museum early in the process, and we brought him models of the Guggenheim and maquettes of his Date Paintings and other work to help him conceptualize the exhibition within the space without actually having to be there. We always measured what was worth bringing to him, what was worth asking.
Our meetings involved a lot of exhibition planning and talk about the facts of each series—how and when certain artworks were made, or what they were made for—but ultimately the meetings turned out to be more conversational than strictly business. We would go in with questions about, say, where to place a certain Date Painting, but we would end up discussing cave paintings, gravity, the role of art throughout time, the history of human consciousness—really big topics, and his opinions were quite profound. After each meeting, I’d leave thinking, “What was that?”—and then as a researcher, to always have these new “assignments” was such an education for me.
As far as the artwork, though, we never talked about why—“why” questions were not discussed. It’s been one of the funny and difficult things about giving tours, responding to the why questions: “Why these newspapers? Why the red, blue, and gray? Why this or that?” I can say all of the things that I think about the work, but I can never reference anything he actually said.
Reviewing Surround Audience, the New Museum’s third Triennial (on view February 24 through May 24, 2015), is no easy task. The survey packs nearly 150 complex works by fifty-one artists into the downtown kunsthalle, requiring exceptional stamina or, for the rest of us, multiple visits. The exhibition’s focus on early-career artists (there is no longer an official age limit, but the vast majority of those included fall below the thirty-three year mark at which the first Triennial was capped) means that almost every work bears the burden of both introducing and standing in for an unfamiliar practice—an impossible task, not much helped by the bricks of artspeak-heavy wall text that strive to bridge the gap. One is tempted to simply praise the event as a model of inclusivity (twenty-six countries and six continents are represented) and opportunity for the selected young artists—more than half of whom were commissioned to make new work specifically for the Triennial, with seven of them receiving research and production residencies—and leave it at that.
On the other hand, at the level of curation, the model all but compels a critical response. While positioning itself as “predictive” rather than “retrospective,” the Triennial by no means presumes the posture of neutrality that the term “survey” might suggest. On the contrary, the “predictions” we encounter emerge from the highly particular perspectives and sensibilities of its organizers, New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin. As Cornell notes in the foreword to The Animated Reader, an anthology of poetry published to accompany the exhibition (in addition to the catalogue), “when we were starting our research, I asked my co-curator Ryan Trecartin if he could define the main concerns in his work, thinking we could use them as a point of departure for developing themes to structure the show” (her emphasis). Trecartin’s answer, “Language and Humanity,” while no doubt sincere, hardly adumbrates the specific qualities of his video works—frenzied, kaleidoscopic funhouse mirrors of reality TV and the deeper strata of YouTube, replete with clownish characters howling in seemingly private languages. Sure enough, many strains of Trecartin’s aesthetic run throughout Surround Audience. They traverse a wide variety of themes and concerns, but nonetheless circumscribe a particular sphere of art production, the ongoing vitality of which it is the argument of this survey exhibition to predict.
Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.
– Giorgio Agamben
Although Sharon Hayes is a contemporary artist, reviewers of her work almost always discuss it in relation to American art and culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Critics such as Quinn Latimer and Paul David Young write of Hayes’s “plaintive missives [that] recalled songs from the ’60s and ’70s by Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone” and that her art “speaks of a longing for the golden era of artistic and political radicalism of the late 1950s through the ’70s.” During the Q&A following Hayes’s February 24, 2015 talk at the Institute of Fine Arts (part of the Artists at the Institute lecture series), Professor Robert Slifkin addressed this theme, asking the artist about any sense of nostalgia in her work: either for that period of American history, or for the radicality the era offered.
The question followed naturally from the artworks Hayes chose to highlight, which included Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003), Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (2007), Parole (2010), An Ear to a Sound in Our History (2011), and Ricerche: three (2013). Many of these were exhibited in her 2012 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Hayes presented them as examples of engagement through video art. Of these five works, four explicitly reference or build upon art and events of the 1960s and ‘70s, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1964) to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (1974). Hayes explained that, having been born in 1970, she had a “temporal” relation with that decade, but could not at the time process that moment’s politics and culture in which she finds such rich inspiration now. She told the audience that she does not mourn the loss of that era, but uses it as “the past that exists in the present,” or the “near past.” For Hayes, this “near past” has an unfinished relationship to our present moment, and sets the parameters for the questions and issues with which we still contend.
Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003) was Hayes’s MFA work at UCLA. In it, she “re-speaks” the words of Patty Hearst on the videotapes released by the SLA, but without any of the fidelity of a reenactor, which is a purposeful distinction. Hayes explained to the audience that she finds the concept of “reenacting” problematic because such endeavors attempt to make whole the past, without its natural ruptures. Instead, in the Screeds, the “notness” of the work is foregrounded: she is not Patty Hearst, it is not 1974, the camera crew is not the SLA. As Hayes stumbles through her partially memorized monologue, the audience eagerly jumps in to correct her mistakes, emphasizing the video’s disjunctures—not continuities—with the 1974 tapes. In 2006, Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely described Hayes’s approach as “investigations into the stutters of history, its uncanny reoccurrences and unexpected recyclings.”
Hayes then screened Ricerche: three, a video of her interviewing Mount Holyoke students about gender- and sex-related topics, directed by Brooke O’Harra. I was surprised by Hayes’s blunt, direct, and leading questions, which contrasted so starkly with her usual careful speech, and often derailed the conversation or stymied the students. After the video, Hayes explained that the piece was formulated on director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore, and her interviewing style mimicked his, sometimes using the same questions. As did Pasolini, Hayes talked to the students in a group, “as their social selves,” and as they developed debates about feminism, identity politics, and trans issues, rifts formed: between the students who found “feminism” a welcoming label and those who didn’t, or those who saw sex as central to their identity and those who didn’t. During a lively and often provoking debate about current understandings of sex and gender, the transposition of Pasolini’s 1960s method and questions was often jarring and frustrating. And this fidelity to her source material displayed what Hayes called “disrupted time,” emphasizing, as in the Screeds, the distinctions (not the similarities) between the two contexts.