Too Much Joy

Lost in the funhouse with the Walker Art Center's Let's Entertain

In his vast and wonderful 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines an America so desperate to be entertained that its citizens are willingly dying of laughter. Though Wallace's book is a work of singular fantasy, it also illuminates a sinister truth about our obsessive quest for amusement: The rapidly increasing confluence of advertising, entertainment media, technology, and pop culture is breeding a society of lotus-eaters. If you've got the bread, we're taught, you deserve the circuses.

As evidenced by two local exhibits, the incestuous entanglement of culture and commercialism has also infiltrated the art world. Of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, a sci-fi junkie's wet dream of Jawas and plastic models, it need only be said that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' marketing gambit of "Come for the wookie, stay for the Caravaggio" appears to be paying off. The line of people waiting to offer their ten dollars at the altar of Lucas rivals those attending last summer's schlockbuster The Phantom Menace.

Over at the MIA's slightly flaky younger sister, Let's Entertain offers an exponentially more compelling example of mass culture's expanding compass. Featuring the work of more than 80 artists culled from the international avant-garde and curated by young Walker import Philippe Vergne, Let's Entertain welcomes us to what museum placards call "the pleasure zones of today's gratification-driven consumer society." Simultaneously seducing us with bright lights and bare flesh and chiding us for being so easy, these artists pose an increasingly timely question: Just how far will we go to get off?

Cuter than R2D2: Olaf Breuning's "Boomcyclone"
Cuter than R2D2: Olaf Breuning's "Boomcyclone"

Cindy Sherman is the first to offer an answer. Upon arrival, we're run into a wall of Untitled Film Stills, the black-and-white series that made Sherman the darling of pomo theorists of every stripe back in the 1970s. Looking at them again, it's easy to see why Sherman has been so readily embraced by cultural critics with a yen for tireless pontification: These archetypal scenes of vampish female characters in danger are nothing if not open for interpretation. (Sherman further subverts the notion of photographer-as-voyeur by casting herself in every dramatic tableau). In one, Sherman cowers against the wall of a featureless motel room, mascara running, eyes clamped shut. A suitcase thrown open across the bed disgorges high-heeled shoes and lingerie. Is she bracing for a blow from a jilted lover? Is she the object of a lurid rape fantasy? Perhaps she is a victim in some sexploitation film?

The Gothic mise en scène of Sherman's images, though referencing Billy Wilder, Hitchcock, and 1950s Hammer Studio films, never clues the viewer into the threat just off-camera (unlike those horror and noir films, we are not made to identify with the filmmaker in the desecration of the final girl). Instead, we are drawn into the role of anxious voyeur, waiting for catharsis in a static image, a frozen world. Certainly these shots contain an implicit critique of the violent and misogynist imagery that flashes by unheeded in most cinema--and of our appetite for it. Yet unlike Sherman's latest photos--gruesome studies of eviscerated, hermaphroditic dolls--there is no overt feminist didacticism.

Untitled Film Stills, rather, seems to presage a school of conceptual filmmaking expounded upon in Infinite Jest. (There is really nothing not expounded upon in the book's 1,079 pages.) One of the novel's lunatic characters, an auteur named James Incandenza, develops a theory of "found drama" wherein a person is picked at random from the phone book and made the star of a nonexistent movie for one day. Though nothing is filmed, form demands that each movie be strenuously critiqued. So it is with Sherman, who slips through every interpretive net and remains thrillingly ambiguous.

There are 69 Sherman film stills on display in Let's Entertain, evenly dispersed throughout three galleries to provide continuity to an otherwise pleasantly scattershot installation. Sharing space with the first cluster of Untitled Film Stills is a polychromed bronze trompe l'oeil by Minnesota-born Duane Hanson, whose hyperrealistic figurants of American lumpen archetypes are detailed down to raw nests of acne on the skin. Damien Hirst, the 28-year-old bad boy of British art, also makes an appearance with two high-gloss "spin paintings" bearing cheeky titles like (take a deep breath) "beautiful, unfashionable, space-age, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, orange, turquoise, brown, white, purple, magenta, exploding rainbow, whirling vortex, spinning hurricane, chaotic crashing tornado, earth shattering, exploding planet painting (creating an overall mood of optimistic heaven)." Of course Hirst will never top the title of a similar 1996 canvas: "beautiful, kiss my fucking ass painting."

Cheeky or not, this is not the Damien Hirst that Americans know, love, or despise. Whatever one thinks about the notoriously creepy Sensation pieces--memento mori consisting of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde or left to rot in glass tanks with bloated purple flies--they do have an immediate and occasionally stomach-turning impact. The narcotized swirls now on display, which Hirst designs in homage to psychotropic medication, seem more a goof on those who complain of confrontational sculpture: "Look. I can numb your senses with vacuous beauty, too."

 

A broad streak of whimsy similar to Hirst's runs through much of the work represented in Let's Entertain. In a mischievous spirit, visitors are invited to don plush penguin and crocodile costumes by Austrian Peter Friedl, and belly up to a 20-foot-long foosball table. Martin Kippenberger's collection of Technicolor wigs and mirrored balls, which is scattered throughout the middle gallery, alludes fondly to the last days of disco, while Charles Ray's "Revolution Counter Revolution," a rococo merry-go-round with horses wide-eyed in fear and surprise as they spin without moving in space, plays wonderful tricks on the eye. Equally fanciful are the gilt costumes of performance artist, fashion maven, and identity deconstructionist Leigh Bowery: strawberry and mauve sequined outfits that look to have been designed for a chimpanzee.

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