Too Much Joy
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?
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.
Bowery, who died in 1994, is perhaps best known as a model for the preternaturally fleshy portraiture of Lucien Freud. The Australian-born, London-based eccentric was also an artist in his own right; in his late-Eighties and early-Nineties nightclub performances and work with the Michael Clark Dance Company, the corpulent, self-loathing Bowery heralded the arrival of transgressive performance art into the mainstream. His style, like his couture, was high kabuki, and more than any other artist on display at the Walker, he personifies the uneasy confluence of fashion, celebrity, and art that has come to define the post-Pop avant-garde. If Duchamp, Warhol, and assorted imitators made their fun by elevating cultural flotsam to iconic status, this new new wave strikes an uneasy entente with iconography and irony, appropriating elements and ideas from highbrow, lowbrow, and no-brow culture alike and synthesizing them with theatrical flair.
Duchamp and Co. were tricksters, and their modus operandi was decontextualization: Take the familiar out of its familiar setting, and the boundary between high and low culture, museum and gutter, art and trash becomes porous. The art represented in Let's Entertain is, by and large, a continuation of the trickster's mandate to disassemble. So it is that we not only find Cindy Sherman's dissection of Hollywood fictions, but also the visual vocabulary of high fashion and design cut from its commercial context and pressed into new noncommercial decorative forms.
The work of Dike Blair, for instance--bubbly neon frescoes and hushed interior landscapes constructed of carpet remnants and fluorescent light--offers droll commentary on IKEA-ized aesthetics. Humming happily in the corner of another gallery, meanwhile, is Swiss artist Olaf Breuning's nod to postindustrial design, a translucent widget that appears to be the offspring of an iMac computer and a vacuum cleaner. Given its placement, and the fact that it looks a bit like some space-age gallery dehumidifier, it's not surprising that Breuning's piece gets mostly perplexed glances from passersby. Nevertheless, a rope has recently sprung up around it (probably a good idea: So much more charming is Breuning's creation than the inert R2D2 shell over at the MIA that you'll not only find it hard to resist touching this little fellow but may indeed consider taking him home with you).
Breuning's entry notwithstanding, there is plenty here to disturb the senses and excite the glands. Minako Nishiyama's "Nice Little Girl's Wonderful Dressing-Up Room," for instance, is a conceptual installation consisting of an octagonal, life-size dollhouse decorated with kitschy arabesques outside, and carpeted in uterine pink within. What seems at first a comment on gender-role-playing also carries darker implications. Nishiyama is dealing here with absence: There is no nice little girl and there never has been. We're being invited not into the lacy pastel playground of Japanese girlhood, but into a fetishized fantasy thereof. Taken together with the adjacent fiberglass nymphs of Takashi Murakami--a cartoonish male character with an outrageously oversized phallus and a female with correspondingly enormous breasts--Nishiyama's provocative piece offers a compelling critique of the Japanese cult of youth and the hyperviolent, hypersexual imagery of manga comics.
Similar in topic if not in texture is Richard Price's "Brooke Shields (Spiritual America)," a "found" photo of the eponymous star installed in a darkened room and backlit as if part of a shrine. Shields's lithe and androgynous body--she is only ten years old in the photo--is slicked with sweat and posed as an Egyptian boy-god. The iconographic treatment of such a sordid image is certainly, as the artist intended, a deconstruction of America's nearly religious obsession with youth and beauty--a collective Lolita complex carried on in the ambivalent idiom of mass media. Yet Price is working with loaded ideas here. Who can look at this glossy portrait, with its uneasy mix of reluctant youth and insistent adult sexuality, and not be put in mind of JonBenet Ramsey? In an exhibit dedicated to the transitory and the ersatz, this piece may be a little too real.
Nothing in Let's Entertain is purely fun, by the way. For all its mock frivolity, this art is steeped in the belief that our modern condition is one of stasis and futility--or at least occasional bouts of mirthlessness. Even the exhibit's chirpy, desperate-sounding title recalls some sneering ringmaster ushering us into a Grand Guignol carnival: "Here we are now; entertain us," to appropriate a dead-rock-star-ism. The whole is an exercise in irony, dressed up in the giddy costume of machine-made culture.
Certainly none of these post-Pop provocateurs are "selling" culture in the same way as, for instance, the MIA's Star Wars extravaganza does: You won't rush out and buy a Happy Meal with a plastic replica of Jeff Koons's "Buster Keaton" inside. Yet the paradox of the Walker's exhibit is that much of this art, which traffics in the style and symbolism of mass culture, is also meant to comment on the shifting obsessions of commercialism (all within the rarefied confines of a museum). We are living in a material world, to appropriate another rock-star-ism, so this art dives heedlessly into the cultural blender, a postmodern free-for-all where traditional forms seem beside the point--or worse, old-fashioned.
But the questions remain: Can art effectively illuminate the nature of the beast from within its belly, speak to us about our hedonism from a position so deeply informed by the same? And what about the visceral thrill--better than any conceptualist exercise or lurid diversion--we get from a great work of art, a pleasure derived from knowing that what we're seeing is unlike anything else in either appearance or suggestion?
Rather than resolving these paradoxes, Let's Entertain revels in them. Here, in the looped video installations of Peter Land and Rodney Graham, the Sisyphus myth repeats ad infinitum. There, the Japanese performance-art collective Kyupi Kyupi appropriates the quick-cut style of MTV and kitschy sexuality of het porn for a short film of gyrating geishas. Andreas Gursky's apocalyptic image of massed humanity at an outdoor rave speaks of anxiety and conformity, while video artist Gillian Wearing plays with notions of spectator and spectacle by filming a Wild West shootout in the pristine halls of a museum, filming an audience watching the shootout, and pushing us in between the two. This art--both sensational and silly--assaults at a feverish pace. But what, if anything, does it all signify? At best, Let's Entertain suggests only that we are entering a new Babylon, where the competing languages of fashion and advertising, technology, and personality blur into cacophony. The overall tone is one of violent discord.
And yet, as we wind through the final gallery, the Walker ends its eclectic symphony on a hopeful note, with "Advanced Nation: A Late Bloomer," a sculpture by Korean artist Choi Jeong-hwa constructed of tiny white light bulbs strung around a copper wire frame. Though the piece is reportedly a homage to the chandeliers that have become status symbols in middle-class Seoul, in the mind of the viewer it can become almost anything: a gloved hand, a city in flames, a winged chariot. In its effortless evocation of possibility, the piece plays with notions of prosperity and promise: It is bright and weightless, yet also fragile. So, too, in its exquisite balance--the piece, mostly air and light, appears to float a few feet above the floor--this sculpture reconciles the ambition and anxiety of modern Asia. After passing through the lower reaches of the avant-garde, Jeong-hwa's breathless optimism makes us feel as though we've graduated into a well-lighted limbo. This, finally, is a peace that lingers.
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