Post 40: 9/22/07
Words Fail Me at MOCAD
Words Fail Me, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). 15 September–20 January 2008. Group exhibition.
Words Fail Me is the fourth exhibition mounted at MOCAD, the new alternative museum in Detroit, but more importantly the beginning of its second year in operation. For those not in Detroit: MOCAD has reset the clock in the Detroit art scene (there is and has always been one) to a new Year 1, making the previous period seem over and done with for good. At the same time, MOCAD arrived on the scene several decades later than similar organizations in other American cities. In San Francisco, for instance, publicly funded alternative spaces from the 1970s prospered, then underwent privatization in the 1980s, contributing to an alternative museum culture that was crucial in defining a range of aesthetic issues, supporting artists and tendencies in its geographical region, and linking the art of that region to developments nationally and internationally. Many less acknowledged art centers in the Midwest, such as Minneapolis and Columbus, have long supported alternative museums in this sense. Detroit, a major economic zone, has long suffered for the lack of such a space, to the extend that one must ask why that had to be so.
Answers are not hard to find, and include the tendency for the arts to be defined in the Motor City along the lines of the mass culture Henry Ford created with the auto industry: large pools of money that result led to a culture of spectacle and patronage that reinforces Detroit's notorious class divisions—on view every time the Detroit Institute of Arts sets up its valet parking for gala events meant for high-rollers from the suburbs. At the same time, the art that arose in Detroit during the Cass Corridor period (from the 1970s) never was able to convert its talents to the establishment of an alternative exhibition culture. The reasons were many: urban decline during the 1970s and 1980s; flight of artists to New York; a small and conservative gallery scene; lack of consensus over cultural politics in racially polarized Detroit; and the slashing of funds by Republicans who came to power in the late 1980s. The heroic efforts of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), the Center for Creative Studies (CSC), the Detroit Artists' Market, and the handful of savvy galleries still could not address the fundamental gap created by major money with nowhere to go, little connection to art made in Detroit, and less instinct for how to support the development of new art.
For those in Detroit, MOCAD has been closely watched to see how it would interpret its mandate to fill the gap. In the first year, it staged two important shows: Meditations in an Emergency put MOCAD's capacious, half-finished, exhibition space—a former auto dealership with plenty of show room and high ceilings—to good use in sampling a range of urban-oriented site-specific installation strategies. This was work that could be mounted neither in the DIA nor in smaller spaces but depended in its overall effect from its dialogue with the scale and funkiness of the space; viewing it, I was reminded of similar recent strategies in Berlin, for example the Tod Kein Tod exhibition at the Palast der Republik and the Berlin Biennial; in an American context, PS 1 and many similar spaces come to mind. The second show, Shrinking Cities (in partnership with the Cranbrook Museum), addressed the politics of site specificity in a project of regional cultural inquiry that focused on four "shrinking cities" that had undergone decline for economic or political reasons: Detroit; Manchester/Liverpool, England, Halle/Leipzig, Germany; and Ivanovo, Russia.
The prognosis was good from the scope and thematic focus of these events: they presented a range of medium-to-large-scale installation strategies that would work in the space, encouraging art production at a similar scale, and both shows made links between Detroit as a site and aesthetics elsewhere. With Shrinking Cities, this was particularly apropos: its documentarist inquiry into Detroit as a region took a major step away from the merely aesthetic and toward a combination of conceptual, historical, archival, sociological, and aesthetic strategies that performed a necessary refunctioning of art in a city whose very history and current condition challenges any autonomous account of art. The third show, disappointingly, attempted to stabilize its funding base by highlighting an individual collector's holdings, an encouragement for others in similar socioeconomic brackets to pay attention to the new art and acquire it. I can't say more about this show, however, as I avoided it entirely; I didn't want to be reminded of the merely regional structures of affiliation—very close to clan structures—that characterize a provincial art scene like Detroit (before Year 1). The gesture seemed retro, but perhaps with all that out of the way, we are cleared for better things.
Words Fail Me thus arrives at a crux of definition for the new space: which way would it go? Hopefully, it would continue to present new formal strategies to establish a wider ground of practice, make sense out of Detroit's cultural position, and provide frameworks for new work (not brought in by curators, but that can interpret Detroit as a region of art—and here I do not mean simply by artists working in Detroit). The need for definition is crucial: the necessity to take into account why art in Detroit is not art in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London or even Chicago, Minneapolis, or Columbus. And at the same time, Detroit needs to be made aware of what is going on elsewhere, in ways it has not been until now: the legacy of the Detroit Institute of Arts in keeping Detroit up to date on current developments in the arts could not have been more pathetic, while smaller organizations suffer deficits of funding and scale. The end result has been a culture where art is importantly imagined elsewhere; those with an interest and the means, professional or otherwise, see it when they travel to New York, Chicago, Berlin, and other major centers.
This has led to an absolute disjunct between a world elsewhere that understands the aesthetic in its complex development and the merely local world here, which sees art through the blinders of an interrupted history and fragmented culture. Words Fail Me as rubric (understood from a Detroit perspective) might been seen as addressing precisely this inexpressible void between art as absence and world as present, and that would be one way to read the show. It also, more simply, might display an importation of post-conceptual, post-minimalist formal and exhibition strategies by a curator brought in for the occasion into the lifeworld of Detroit, with the resulting experience of a body of work that has somehow magically "dropped down" onto the showroom floor. What is promising about the show, then, is its use of a range of refunctioned conceptual strategies to address the questions of definition that are still required by the development of Detroit as a region of art. The downside would be the extent that these strategies merely point the way toward a consensus about formal and exhibition strategies arrived at in the fabled elsewhere.
The test would be in the work's specific deployment—even politics—of language. Curator Matthew Higgs has brought together a tightly linked range of strategies for the use of language in visual art. The promotional copy reads, "Language is labyrinthine, its permutations endless: This is partly the pleasure of words. The complexity of language, its ability to both inform and confound us, is—no doubt—part of its continuing appeal to artists"—not really the most tendentious claim for the importance of language to art. Rather than gesturing toward the historical dimension of the word/image interface, whose long history dates from Dada through Pop and conceptual art, Higgs has chosen to work with artists who are so suffused with this tradition that their work can only ironize or distance it. This is very late-generational work, in other words, which is entirely aware of its prior history as a problem. Before developing more on the politics of this problem, it is necessary to ask whether this seeming self-consciousness about historical precedence is due more to curatorial perspective than to the individual concerns of the artists in the show.
The self-conscious presentation and minimal (or even absent) contextualization leads one to suspect the curator's design: that the effect of a series of self-referring, highly framed snippets of work (as before, seen through the blinders of history or culture) is meant to efface history and culture and end predictably in aesthetic autonomy as source of all responses art tends to. A failed transcendence in the work (its inability to beyond the self-consciousness of its knowledge of prior history and present situation) leads to the failed transcendence of the work: its reliance on aesthetic effect to trump the conceptual issues it references and distances. This is not a show about language, in other words, as mediating art and context (the legacy of conceptualism), but of not-language as solution to a failed mediation (what theorist Slavoj Zizek would call an example of a vanishing mediator). The effacement of context and history, in and as language, resolves in precisely aesthetic effects, and this is true of most of the work: whatever the words are saying, it is their niceness of material deployment that makes the overall aesthetic impression.
The exhibition is readable as a series of proofs that confirm the hypothesis of a failed transcendence. Consider, for example, its opening gesture: Jack Pierson's assemblage of the letters D E A D from vernacular metal signage (from storefronts, car washes, junk yards, etc.) Despite the charm of the materials and the lyricism of their displacement, what is also perceptible is a series of logical moves: these materials are past; what's past is dead; art is a new arrangement of dead materiality; art is the vanishing mediator of failed transcendence. The meta-comment made by the work toward the past or what is dead is evident in several other pieces that are so spectacularly derivative one wonders how they survived curating (but perhaps that is the point): Lisa Anne Auberach's Everything I Touch Turns to Sold, a display of five women's knit sweaters with gold sleeves of varying lengths that is far too close to Rosemarie Trockel's work; and Carl Pope's The Bad Air Smells of Roses, which employs many of the vernacular printing devices (boxing posters, etc.) that Allan Ruppersberg patented thirty years ago. With Pope there are other aspects of vernacular typography that go beyond the quoting of its prior deployment, but one has to wonder what is going on here?
One theory is that this work creates a reception gap between those who would not register the appropriation and those who are aware of it but must resign themselves to the work's failed transcendence of its sources. But prior references cannot help but signify if they do: no amount of failed transcendence or materialist lyricism can get us past that. This is not to deny there is, after Sherry Levine, a substantial tradition of work using appropriation that works—it is just that these riffs are readable in ways they are not "intended" to be, where their priority is absorbed into the aesthetic effect. Something of a comment on these semantics is manifest in Tauba Auerbach's Telephone, a well-made video in which the game of telephone is played among a series of friends. "Lavender" through a series of predictable mishearings becomes "Love Not War": the work is a thoughtful essay on the mutability of history, the instability of language, and the epiphenomenon of "new meaning" (as well as a defense of gossip as meaning-making activity). In context, it provides a rationale for the end result of post-appropriational displacements, as all of art history could be seen as a giant game of telephone. Truly, originality is overrated (if even that argument is decades old).
Of the many responses to the above critique, the one I anticipate most is "But that's the point!": the work demonstrates the aesthetic effects that result when words (or reference or mediation) fail (Words Fail Me); this show is not about language at all, but about not-language, which is what we live, at our particularly historical conjunction. I have several answers to that: one is that the work on display here does not escape the self-consciousness of its use of history—it in fact depends on it. Second would be that the particular choices made in deploying language are material and thus readable (not transcendable), and here there are many interesting effects. I mentioned the use of vernacular typography in the construction of the work, as also with Martin Creed's "feelings" in blue neon or Ron Terada's commercial sign construction that reads, "Stay Away from Lonely Places." The bad introject of this message is balanced by the dramatic white lighting and material construction (I noticed an "o" was a bit low). Other pleasing technologies are on view in Jennifer West's two digital film projections (Whatever Film and Yeah Film), even as they cite heavily Stan Brakhage's use of leaders and exposed footage; Peter Fischli and David Weiss contribute a multiple slide projection of lyric "fortune-cookie" questions such as "Should I swallow less?" or "Why does the earth turn today?" I can compare the slight impact of the language here both to their earlier, exceptionally powerful statements such as The Way Things Go, and also to the much more engaged use of the question form in Ron Silliman's Sunset Debris and other language-centered poetry.
The opposite of "language," however, is exactly the point, confirmed by Ryan Gander's Encrypt Encrypt Encrypt, a multi-monitor installation of three dot-racing balls in retirement (they don't do too much, just bounce occasionally). If dot racing is the end of meaning as we know it, Gander's installation shows how we can continue to live with that condition. Of the few works that employ context in a meaning-bearing way, Sam Durant's Let's Judge Ourselves as People can be mentioned for its quotation of a street protest sign, documented from its temporal occasion, in an atemporal, decontextualized medium, or Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija's Stories Are Propaganda, which comments on how generational narratives demand new experiential perspectives. On the other hand, work like Jonathan Monk's Nostalgic for the Future (just those words, projected in laser light) is just too thin, as is Siobhan Liddell's barely visible Weakness Is Strength (plastic pushpins spelling out the phrase on a blank wall), leading to point number three: the overall aesthetic effect of detranscendentalized language, mediated through its material instance, as the bottom line of the show. There is a thin quality to this affect that has the effect of creating a negative space defined by the cumulative emptying out of the work, a hole in materiality dropped down into Detroit, the lifeworld outside.
But I am not saying that is a bad thing. In fact, the refunctioning of language toward the aesthetic here does have something to say about the differential context in which is displayed: work from elsewhere, a network of emerging post-conceptual and post-minimalist artists, in Detroit—which knows very little of this work. While detranscendence may make a particular point in relation to time and history, its cultural politics are interesting, even necessary. Detroit missed conceptualism in the 1970s, and locked in to three decades of failed expression, resulting in gridlock and stasis. The importation of elsewhere might be exactly what we need (even if more valet parking isn't). Words Fail Me is a needed corrective that helps to set this imbalance right.
[Copyright © Barrett Watten 2007. Not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]