On Being an Exhibtion

Joseph del Pesco

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On Being An Exhibition
Artists Space, New York
October 2007

Artists: BGL, Conrad Bakker, Beth Campbell, Germaine Koh, Valerie Hegarty, Isola and Norzi, Chadwick Rantanen, Derek Sullivan, Anne Walsh & Chris Kubick, Lee Walton, Laurel Woodcock

The artists and organizers of every gallery exhibition offer a response to the questions “why does the gallery exist?” and “what is an exhibition good for?” Whether intended as a statement of critical self-reflexivity or a response implicit in the continued use of forms that have become the default, all institutional productions operate within an encapsulated history and logic. The hierarchy of an institutional bureaucracy, the raw materials of the physical architecture, and the modes of social exchange occuring within the boundaries of a gallery—and its child the exhibition—accumulate to form a language that is spoken by galleries around the world. While it is unclear how much of an effect a fluency in this language has on the production of artworks for public exhibition, it is apparent that a gallery can inflect the art it presents as much as the art determines the form of presentation in the gallery.

Through years of experimentation, agents of culture have repeatedly tested the conceptual and physical limits of the gallery through exhibition. As a result of this gallery-as-laboratory activity, the language of exhibition has been expanded to the very threshold of its capacity. Yet, despite the excesses of pluralism in art, the gallery and the exhibition have developed a set of stable signifiers: lighting track, white walls, a front desk, a gallery attendant, etc. While these fundamental structures of meaning differ slightly from gallery to gallery (and from gallery to museum to alternative space), they can be said to accumulate as a set of expectations in the viewer/user. Once the particular dialect and idioms are identified in a given environment, this root language can be employed to construct context-contingent meaning and to support or undermine the expectations harbored by the audience.

Artist Michael Asher, who has become well known for employing this kind of context-contingent meaning, uses the term “Situational Aesthetics” to describe “an aesthetic system that juxtaposes predetermined elements occurring within the institutional framework. They are recognizable and identifiable to the public because they are drawn from the institutional context itself.” In other words, Asher acknowledges certain elements of the gallery or museum are known quantities despite their background/neutral status. Through combination, relocation, or removal, the value of these elements can change, making us aware of their capacity to hold meaning. Thus, context-contingent meaning arises out of a complex set of relationships between the gallery, its history, and the expectations of the viewer/user.

On Being an Exhibition borrows Michael Asher’s thinking as a point of departure toward the development of an exhibition that leverages the pre-conditioning of the viewer, the physical language of the gallery, and the packaging and promotion of its contents. While the exhibition does not seek to locate these practices in relation to a specific genre of art, it proposes a continued support of the infiltration of creative thinking into all corners of the institution and the re-identification of these larger practices as not limited to the strategies of institutional critique and site specificity.

Works in the Exhibition
The first artwork in the exhibition appears before the viewer enters the gallery space. Derek Sullivan’s Cold Open (2007), an image of basketball player Steve Nash used to promote the event at Artists Space, suggests that the exhibition might include a series of portraits that survey the existential condition of celebrities or the idea of individual as spectacle. This potential meaning of the title establishes an a priori expectation that will later be undermined by the content of the work in the gallery. Sullivan’s two-part project leads to a column at Artists Space that will be temporarily transformed into a public forum. Visitors can add any material they like to the growing accumulation of gallery announcements received by Artists Space during the run of the exhibition.

From the street-level approach to 38 Greene Street in New York—the building whose third floor Artists Space occupies—Laurel Woodcock’s (Untitled), Neon Quote (2005), frames the gallery for the outside world with a pair of neon quotations that denote its contents as a set of statements provided by artists in the exhibition. Woodcock’s work appears again inside the gallery above the reception desk, shifting in meaning to suggest the words of a particular individual. Through their immediate context, these parameters implicate the fragments of lived experience, pulling them into the frame of language.

Two works in the exhibition are more subtle and pervasive. In Room Tone (2007), Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick mine the contents of sound effects libraries for the background audio recorded as the ‘sound of silence’ during field sessions to allow for the blending of disparate sections of a recording. Encompassing a wide range of recordings from sites as diverse as cathedrals and bathrooms, the infusion of each sample into the space shifts the psychological size of the gallery. Germaine Koh’s Fair-weather forces (sun:light) (2005) hijacks control of the gallery’s lighting tracks with the help of electronics designed by Gordon Hicks. Sensors situated on the windowsill of Artists Space measure the amount of sunlight in real time and adjust the indoor lighting in order to match it. This effectively defeats the purpose of artificial lighting in an interior space, inverting its logic as a quietly antagonist gesture.

Other works appear at the periphery of the gallery space. BGL’s Untitled (2007) mirrors the interior of the elevator that travels up to the third floor entrance of the gallery. As an aberration in the sequence of events leading into the gallery, this strange antechamber with a secret door subverts the viewer’s assumptions about what they will see when the metal door of the elevator slides open. In the nearby bathrooms, Beth Campbell’s Untitled (2007) is the outcome of the artist’s long-standing interest in the illusionistic potential of mirroring. Her installation will take shape in both of the unisex rooms.

In the gallery are two sculptures that transform utilitarian objects into props for a situational narrative, drawing aspects of the organization’s infrastructure to the foreground. Conrad Bakker’s Untitled Project: Projection [ARTISTS SPACE] (2007) is a reconfiguration of an existing piece that relies on a low-tech illusion to suggest a video projector. This mise en scène is constructed from hand-carved, painted wood, that recreates several items specific to Artists Space. Nearby, the shelf sculpture Mama (2006) by the Italian duo Isola & Norzi combines a broom closet with a series of African mother sculptures, poetically implicating the maintenance of the gallery through a cut-away view of the services attached to the exhibition.

Also engaging the infrastructure of the gallery, Chadwick Rantanen’s Untitled (2007) is a video animation made from drawn and painted documentation of the offices at Artists Space. Using a technique from early animation, Rantanen singles out objects in the landscape of administration, giving them a potential energy. Through Rantanen’s video, a subconscious space behind the walls of the gallery is revealed. Across the gallery, a wall cracks and creases under the shifting weight of the building in Valerie Hegarty’s Cracked Canyon (Poster) (2007). The subject of the poster appears to have invaded the gallery as a force of nature, defying the recent interior renovation at Artists Space.

Finally, one work in the exhibition has been almost completely dematerialized. Lee Walton’s Hillary Wiedemann: Living Record (2007) involves a series of performances for an Artists Space employee. The work is transmitted to the viewer only through word-of-mouth inside the gallery. As a memory that can be passed to gallery sitters, its life and fidelity is contingent on the memory of the original viewer and the storytelling chain that follows. The process nature of this artwork makes use of the gallery’s existing mechanisms and collapses the practice of exhibition tours where an artwork is explained.