Art when you least expect it
As the younger of two children, I learned the meaning of “provoke” early in life. My parents used this word whenever they caught me needling my brother in a way that only a sibling can. I doubt that many people need a dictionary definition of this term. Most of us have either provoked or been provoked — dragged our fingernails across the chalkboard or squirmed in our seats. These are the precise images that flash through my mind when I think about a recent Walker Art Center exhibit entitled “Brilliant]” New Art From London.
The provocation began when I read about the sensationalist tactics some of the Brilliant] artists had used to attract media attention: floating “already dead” animals in formaldehyde and calling them “natural history sculptures,” or balancing large paintings on mounds of dry elephant dung, for example. “How brilliant is that?” I wondered.
Having grown weary of shock art, I expected this exhibit to provide me with ample material for a column about what isn’t art. Instead, I discovered a diverse, stimulating body of work that was as accessible as it was antagonistic. The innovative display techniques and palette of raw materials employed by the twenty-two artists included in this show got under my skin and into my head in ways I never could have predicted.
I was especially intrigued by the manner in which the artists used space to amplify the meaning of their work. Adam Chodzko, for example, could have displayed one of a series of sculptures entitled Secretors (1995) on a pedestal if he had wanted to make an austere, yet eloquent statement about how the AIDS epidemic has heightened our society’s awareness of bodily fluids.
Instead, he installed these large, richly colored, crystal droplets so that they appeared to drip from the ceiling and bleed into the pristine, minimalist galleries of The Walker. The power of this display tactic increased as I watched dozens of people walk underneath the sculptures without noticing them. For me, this collective oblivion underscored the “it can’t happen to me” attitude that pervades our culture. It also incorporated the museum visitors’ actions into the composition — both process and product.
Another artist, Michael Landy, used an entire building to reinforce his message about abandonment. He installed a multi-media piece entitled Scrapheap Services (1995) in a vacant soap factory. After viewing Landy’s video ad for this fictional waste-disposal company at The Walker, I decided to drive to a remote area of Minneapolis to see the actual installation. In the video, Landy portrays a sanitation worker demonstrating the use of Scrapheap’s services.
“It would seem that a prosperous society depends upon a minority of people being discarded,” he explains as he dumps bags full of paper dolls cut from junk-food containers and tin cans into the top of “The Vulture,” a thirteen-foot tall machine that shreds the people and spits them out its bottom.
Landy’s decision to make his “discarded people” out of refuse proved to be a simple, yet powerful way to express his frustration with widespread unemployment and the resulting loss of human potential. Let’s face it, we all know that “re-engineering” has less to do with streamlining plant layout than it does with treating labor as the expendable input.
The location Landy chose for displaying his assemblage of cleaning equipment, mannequins, digitized signs, and recycled garbage influenced my interpretation in other ways. When I arrived at The Soap Factory, it was -20deg F. The only sources of warmth for the 10,000-square-foot building were two kerosene space-heaters that barely prevented the gallery guard and her dog from freezing to death. As I stomped through the exhibit, rubbing my gloved hands together to keep the circulation flowing, I found it impossible not to think about the plight of the homeless and other people our society has truly discarded. Equally powerful was the fact that people touring the installation had to walk over thousands of paper and tin people that were strewn across the factory floor. I can’t think of a better way to convey the human costs of corporate ascension in our zero-sum society.
In addition to using existing space creatively, several artists carved out new spaces within the galleries. Tracey Emin, for example, used a dome-shaped tent as the framework for her installation entitled Everyone I Ever Slept With (1995). Emin stitched the title of this piece across its exterior and then appliqued the names of her bedmates from 1963 to 1993 on its interior.
At first, I thought I might be reading too much feminine imagery into the soft, womb-like environment Emin had constructed. I enjoyed having to remove my shoes and crawl onto the blanketed floor of this small, curvalinear structure to properly view the artist’s work. And I found the hand-stitched patchwork of names particularly appropriate for conveying how the human memory pieces together the past.
When I described this piece to my husband, however, he replied: “A man would never sew a tent like that. He’d build a totem pole and carve the names in it with a knife.” Perhaps it is impossible to avoid such interpretations in a culture where sex is used to sell everything from toothpaste to automobiles.
It has taken a while for me to realize the full impact of the Brilliant] exhibit. I had initially expected a shock like an electrical jolt. Instead, I have experienced a series of pricks. At first, I simply found it impossible to look at a soft drink can, a stack of newspapers, or camping equipment without seeing their artistic potential. Then I found myself wondering what I was truly buying as I waited in line at the cosmetics counter. The most haunting moment, however, came when I read about a major corporation’s plans to lay off 40,000 people. In the back of my mind I could almost hear the hum of “The Vulture.” In short, the Brilliant] exhibit not only expanded my definition of art; it also reshaped my perception of reality.
Heather Beal is the Director of Communications for Michaud Cooley Erickson, a large Minnesota-based engineering firm, and a journalist who is active in theater and other arts in the Minneapolis area.
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Spring 1996
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