So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. It’s appropriate that I’m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee – that’s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writer’s block. More like writer’s diarrhea, really; I couldn’t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what I’ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torres’s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torres’s partner’s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that I’m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lord’s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didn’t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didn’t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the “New York Time Magazine” a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel, “The Man in the High Tower”, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with ‘historicity’, the other without.
The narrator muses:
“Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
Or is there?
Though he doesn’t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” seems to hover palpably over Gleick’s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we can’t know for sure. And if you’re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, there’s a LOT of things we don’t and indeed can’t know.
So what I’ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsin’s more parochial precincts is that one person’s “Light of Christ” might simply be another’s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd “Specific Object”. Aren’t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
There’s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
It’s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the “Book of Job”. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that I’m making a false and probably dangerous distinction – the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They can’t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duck…
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I don’t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torres’s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.
First things first kiddos, have y’all gotten in your Ox-Bow and ACRE applications? It was sixty degrees today! The summer is pending. Get in on that dreamy Michigan/Wisconsin landscape. (My apologies to the jury committee.)
Also, The Art Institute of Chicago is looking for a new Associate Photography Curator.
THE ART INSTITUTE IS OF CHICAGO IS LOOKING FOR A NEW ASSOCIATE PHOTOGRAPHY CURATOR.
That being said, they will probably hire within… but regardless, join the masses and apply!
Details for all below. As always, good luck!
Ox-Bow residency for MFA/Arts Faculty application time is coming to a close as April 5th keeps creeping up. Info Here
(psssst, if you’re a normal human who isn’t all up in that institutional drama, consider their Fall Artist Residency, which I will talk about a little later)
Associate Curator, Photography /// Art Institute of Chicago
At the direction of the Department Chair, is responsible for conceiving permanent collection and loan exhibitions; researching and proposing acquisitions for the collection; researching the collection and contributing to scholarly publications; working closely with donors, scholars, dealers, and artists; supervising volunteers and special project staff; and contributing to fundraising activities. Serves as coordinator or local curator for traveling exhibitions. Develops relationships with artists and galleries that can guide future exhibition projects. Conceives of appropriate programming and conducts gallery talks. Takes an active role in conceiving and preparing the biannual Photography Gala.
Must have a Master of Arts in Art History, preferably with a concentration in a photographic subject. Must have at least 3 years of experience with exhibition projects, preferably involving photographic objects and preferably living artists. Strong writing skills are highly recommended. Foreign language abilities are encouraged.
All info, including the online application submission, here via the AIC employee portal.
This week, we pull Duncan and Richard’s 2009 interview with Monica Bonvicini from the archives, conducted during Bonvicini’s exhibition Light Me Black at The Art Institute of Chicago.
“I think that perception goes through the body. I want people to come into the space not knowing how to walk, and get blinded by the work…I kept reading about Renzo Piano saying [the Modern Wing] is a temple of light. Walking around I see there are so many windows everywhere, but they’re all covered up. What is all that light for?” – Monica Bonvicini interviewed by Bad at Sports.
This Week: Has it really been 6 years? Really?
Wow. Duncan and Richard have a rambling bout of personal abuse as the intro and then get on to the good stuff.
Richard talks to Peter Zegers and Jill Bugajski about their work on the stellar new show at the Art Institute of Chicago Windows on the War, Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945, and on the accompanying catalog.
Overview: During World War II, the Soviet Union’s news agency, TASS, enlisted hundreds of artists and writers to bolster support for the nation’s war effort. Working from the TASS studio in Moscow, these artists and writers produced hundreds of storefront window posters, one for nearly every day of the war. Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 is a monumental exhibition centered on these posters, which have not been seen in the United States since the Second World War.
Impressively large, between five and ten feet tall and striking in the vibrancy and texture of the stencil medium, these posters were sent abroad, including to the Art Institute, to serve as international cultural “ambassadors” and to rally allied and neutral nations to the endeavors of the Soviet Union, a partner of the United States and Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. In Windows on the War, the posters will be presented both as unique historical objects and as works of art that demonstrate how the preeminent artists of the day used unconventional technical and aesthetic means to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, marking a major chapter in the history of design and propaganda. While the exhibition’s focus is primarily on the posters, viewers will also find their rich historical and cultural context revealed through photographs and documentary material illuminating the visual culture of US-USSR relations before and during the war.
Windows on the War is not only a fascinating glimpse into one of the most significant government-sponsored cultural efforts of the 20th century but also a major scholarly undertaking that brings these posters into the public eye for the first time in six decades. Catalogue: The exhibition is accompanied by a 400-page catalogue featuring essays by Peter Zegers, Douglas Druick, Jill Bugajski, Konstantin Akinsha, Adam Jolles, and Robert Bird as well as by an extensive online initiative that will bring hundreds of these unique works to the public for the first time since the war.
Today seems like an appropriately rainy day to discuss Pae White’s Restless Rainbow (2011) at The Art Institute of Chicago, which I saw and photographed about a month ago, on a day when it was pouring rain. I’ve been mulling over the piece ever since. Restless Rainbow is a site specific installation created for the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Sculpture Terrace, a public space which features stunning views of Chicago’s Millennium Park (visitors do not have to pay admission to access the Terrace). Unlike previous pieces exhibited here, such as Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (Alliance), 2010–a pair of Boeing surveillance plane engines into which the artist claimed to have inserted drugs, or the vertical abstract forms of Rebecca Warren’s small group of bronze sculptures–White’s piece does not directly engage the Terrace’s famed skyline views. Or rather, it engages the skyline by blocking a large portion of it out, save for a small porthole window cut into the center of one of its facades.
The same week that White’s installation was unveiled, the Chicago Tribune ran a story–I think it would fall under the ‘human interest’ category–about some early reaction to the artwork with the headline “Art disrupts wedding plans at Chicago’s Art Institute.” The sub-heading explained, “A new installation will block views from the outdoor terrace, upsetting couples.” Not surprisingly, the article came to be known as the “Bridezilla story” among some of us who read it and had a laugh over it. There’s no doubt the story has colored the subsequent reception of White’s piece, and has probably made a lot of people view the piece more favorably than they might have otherwise. After all, who wants to take a Bridezilla’s side in this kind of debate? And yet, to be fair, the brides-to-be quoted in the article seemed well aware of the risks they were taking when they contracted the Terrace for their wedding, and seemed to relish the notion that the works of art installed there would provide them with–irony of ironies–readymade centerpieces. They just weren’t expecting the “clown’s nightmare”–the quoted bride-to-be’s description, not mine–within which their dream-day setting was ultimately stuck.
But let’s bracket off the wedding issue for a moment to look at how White’s Restless Rainbow functions as a site specific art installation. The AIC’s online exhibition description notes that White’s impetus for the project stems from her own musings about the open-air setting: “What would happen if a rainbow became disorganized—would it fall from the sky? What if a rainbow misbehaved, causing its color spectrum to take on new order? Would it include black, as rainbows in comic books often do?” Indeed, White’s palette of eye-popping yellows, oranges and black evokes vintage Batman comics, (pre-Dark Knight), although White’s inclusion of bright pink bands within this comic-style rainbow works to fuck that recognizable color scheme up in a way that I quite liked.
Still, the installation as a whole doesn’t work for me — something about it feels off. The parts don’t add up to any kind of satisfying whole, I definitely don’t get “disorganized rainbow” from the way White’s paintings occupy the space, and I am slowly coming around to the conclusion that that may not have been the point. In person, White’s installation feels very much like a three-walled stage set slapped up on the balcony walls as opposed to an immersive environment. It doesn’t enhance your experience of this public space (which is all about picturing Chicago) — it looks and feels like what it is: a temporary facade constructed from two mural-scaled vinyl wall paintings and a floor painting installed in the out-of-doors.
White wanted to bring out the unique spatial dynamics of the Bluhm Family Terrace, dynamics which are typically ignored in favor of the impressive views the Terrace offers. As it turns out, however, the spatial dynamic of what is essentially a large, rectangular, concrete balcony is not all that interesting in and of itself. Indeed the Terrace’s whole reason for being is to function as a frame for Millennium Park, a frame which simultaneously acts as a mirror that reflects one of the most prized aspects of Chicago’s cityscape — its famous skyline — back to museum-goers, who can be wowed by it, take photos of themselves leaping in front of it, and, if they’re locals, take pride in it and by extension in themselves. By blocking off a huge portion of that view, White–like one of those rubbery-faced DC villains who wreak havoc on Batman’s Metropolis–has effectively destroyed this neatly self-reflexive dynamic. The terrace’s vertical bars only emphasize the sense that we are looking out at the city from within some kind of cartoon prison — its vastness diminishing before our very eyes within an hysterical, spinning vortex of eeeeviiiiilll.
It’s not like Pae White stole the skyline from Chicago, of course, but I do think those who criticize the Art Institute’s decision to exhibit this piece during the summer months have a point. In Southern California, where White grew up, summer is…well, okay, it’s not exactly endless, but it does last a looooong time. They have summer to spare there. That is not true in Chicago. Summer means something very different here — it’s more valuable, for one thing, because there’s less of it to enjoy. As a result I don’t think it’s possible to experience White’s Rainbow as something other than a revocation of vista because vista is precisely what that Terrace is all about. White’s Restless Rainbow transforms the Terrace’s famous view into a reverse-spectacle of pleasure denied, a perversely controlled “point of view” dictated not by the wandering eye, or even architect Renzo Piano’s knowing framework, but by the artist’s own willful design. Does this make White’s Restless Rainbow into something that’s ultimately really brave and smart and even kind of brilliant in an evil mastermind kind of way (as in, “I’m going to take away the view that the people think they own, in order to make them see that they never really owned it”), or is it merely an example of artistic hubris (as in, “My painting will be more interesting to look at than the great Chicago skyline!”). I still can’t decide, but I’m pretty sure I can hear the Joker laughing right now.