Pulling from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) own collection, curator Tricia Van Eck, with the help of Dominic Molon (a former curator at the MCA, now Chief Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis), presents this season’s bread-and-butter exhibition. Running until May, “Without You I’m Nothing” addresses an issue that has defined art from the ‘60s onward: the viewer. What is the role of the audience in art? Does art exist without an audience? How can art affect and effect the viewer or participant? All these questions came to the fore when art began questioning its traditional role inside the gallery, concluding that the museum had become a reliquary. Works by Vito Acconci, Félix González-Torres, Richard Serra, Liam Gillick, Olafur Eliasson, Bruce Nauman and many other artists, stock this exhibition with work that one just has to play with.
Félix González-Torres, "Untitled" (The End), 1990. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, restricted gift of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz; Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund.
This exhibit is separated into two parts, in two galleries. On the right, is a gallery devoted to art that suggests the complicity of the audience in the act of art viewing and on the left, a gallery devoted to the direct request that the audience become participants in the work.
Stepping to the right, one is greeted immediately by Serra’s Five Plate Pentagon. Similar in style to his Fulcrum piece in London, this freestanding raw steel sculpture allows glimpses into an interior space, while at the same time and through the same operation suggests the exteriority of the viewer. Serra is a master of constructing space, to the wonder and, sometimes, dismay of the viewing public (consider the Tilted Arc controversy).
To the right, the wall text for the exhibit begins with a quote from French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive.” An apt quote to begin with and one that is emboldened and enriched by the frequent use of quotes from artists on their exhibition labels. What Merleau-Ponty is addressing is the need for a fundamental re-imagining of the subject’s relationship to reality, just as the artists represented in the this room are calling for a re-envisioning of the relationship between the viewer and the artwork, where, like phenomenology, the object of thought or the function of reality is within and must be addressed there. This quote, interestingly, also suggests the paradoxical approach art has taken.
The object of art usually exists within a realm of representation, therefore it is unabashedly physical, an object. Realizing this, some started looking elsewhere for the existence of art on a more intangible level. Gillick’s colloquial quote follows, “Without people, it’s not art—it’s something else—stuff in a room.” The now unacceptable notion that reality can exist independently of the self led to a reevaluation of the social requirement of art and reality. This invariably led to art that addressed the interactive requirement that previously lay hidden within the object: call it the art world’s answer to the old adage about a tree falling in a wood. But the problem remained: how does one represent the unrepresentable? Meaning recedes when touched, like a snail into its shell.
This exhibition is full of great work, so I’ll just give some highlights and hope you, the reader, will go experience the rest. Tony Oursler’s Guilty, 1995, is a projection of the artist’s face onto a surface pinned below a mattress, while addressing the audience in accusatory and confrontational tones. Distressing doesn’t quite describe how this work affects the viewer. It’s not even the content of the artist’s speech that affects, but the implication. The viewer is confronted into being present.
Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Cage, 1989, works in a similar fashion, depicting a molted burlap shell of the artist suspended in a wooden cube. Rough and ugly, it speaks to the necessary and sometimes not too pleasing separation that must exist between subjects, let alone subjects and objects.
Andrea Zittel, A-Z Cellular Compartment Units, 2001. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, gift of Marshall Fields by exchange.
Moving into the participatory gallery, Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Cellular Compartment Units draws one in like an IKEA catalogue. Cute and quaint with just enough modernism to make it feel like home, these compartments were designed for use but are distinctly art as well. Placed in a gallery, it welcomes the viewer to become part of the installation by entering it, enabling views out onto the gallery, or from the exterior, into the construction itself. Acconci’s classic clamshell piece is also present nearby in the gallery, and worth a five-minute rest to feel like you’ve returned to a porcelain womb, floating in the sea.
The massive macabre Rolodex that is Chris Burden’s The Other Vietnam Memorial, 1991, focuses on something a little different. Participatory, even though you have to put on a pair of white gloves to touch the piece, it acts as a vertical record of names culled from Vietnamese telephone books to represent the 3 million South Vietnamese deaths that resulted from the ill-conceived Vietnam War. This piece reminds us, poignantly, that participation takes many forms; whether it is complicit or active, we all are participants in reality.
-Joel Kuennen, ArtSlant Staff Writer