2010, as with all years, was a memorable one. But rather than rattle off a best and worse list, I am simply taking note of the things that have stuck with me over the last twelve months. When I rewind, these are the sirens that flash and blink to mind.
The Whitney Biennial, which I always root for, chimed in a solid performance. In a nutshell, the survey included good artists, who in turn produced good works. Just not great artists producing great works. Thus if the objective of curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayar was to provide a cross-sectional lens into the work being made in America, then it generally succeeded. But like fantastic food and wine, why settle for Outback Steakhouse when Peter Luger is right around the corner, and especially when someone else is flipping the bill?
This year, I helped organize Artslant’s Showcase exhibition at the Aqua Art Fair in Miami, and what a refreshing experience it was. Having worked over the last dozen years simultaneously as a curator and artist, it felt “proper” again interacting with the throngs of art lovers in Miami Beach amid all the commercialism, where selling was not the first priority for a change. Artslant’s Showcase exhibition primarily highlights our ever-populating artist network, and the quality of work made for a great show. The Aqua Fair itself takes place in a modest, west coast cool hotel that oozed with retro ease. In short, it did not feel like work. Yes, there is plenty awry with the art fair system, but relaxing (and working) in Miami sure doesn’t feel bad, especially if it is for the sake of art.
The loudest talked about show this year was not an exhibition, but a television reality show, Bravo’s Work of Art. Having participated as an artist/contestant (and token Asian), I’ve probably spent too much time talking for and against it already. One of the most fascinating aspects of the show was the immense amount of dialogue it generated here in New York, from art world insiders to my next door neighbor. Everyone threw in his and her two cents, and it was a chummy ballroom brawl. Despite all the fun I had on the show (okay, so Bravo edited out all the fun parts), I do have to take one year-end parting shot at the mess of judges, especially calling out one Jerry Saltz, the critic for New York Magazine and alpha-male critic of WoA. Despite my admiration and respect for much of Jerry’s past writing, the endless stream of swiveling and Doubting Thomas-speak (Mr. "you might be right”) that bombarded his Facebook page, NY Magazine blog, and in print, external to the show, ultimately unveiled a critic who quickly lost his voice and integrity at the expense of 15 minutes. Let's hope he gains it back. Bring on Season Two!
The two most talked about exhibitions of the year were also the ones that disappointed me the most, Tino Sehgal’s This Progress at the Guggenheim and Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present at MoMA. I may not always know what it is that strikes me about a work, but I can usually smell out immediately what betrays it as ineffective. It wasn’t the experience of Sehgal’s "performance" that bothered me. I actually enjoyed speaking with different generations about the notion of progress while walking up the rotunda, in much the same way I enjoy talking to cab drivers. But therein lies its limitations. The artist's background is in dance, and it shows. If you have seen any significant amount of contemporary dance, you'd recognize the kind of audience interaction so common to the medium now. Except with This Progress and The Kiss, Seghal's second piece of a couple performing different historical necking scenes in slow motion on the center of the rotunda floor, the site has shifted to a museum. Many others have done it better, including William Forsythe.
But the real issue with Sehgal's work is its conceptual blundering and weak underpinnings. The fact that he speaks against the "materialistic" aspects of his work - even the sale of the work entails no contract, press release, pictures, or contract. I imagine the money is wired for the same purpose. What the work denies however, is the fact that we live in an age that is no longer defined by such materialism. Sehgal's resistance to a press release or images, for instance, is irrelevant since information is no longer passed around by those sole means. The work itself is an attempt at pure control as opposed to spontaneous interaction or performance. A young child is the first person one encounters in This Progress, as she introduces the work and says “This is a work by Tino Sehgal.” She operates as a label, and this might actually be the best part of the piece. Unfortunately, humor doesn't seem to be an intentional component in the work. When I reached the top, after conversing with an elderly man, I asked him whether I could talk to the "Sehgalians" some more as I walk down, since progress is not only forward or up. He said "no." Progress, it seems, is one artist's attempt at power-tripping.
Similarly, Marina Abramovic's retrospective The Artist Is Present also takes itself too seriously. The fact that they are re-performances somehow taints the original temporal nature of such early, seminal performance work that was never intended to last anyway. The museum is there to preserve, of course, so who could blame them. Maybe institutions should open Oral Tradition wings in which their scholars simply remember a work, and pass it on that way, based on pure memory. The original pieces were beautiful in body and spirit, so let's remember them that way. And like Sehgal, Abramovic partakes in too much grandstanding without any comic relief - even when she's trying to be funny it isn't particularly funny. Who wants to sit in front of a solemn figure in a musuem/church? Why not in Manhattan Mall? And why not have a face off with a Buddhist monk to see who blinks first?
I promise I did not hate everything I saw in 2010. One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed was Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop. I am usually not a fan of much street art for the same reasons why I find Abramovic’s re-performances diminishing. Because of its contradictory insistence on some semblance of permanence, the work loses its original intended edge of subversion and confrontation. However, Banksy’s documentary (or mockumentary, as some have claimed) of the street art movement and its major players has illumined me not so much to the inherent vitality of the medium, but placing it historically in the lineage of action painters. Plus he’s pretty funny.
I also learned a great deal from watching The Radiant Child, Tamra Davis' biopic on Jean-Michel Basquiat and the New York art scene in the early 1980s. When those who lived it speak of what a grand time it was back then, I never feeI I missed out on anything living in my own time, but I do see how much more contained and concentrated it was way back when. And Basquiat no doubt was an incredible talent whose prolific body of work reveals the soul of what inspires all of us through and about art in the first place. I got chills and nostalgia seeing friends and colleagues (who are still in New York) weave that part of the past together so wonderfully, creating a fuller mosaic of Basquiat and the period. A little precious gift for the holidays.
The year is wrapping up and there is a feeling of déjà vu. As I write, the most recent controversy at the National Portrait Gallery rages on. Under Catholic League protest and threat from the GOP to decrease its funding, the Smithsonian caved in and removed David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Subsequently the Warhol Foundation has counter-threatened to suspend its own funding to the Smithsonian if the work is not put back in. Artist A.A. Bronson has requested that his work in the show also be removed. The New Museum, which gave Wojnarowicz his first retrospective in 1999, decided to exhibit A Fire in My Belly in its lobby.
The fight is just beginning, again. And it’s not who started it, but who finishes. Round 2011. New year, SAMO.
~Trong G. Nguyen
Senior East Coast Editor
Images: Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, Photo by Marco Anelli. © 2010 Marco Anelli and courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Trong Nguyen in South Beach, 2010, Photo by Rebecca Reeve; Tino Sehgal, The Kiss, 2010, Photo by Arthur from designporn.ca; Banksy, Film still from Exit through the Gift Shop, Paranoid Pictures, 2010; Tamra Davis, Film still from The Radiant Child, Art House Films, 2010; David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986-87,16mm and DVD Color. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.