When you are cremated, you aren’t actually reduced to ash. After the body has been incinerated dry bone fragments remain, which are ground up into dust. Sandwiched between two lens-shaped pieces of glass on a small pedestal is a group of what appears to be shards of coral, almost like a decoration you’d see on someone’s coffee table. These are actually human remains presented as a sculpture. In addition to this is another incarnation of the piece. Human Dust (1969), by Agnes Denes consists of two photographs of bone fragments making them look in one instance like a mound of rocks and in another like flakes of ice and snow. Accompanying them is deadpan text that varies between factual observations to subjective insights that couldn’t possibly be verified: “He was an artist. He died of a heart attack. He was born fifty years ago, which means he lived half a century or approx. 2/3 of his expected lifespan. [...] He was unhappy and lonely more often than not, achieved 1/10,000 of his dreams, managed to get his opinions across 184 times and was misunderstood 3,800 times when it mattered.”
This dry attitude pervades Light Years, which surveys conceptual art and photography between 1964 and 1977. The exhibition, which will only be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, is to be commended for bringing together iconic works of Conceptual art along with highlighting artists from a number of countries: Bosnia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary and Italy among others. But the period of art history being examined here is, well, kind of boring. Perhaps it was necessary to empty art out of all aesthetics and color in order to go somewhere new, but there is only so many lifeless factual descriptions of simple actions pared with boring photographs one can look at. This massive exhibition is exhaustive in its examination of the period, and it wears on you.
“Thank God, color!” exclaimed a girl to her friend when they reached Allen Ruppersberg’s Where's Al? (1972) a mass of 160 chromogenic prints and 107 typewritten index cards.
Annette Messager (French, born 1943). Voluntary Tortures (Les Tortures Volontaires), Album-Collection No. 18, 1972. Eighty-six gelatin silver prints. Individual and overall dimensions variable. Richard and Ellen Sandor Art Foundation (C) Artists Rights Society (ARS).
It’s weird how work that is just a few decades old is somehow more dated than work hundreds of years old. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the slide projector become obsolete or the dominance of photographic prints give way to digital photo albums. But a painting by Rembrandt has pretty much always looked the way it does today. Sure it’s aged some, but the technology of painting, aside from the invention of tube paint has changed very little in the last few hundred years. Photography, on the other hand has moved in leaps in bounds. And so has word processing. So walking through gallery after gallery of aging black and white prints and yellowing texts produced on typewriters I’m not sure what to think.
These artists were really breaking down photography to its essential parts. This was an important turn for contemporary art, but it also contributes to the blandness of the show. In 1970 for Ian Wallace to shoot five successive pictures as he peered into a Pan Am ticket office and as he rotated out to the street did a lot of things visually and conceptually, as the wall text explains (Pan Am Scan, 1970). But now it’s hard not to think about that he was just shooting a bunch of pictures in a row while spinning around, just like anybody does when fooling around with a camera.
Nowadays we are so conditioned for the exceptional and the spectacular. With our smart phones we can easily shoot beautiful pictures. Advertising is constantly outdoing itself to offer images that astound. So wandering though this exhibition is quite sobering and confounding. Especially since a lot these artists intended to present us with the plain and the unremarkable.
It’s often said of this period that artists took pictures of these events to show that there was nothing to see. This is most clearly the case with Robert Barry and his inert gas series. For Inert Gas Series: Neon (1969) Barry released a tank of neon into the atmosphere. In Light Years, we see it as two silver gelatin prints accompanied by a typewritten sheet. In one sense it is completely delicious to see this useless documentation of an event that itself would be unspectacular to witness. On the other, it is troubling to see something so ephemeral reduced to a nice framed object, almost defeating the whole purpose. Martha Rosler almost addresses this problem in her piece, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-75) where a series of black and white pictures are paired with alliterative verses, hopelessly trying to capture that neighborhood of New York. They are slick and authoritative but also tell us nothing, and tell us that they are telling us nothing.
John Baldessari (American, born 1931). The California Map Project Part I: California, 1969, exhibition copy 2011. Twelve inkjet prints of images and a typewritten sheet. Each image, 20.3 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.); sheet, 21.6 x 27.9 cm (8 1/2 x 11 in.). Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris (C) John Baldessari.
The pieces that stand out in the show most are those that still engage in deadpan delivery but in doing so provide much needed comic relief. For California Map Project, Part I: California (1969), John Baldessari took a map of California and then, based on where the letters that spell “C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A” appear on the map, went to those locations in real life and spelled out the name of the state. It is such a great piece because it calls into question the very idea of borders and landmarks. When we look at a map, we are supposed to know that the word “California” does not actually exist on the land, but somehow the border with Nevada does. It also requires an incredible level of commitment to travel the length of the state, spelling out each letter.
The work I enjoyed the most was a collection of three films by the late Dutchman Bas Jan Ader. Ader is known for being dead serious, and he paddled out to sea in a rowboat and was never seen again. The three films here are quite silly and lighthearted but still deadpan enough to be good conceptual art. In Fall I (Los Angeles) (1970) the artist sits atop a house on a chair. For no reason he tips over and tumbles down the roof in slow motion. He reaches the awning covering the porch and loses momentum so he throws himself over, kicking his shoe into the air. The film cuts at twenty-four seconds just as he lands in the bushes. In Fall II (Amsterdam) (1970) Ader rides his bike straight into a canal, the film cuts before the splash of water is even complete. In Broken Fall (Geometric) Westkapelle Holland (1971) the artist stands teetering next to a sawhorse in the middle of a path. He keeps leaning, kicking his leg out and hesitating. It takes forever and is excruciating. Suddenly without warning he falls over, taking the sawhorse with him. The film is actually only one minute and forty-nine seconds long, though it feels longer. I think that quite well sums up my relationship to conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s: excruciatingly monotonous and yet somehow quite enjoyable.
-Erik Wenzel, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(top image: Alighiero Boetti (Italian, 1940–1994). AW:AB =L:MD (Andy Warhol: Alighiero Boetti = Leonardo: Marcel Duchamp), 1967. Silk screen print with graphite on paper 58.8 x 58.8 cm (23 5/16 x 23 5/16 in.). Colombo Collection, Milan. (C) Artists Rights Society (ARS).)