The United States of America is both a nation and an idea. Since its inception, the nation has built itself around contradictory narratives such as freedom and imperialism, justice and oppression, opportunity and classism, or creativity and cultural hegemony to name a few. Two international curators working in the U.S., Jan Van Woensel and Hou Hanru, examine the icon of the United States and apply their unique perspectives in concurrent exhibitions within the country in question.
Belgian curator Jan Van Woensel orchestrated the dense and eclectic Bad Moon Rising at Silverman Gallery. Purporting to expose the underside of America, this exhibition dwells on works that are counter examples to the image of America as a freedom-loving, democracy-exporting, hyper-capitalist, city on a hill. The works in the exhibition fight for your attention- multiple audio pieces compete at high volume, viewing spaces for videos overlap, paintings lean backwards against the wall, empty shelves and artworks on the floor clog walkways. Some works rise above the cacophony- Ben Shaffer and DJ Violent Vicki’s giant stereo system mounted on a tricycle is charming in its homemade sincerity. The exhibition includes found and produced objects in addition to artworks, like some sort of contemporary wunderkammer, including a Rage Against the Machine track, the controversial pixel-porn Atari 2600 game Custer’s Revenge, and a vinyl banner printed with a Tariq Ali quote. Vannesa Albury and Marte Fortun’s performative intervention Primal Scream is documented in triplicate within the exhibition. On February 28 2007 the artists traversed New York and delivered single primal screams in random locations. In the main space, unobtrusive speakers periodically break the flow of the gallery with a blood curdling scream. Video monitors in the second room document the artists’ travels though Central Park between screams in tandem continuous point-of-view shots. To codify the intervention as contemporary art, Van Woensel published a press release the following day declaring the action to be an artwork. This seems to be an unnecessary assertion both politically and conceptually, which ultimately undermines the intervention itself. To meet their objective, the screams needed to instill alarm and fear as they broke the social norms of city life. By formally defining them as artworks via a press release they became institutionalized performances, robbing them of their destabilizing potential and rendering them as simply safe.
In the accompanying essay Van Woensel says the exhibition is “a show about the Americans, for the Americans,” which begs the questions: Which Americans? And what are you actually telling them? The works in the exhibit are not intended to educate, rather they push an idea of a dark cultural undercurrent that exposes the hypocrisy and hubris of the righteously outspoken nation. While most of the gallery attendees in the Dogpatch may recognize that the United States image of freedom is false, they certainly understand that the polyglot of cultures that make it up paint a dark picture. In most cases they are part of that darker picture by deliberate choice. This exhibition is beyond preaching to the choir- it’s trying to tell the choir what a song is. Bad Moon Rising presents violence, sex, rock and roll, suicide, etc. as evidence of the underside of America. Unfortunately the exhibit does not make a successful argument, its meaning ends in a culture of debauchery and despair. Without the curatorial interventions in the form of essays, press releases and the printed banner, the show fails to communicate its primary objectives. The United States has a history of cultural dissent as long as its history of political self-righteousness. Van Woensel’s aggressive hand demonstrates that Duchampian principles of art making do not directly correlate to curatorial practice. You can classify anything as art because art’s fungible definition allows it; but the same is not true for what the artwork actually means. Meaning is created by the tangible specifics of the work in conjunction with its context. To use a sloppy analogy, you can take an elephant and call it art -and it will be- but calling it an eagle will not make it fly. While the critique of the image of America is pushed onto this group of artworks, the works lend themselves more to a melancholy survey of countercultural behavior than a subversion of the image of the United States.
In the Walter and McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute, Jens Haaning’s United States of America and Other Stories looks into the United States in the era of globalization. The exhibition was curated by Hou Hanru, the Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at SFAI, better known for his work on the Istanbul Biennale. Unlike the density of Bad Moon Rising, the show consists only of 5 works sparsely spread in the cavernous galleries. The primary oblong gallery is empty except for a site specific wall painting United States of America, which consists only of its title in black block type. This work challenges the construct of the U.S. directly. Its scale dominates every activity in the gallery, creating a feeling of cultural power, yet the text’s simplicity allows only a fleeting feeling of understanding. The words form a geopolitical Rorschach blot, projecting back only the meaning the viewer places in them.
Pieces of paper can hold great power inordinate to their simple materiality. Artists like to equate this to the power of the persuasive image, which can be true, but the primary power of flimsy paper is money. Collected masterpieces are seeded by the quality of the work, but their astronomical values are purely financial speculation. In a second gallery off of the main space, a simple work on paper radiated a power unavailable to the typical artwork. American Passport, Valid until 29.7.2012 is simply that, a valid American passport unaltered in any way by the artist except to present it as a readymade. Its value is beyond aesthetics, fashion, art history, or money. A passport is the closest thing to a physical vessel of citizenship, and acts as a key to accessing all of its privileges. The presentation of it here not only denies its owner its use, but practically invites its acquisition and exploitation by another. As a regular museum attendee, one becomes accustomed to looking at objects that can be worth millions of dollars, allowing for a suspension of disbelief into the viewing experience of the work alone. The passport, however, resists the illusions of presentation and can only be seen as a manifestation of the United State’s cultural and economic power. Its utility becomes a focal point of the colliding ideas of the United Sates, a locus point of economics and identity. This categorical difference of raw power makes this readymade one of the most transgressive artworks presented in years.
The curatorial strategies of these two exhibitions are revealing of the relationships curators cultivate with the work they promote. The question is one of trust: does the work advance the agendas they desire? There is a limit to how much context a curator can place upon the works in an exhibition. Artworks are rebellious little creatures, manically reaching out and communicating in unexpected ways. Just because you want them to say something doesn’t make it so. Van Woensel adopted a ‘more-is- more’ approach, cultivating his argument out of a cacophonous hive. Hou Hanru trusted the art to tangle the viewer in its deceptively simple complexities.