Spectacle and Subversion at Ludlow 38
written by Jeffrey Grunthaner in New York
Much is to be said for art that is outright political; but perhaps much higher praise is due to works that refuse to side with any single ideology. Assuming that we exist in what Guy Debord calls “the society of the spectacle,” the recent show at 38 Ludlow, one and the other are another, posed a concerted challenge to the spectacle absorbing us. Utilizing historic icons and imagery against themselves, one and the other are another was an instance of art preserving a social-critical function, while dodging the all-too-obvious politicking that comes from reducing history's dialectic to some brand of “ism.” In the intimacy of a small venue no larger than two rooms, the works exhibited were stratagems of concepts and ideas, questioning the art-making process, its productions, and the historical circumstances wherein art exists as an available genre.
Comprising the work of five European artists, the exhibition demonstrated how conceptualism—an ever expanding artistic practice, rarely defined in clear and distinct terms—could go beyond the confines of doctrinal interpretations of existing social realities, and potentially give way to new avenues of experience, conceived as the correlate of a conceptualist aesthetic. Expressed in this way, it might seem as though the show concerned itself less with reality than with private interpretations of reality. The would be false, however; and much praise is due to the curation of Clara Meister for gathering artists whose work was distinguished by an utter transparency—not only in relation to the present world and its history, but in relation to the processes that conceived their work.
A critique of the specious opacity created through commodity exchange, where labor is dissolved into an ossified product, one and the other are another did not register as a “critique” in any obvious way. Rather, the spectacular existence of bourgeois culture was spoken to in overtones, which made criticism all the more effective. Hank Schmidt, for example, in his “Collage” series (2011), appropriated the characters from Charles Schultz's Peanuts comic and re-contextualized them via pictorial situations which exposed both their laughable innocence and their irrelevance. One work in the series figured several Peanuts characters wearing baseball gloves and standing below a house where a man was about to jump to his death. They scream (in German): “I got him! I got him!” Such works toy with mass culture as much as they critique its populist bias; and their ambiguous results situate them wholly in the world, honestly and without pretense.
A transcendental flare animated this exhibit, exceeding the confines of the known while yet remaining historically focused. Ignacio Uriarte's video work, “Infinity” (2010), was a horizontal 8, a mobius strip endlessly moving in topological space. The image served as a counterpoint to Antonio Hirche's seemingly minimalist paneling directly across from it: two door-sized panels, each a different shade of green. As one came to find out, however, the latter was not minimalist at all, but the studied abstraction of a German bridge unintentionally painted two different greens when Germany was split by the Berlin Wall. The proximity of the historic to the non-historical—one reduced to a bi-color essence, and the other fleshed out and given physical dimensionality—situated concretely as well as symbolically what conceptualism could accomplish both in art and life. One discovers a crepuscular zone between negation and the creative realization of a plan. The ethos of the concept can be abstraction from known percepts, and it can also be a vehicle toward new tangible realities.
The best works of the exhibit were those that utilized popular, even readily accessible media to expose systematic glitches in administration and privatization as we know them today. Jonathan Monk's great piece, “some words of wisdom from Wittgenstein translated by google around the world from A through Z (with two mistakes)” (2012) was pretty much exactly that: a conceptual recreation of truth becoming nonsense as it filtered through a labyrinth of administered space. The artist took Wittgenstein's famous quote: “What can be said at all, can be said clearly” (in its original German form) and ran it through Google translator, coming up with strangely illuminating mistranslations of the original statement (perhaps all the more illuminating to the extent that they indicate international communications on the political level). A single statement threading 68 printed pages of screen-shots, the meaning weirdly transmogrified as “pourquoi pas directement?” (Why not directly?) in French, and ended with the German (the same language as it began in) “Warum?” (Why?) Lastly, Pierre Bismuth's “The Jungle Book Project” (2002) was a densely brilliant piece of critical honesty poised against the society of the spectacle as we currently face it. Taking the well-known Walt Disney film for its vehicle, Bismuth's installation gave each character in the film a different language, insisting on the obvious: that the viewer would still be able to make sense of the movie, knowing the story so well. Whether this is true or not, “The Jungle Book Project” was a triumphal piece of conceptualism which made every stage of its finalized form visible, creating an intimate experience of openness, familiarity and comfort.
In such works, one wonders if we do not catch glimpse of what the world will be like when the mystification of our desire finally ends.