Monday, June 18, 2018

Why Does MoMA PS1 Feel Like Geopolitical Haunted House?

Zhang Huan, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995 (P.S. Instagram removed this image from my 'stories' because they said didn't meet community guidelines. W.T.F.?)

Some gal pals and I wanted to have a nice outing together so we went to MoMA PS1 yesterday to beat the scorching heat with art viewing and conviviality. It started out nicely, it was hot and we wanted to have cold drinks of lemonade and ice water while waiting for the final member of our party. We ordered some delish fried rice to share from M. Wells (one of the few ‘museum’ eateries I don’t mind shilling out money for) and refreshed ourselves for art viewing.

We gathered, ate, chatted and then headed in.

We were not prepared.

First we saw the Reza Abdoh show. It focuses on the life/works of the Iranian/American playwright and it was a bit cacophonous. In his will, the artist requested that his works never be re-performed so following those wishes, it was mostly an archive show. The curators split up the rooms in a strange, maze like manner. The walls followed a timeline that was a bit chaotic to read and focus on but you could snip in here and there to get a sense of Abdoh’s life, art and influences without too much strain. There were videos too, some small on boxy TVs, others were re-showing stage productions on giant projection screens. There was a type of erraticism and violence to Abdoh’s work and the time of their making, late 80s, early 90s, was one ravaged with the AIDS crisis, (Abdoh died of AIDS himself in 1995). In his works, the body was site and articulation of trauma, mythology, and exegesis. It was not my type of thing but I could understand its importance in the history of avant-garde theatre and the reflection of its time and the biography of Abdoh. Nonetheless leaving the winding, saturated space and installation design left me, and the group, feeling a bit rattled, perhaps in a good way but it was one of those shows that felt unrelenting and a bit demanding.

We crossed over to see the works by Julia Phillips whose minimal install and surgical, crisp sculptures registered as more serene at first glance. But wait…as you look at the works a creeping horror settles in. The works are made of ceramics, metals and touches here and there of color. They show the body, or the absence of the body, and entrapments of restraint. Bondage fetishism meets a Sade poem was the vibe. They are light, quiet but there is a sense of screaming trauma that seeped a residue throughout the objects. It was a contained type of horror but there were just enough clues and negative spaces to leave your imagination to conjure dark, sadistic storylines. It left me feeling unsettled and wriggling physically. It was a clean razorblade compared to Abdoh’s fleshy excrement but still, it was a double whammy of unease that we all weren’t prepared for.

We braced ourselves for more.

Next was a bunch of rooms that seemed sporadic and uneventful but what made me a bit annoyed about it all was that it felt like a checklist of artists from ‘other’ places to somehow fill and meet some ‘otherness’ quota. Iran, Mexico, India, Korea, represented in slight and uninteresting ways that felt not only insincere but also token in the worst way.

This trend was continued but with more success with the installation of Fernando Palma Rodriguez. A Mexican artist, his work had a bit of an exoticised gaze but they were lighter in that there was humor and fun along with all the concept heavy references. His use of kinetics and robotics, especially at the time of the works making, was especially nice to see. But even here the heavy hand of geo-political spectre loomed and while that fits and is necessary for his work, the surrounding environment of the other shows almost diminished these works necessity. He should have been given more space and room to unravel and get messy but in his terms not that of the institutions.

This was even further compounded by Sue Coe’s show. For those who know her work, you can only expect a type of discomfiting reflecting back of the terror that is capitalism and while it is so-so-so important to have work by someone like Coe continually represented, it was the last thing one wanted to see after work after work, room after room that felt like art slaughter houses in themselves.

The reason why we went to PS1 in the first place was to see Seth Price’s installation, Danny, Mila, Hannah, Ariana, Bob, Brad. He is a charismatic and levitation-pulling artist and his installation of heroic abstractions of skin scans as light boxes was perhaps the easiest to digest at the museum but it was still heavy. Five very big vertical scans that uses surgical microscopes, satellite technologies and beauty level editing creates works that are nervy and sort of squeamish. The scale and the composition reminded me of people like Barnett Newman and Gerhard Richter. Newman’s zips and Richter’s grandiose trauma. The texturing and the crazy surface detail made me think tree, sequoia, and morgue. It was poetic enough to feel serious but it felt like a singular gesture, one idea, one piece, which is fine but we were left thirsty for more.

Lastly we saw the installation of Zhang Huan and Li Binyuan, Chinese artists from two generations who work with the body and performance. The works of Huan, mostly done in the 90s, is really great. There is a wonderful poetry and connection to the land, history and politics that is subtle but direct. One work, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995, in which artists strip naked on a mountain, get weighed and then pile on top of each other to make another human flesh mountain was beautiful while also feeling triggering in it’s visual comparatives. Binyuan is a younger artist working today who uses his own body to speak about land, history and politics as well, but his feels too clever, too overwrought, too ‘Intro To Performance Class,’ as one of within my group described. Why there needed to be such a pairing, I’m not sure. Huan’s work would have sufficed and should have been given room to retain a poetics versus being forced into a storyline of Chinese ‘performance art history’ and ‘nowness.’

After leaving the museum, we sat outside in the heat and tried to re-balance ourselves. We all felt wrung out from all the dark art and heavy-handed spacing of it all. It is so important to show difficult work and to show artists that are not white, male, and from the USA, but there was an almost insecure overdoing it here and that makes one suspect.

Why is PS1 trying so hard to represent? Is it guilt? Is it a form of checking off to balance the rest of the year that passed or is to come? Is it following the now favorite trend of accelerating POC representation to appear like they ‘get it?’ Whatever it is, it didn’t work and it wasn’t done with a level of integrity and thoroughness that is required to enable dialogue and discovery. Curation! It’s not just an isolated room, and especially for a space like PS1 there is a sense of exhibitions being housed in a shared space together. There needs to be more care so that difficult art can have room to be absorbed versus feeling like a bludgeon to the head, over and over again.

I’m really glad that institutions are trying to rectify the disparities in the art world but please, please, please don’t patronize. Don’t just slot in. It’s bad for the organization, the artist, art in general and all the conversations and difficult topics that need/must be discussed.