Saturday, April 4, 2009

Art: The Third Mind at the Guggenheim

The tag line of this show (American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860-1989) is a loaded gun, and I don't like it. Perhaps my stint at Berkeley taught me too well how to be offended on behalf of others, but I fear that a show of this kind, which binds an aesthetic kitchen sink together with the thread of so-called Asian influence, not only invites viewers to make gross generalizations, but, as an educational cultural institution, reinforces, in fact validates cultural stereotypes.

Just because a cultural stereotype is "positive" (one that I overheard in the gallery today is that "Asians have more reverence for the passage of time than Americans") doesn't mean that it is acceptable (or true). And, by including such disparate influences as Japanese printmaking, Chinese calligraphy, and Indian philosophy under one slogan, the Guggenheim's curatorial staff not only engages in a kind of cultural (in)discrimination inherent to the ignorant, but it irresponsibly disseminates that misinformation to a trusting audience.

Recklessness aside, the show additionally fails as a cohesive collection of objects. Certain items, like Nam June Paik's Zen For Film (a loop of blank 16 mm film, which produces a rectangle of white light with black splotches and dots dancing to the warm, mechanical whirring of the projector) and Paul Kos' Sound of Ice Melting (a circle of microphones surrounding two melting blocks of ice) are effective both as aesthetic objects and think-pieces (with the added bonus of thematic relevance; they are material objects in the tradition of zen koans). However, most of the show's contents don't manage to muster any reaction, emotional or intellectual.

The included pieces by Richard Tuttle, Adrian Piper, and Morris Graves in particular, amongst plenty of other immemorable detritus, not only waste prime exhibition space, but contribute to the numbing of the audience's mind, so that the spectacle of Ann Hamilton's Human Carriage (an installation in the museum's rotunda, in which small groups of shredded books fall from the top of the gallery at regular intervals, after a cart decorated by Tibetan prayer bells and veiled in white silk has sailed along a metal tube mounted to the museum's spiraling interior wall), an obtuse yet shallow metaphor dressed in unfortunate preciousness, becomes enthralling, drawing the visitors like lemmings to the ramp's edge. I hope (as I often do when visiting this institution) someone will jump.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

Yuck. This sounds terrible. One would assume that there would be at least one sensible person at the discussion table, and that he, or she, would have tabled this idea from the very beginning.