Monday, March 8, 2010

Art: The Armory Show

For me, the Armory show is a necessary evil. Everyone will be talking about it, so I have no choice but to go, and to see everything, and to do so quite attentively, so that I will be able to engage in the city-wide conversation the week afterward. And yet, for me at least, the Armory Show feels like a combination of the most gruesome things: a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving, the velvet rope in front of the nightclub of the moment, and the ramp that cattle walk before they are unknowingly slaughtered. There are crowds, it is hot, and there is a sense of blind urgency. Flashy things—neon lights, broken mirrors, drawings of genitalia (male and female)—are hung on every wall to delight or distract (depending on whether you are more in the mood for shopping, swinging, or dying an unpleasant but quick death).

This year, I'm not sure whether the show changed, or I did, for there was a want of urgency. As always, there was an overabundance of neon (as if Bruce Nauman had alighted upon a new medium, rather than just creating a one-off amusement), myriad broken looking glasses (self-loving solipsists that we are, we tend to gravitate toward art in which we can see ourselves, and if we see ourselves fractured and distorted, we feel all the more "honest" for it), and wall after wall of unaffecting photographs.

I had my usual chuckle at the well-styled gallerists munching their festival vendor panini, selling art by artists who outsource their production (Customer: "Does the artist actually know how to draw at all?" Gallerist*: "Hmm. . . I am not sure. . . But of course, it does not matter, right?")

*French accent

But, I managed to see two things of interest. One was Grayson Perry's Walthamstow Tapestry, ironically one such outsourced work. Perry designed and drew the scene, but the fabric itself was woven by a computerized loom in Belgium (another of his tapestries, Vote Alan Measles for God, was sewn by workers in a Chinese factory, via a high-end rug company in London. Given the tapestry's overtly anti-consumerist thrust, I cannot help but find this lack of consistency rather disappointing).

The other, more ideologically integrated work that I managed to latch onto was a 22 minute video by Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck. Called Staging Silence, this black and white video with its magical laboratory soundtrack offers a number of blank stages into which hands insert tiny objects, one by one, creating a scaled spaces (a waiting room, an office interior, a country estate complete with working fountain, a forest, a theatre with proscenium arch), and then taking them apart. It was rather serendipitous that I decided to stick my nose around the dark corner where this film was playing, because it was easily missed, but also easily the best work of art on view.

Ultimately, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling, walking through the show, that I was unable to discern art from non-art. Having recently seen Tino Sehgal’s show at the Guggenheim, I had this insistent itch to walk up to people and say, “Excuse me, but are you a piece by Tino Sehgal?” Oddly, whether or not they were, this would be my own performance art, although I don’t consider myself an artist (being too inhibited to actually speak to anyone).

Sehgal-struckness aside, the work versus non-work question presented real challenges for me. The broken neon leaning on the floor against the wall, shattered glass all around it: a statement that Bruce Nauman is dead, or a mere accident that hasn’t been cleaned up yet? The Acura SUV on display, complete with attractive saleswoman in short, tight dress: a opportunistic attempt to entrance a captive, wealthy audience already primed to spend thousands of dollars, or brute commentary implying that art fairs these days are as blatantly middle-brow consumerist as Japanese luxury car lots? The black man with dreadlocks to his waist pushing a trashcan around on wheels: sanitation worker, or statement about the minority man’s role in the art world? I followed him around for quite some time, trying to decide, and trying to snag a photograph, but like the meaning of art these days, he was surprisingly elusive.

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