That It's Over
What was the Sensation really about at the Brooklyn Museum?
All that publicity worked, and on a Sunday in December I went out to Brooklyn for the Sensation show. Immediately I wanted to start smelling the paintings to see which of them were made with elephant dung. I didn't have to wait long -- in the second or third room of the exhibit, the notorious Virgin Mary painting stood behind a protective layer of Plexiglas. The dung is shellacked over so it doesn't smell, but you can see little pieces of straw mixed in with the brown stuff. Would I be able to tell that it was elephant dung without all the hype? Would I care? Apparently this guy does a lot of work with dung. One of his paintings in the later part of the exhibit was a pretty-enough psychedelic job with brown lumps on it. One of the dung lumps had the name Miles Davis written on it, I guess the implication being that Miles Davis was some good shit. It was pretty, I liked it, and since I'm no art critic (or I wasn't until I started writing this) my analysis normally wouldn't go deeper than that.
Of course it was impossible to have any kind of unmediated gut reaction to the Virgin Mary painting because there was so much information, hype about it -- and don't forget the layer of plexiglass coming between me and the painting when I finally did see it. Like the other painting, it was nicely composed, with a lovely pastel palette and a flock of butterflies in the background. The brown mound of exposed breast didn't look particularly offensive. A casual viewer might not find anything remarkable in the painting, but the generous captioning guarantees that you will have a reaction. The handy card on the wall tells you plainly that the left tit of the mother of Jesus is made out of poop, and it tells you why. It's like getting a free copy of the Cliff's notes along with the book. The card also helpfully explains that the butterflies in the background were actually cut-out pictures of butts. It saves you (the viewer) the embarrassment of trying to get too lofty and pretentious about it, so you're not stuck there making an art-face -- you staring at asses and shit and trying to figure out what the hell it means.
"...a few pinched-off nipply nubs."
According to the Cliff's notes on the wall, the painting is basically about faith and regeneration. In short, it's about the value of fertilizer. But beyond that, it's about its own shock value. In that regard, it reminds me of a lot of performance art. The main difference is that instead of doing it in a seedy low-rent art-hole like Surf Reality in New York City with all the dollar beer you can carry upstairs from the deli, the artists in the Sensation show are doing it in the pristine booze-free environment of a museum. I think modern art might be better understood if every museum gallery had a Budweiser keg right in it, or if they piped in reefer through the air vents. It would help get the typical viewer on the same wave-length as the typical modern artist. The Whitney Museum especially would benefit from an open bar policy. This occurred to me a few years ago at the Biennial, when I saw the exhibit-and-viewer combination that summed up the modern art scene for me. About half-way through the exhibit was a huge installation hanging from the ceiling, made out of a very large array of soft flesh-colored tubing, with tinting in various shades of pink, purple, red and grey. In most places it looked like strings of sausages, with various out-croppings and ends that resembled penises, or pieces of poop, and a few pinched-off nipply nubs. It was gigantic and totally grotesque, but so over-the-top that it was actually pretty damn funny. I stared at it and just laughed that some crafty mutherfucker got this monstrosity into one of America's premier museums -- a strange victory in our screwed-up world. Standing right under the painting was a very earnest museum patron, gazing up at the fake sausage fiesta with his chin resting twixt his index finger and thumb. I could almost hear him going Hmmmmmm... Very interesting. No smirk on his face, no siree, he was there to see art with a capital A, dammit. After all it was the Whitney, and the Biennial purports to showcase some of the most important contemporary art on the scene. I felt bad for the guy. With a slight attitude adjustment he could have actually enjoyed the show.
The Virgin Mary painting reminds me in particular of the original poster-child for performance art, Karen Finley. For those of you who don't remember or didn't care, in the late 1980's Karen Finley got a reputation in the experimental theater world for talking about the oppression of women and sticking yams up her ass. I can't judge whether the yam-ramming did a good job of representing the oppression of women, but the important thing is that she said it did, and it is the prerogative of the artist -- in fact the job of the artist -- to create meaning any damn way that she wants. On another level, however, I think the real message of her act was that she just liked sticking yams up her ass. Likewise, I think the guy who did the Virgin Mary painting just likes playing with a certain organic molding compound. He is entitled to his obsession (in fact he might not be an artist without it) and, as I said, I appreciate the captioning so I didn't have to stand around and wonder what he was really doing.
"...one cow contains an awful lot of innards."
other big to-do artist at Sensation was Damien Hirst, who did
the dead animal installations. These included an intact shark suspended
in a tank of formaldehyde, a dead sheep in a similar rig, and the pi¶ce
de rÚsistance, a cow sliced into cross-sections, with each section mounted
in its own clear formaldehyde-filled tank. I can't remember how many individual
tanks of cow there were, but there were a lot of them, and each one was
cleverly configured so that it's slice (which was more like a hunk, actually,
but a transverse hunk) was pressed smack up against the clear side of
the tank, giving the viewer an unobstructed close-up of grey but still
very graphic innards. In case you were wondering, one cow contains an
awful lot of innards. Each hunk of cow-in-a-tank was so jam packed with
squiggles, slabs and tubes of cow-flesh that the formaldehyde had blanched
a sick pinkish-grey, and the tanks went on and on and on. One of the guards
was extremely effusive in her praise of Damien Hirst: he makes us look
at parts of ourselves that we usually ignore because those parts are conveniently
stashed inside our opaque skins. For a minute, the guard's words conjured
the image of a necrophilic but earnest artist-slash-philosopher-slash-butcher
hauling slabs of beef around a dank, under-heated London studio, up to
his elbows in intestines because he REALLY CARES about making us understand.
But my romantic image of The Artist Who Cares was way off base. Hirst
used to mount dead animals in formaldehyde himself, but now he has money
and a flock of assistants who do the dirty work for him. This means that
his craft basically consists of telling his minions where to find the
chainsaw, which makes him more of an art director than an artist, but
these days there is less and less of a difference between the two. It's
about the concept, baby.
And it's about making us look. In that regard, the Sensation show was a success in the same way as local performance artist Michael Portnoy's notorious stunt at the Grammys a few years ago, when he ripped off his costume during a production number and exposed his naked torso to America with the words soy bomb written across himself. It was a good pun: soy bomb -- I am a bomb -- and yes he was, exploding in front of us on national TV. But the content of his message didn't matter nearly as much as the fact that it was being broadcast. For a stunt, the definition of success is simply being able to bring it off. So his performance worked as a statement because the words on his chest vividly and succinctly described his action as he was doing it; and as a stunt it succeeded simply because he did it in front of millions of people. In a similar vein (as it were) Damien Hirst's dead animal installations were a success, regardless of my opinion of the pieces or the man responsible for them. In spite of (or perhaps because of) being grossed out and irritated by his installations, here I am pondering the nature of art, mortality, etc. And, first and last, he got me to look. He got me to say eeeeww, gross and schlepp out to Brooklyn to do it.
So cheers to him. Is his work interesting beyond its obvious shock value? Does it have to be? There was a time when I would have said yes, absolutely. I was interested in art with a capital A, and I believed that to be considered art a work must uplift or instruct, otherwise it's a cheap trick, no more valuable to society than the newest Schwarzenegger flick. (And at ten dollars, the price of admission is about the same). Of course this begs the question of why I think art has to be valuable to society, and I no longer believe that it does. Art is something to do. It's a past-time, and if you play your cards right you can get paid for it.
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