Art of the Free and Brave
If one looks at the art through the clarifying lens of the ample wall texts--or listens through the headsets the museum distributes free of charge, to what the artists themselves have to say about their own work--the evidence is overwhelming that most of the art has a certain high moral and intellectual purpose. The artists portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things. It is as if the works exist on two levels--the level of object and the level of argument, and the wall texts--or catalogue entries--assist us in grasping what the work is through explaining what the object means. Often the distance between object and argument is so wide that without the text we would badly misread the object. This is not that different from traditional art as one might suppose. Think, for example, of how little a realistic seventeenth-century crucifixion tells us about the meaning of the object it shows or why it is appropriately hung in chapels. Who would know--who really could understand by means of visual perception alone--that the twisted figure is redeeming through physical suffering the taint of original sin humanity until then allegedly carried? The meaning of much of the work is at just such a level of abstractness, relative to the object intended as its vehicle. In this respect, contemporary and traditional art have a great deal more in common with each other than either has with Modernist art, which sought to convey its meaning by visual means alone--so much so that with such work as Matisse's or Cézanne's, the very presence of wall texts was considered supererogatory. The difference between traditional and contemporary art is that with the former, a certain common culture enabled viewers to know the arguments under which objects were intended to be seen, whereas this cannot be counted on in connection with what artists do today. So without the explanation we have no way of knowing what we are looking at.
Sometimes, it must be admitted, the object is stronger than the work. I greatly admired, for example, a painting by Ingrid Calame, in reddish-pink enamel on a very large mylar sheet, cascading down the wall and then spreading out onto the floor. The forms themselves have the look of spilled and splashed pigment, impulsively swept onto the surface with brooms or wide brushes, in an Abstract Expressionist manner. This proves to be an illusion. The forms derive from tracings of "the lacy stains left by the evaporation of nameless liquids" which the artist found on Los Angeles streets. She has compiled an archive of these, noting the location of each stain and the date on which it was found. The forms are the result of careful transcription, rather than of impulsive expressive brushwork--and monumentalize pre-existing splotches. So we have to rethink our response to the object, which turns out to be far more intellectual and calculated than emotional and impulsive.
A comparable distance separates object from argument in Ghada Amer's Untitled (John Rose). Her paintings look, the catalogue concedes, "like finely drawn, delicate abstractions." The informed eye leads one to surmise that her work shows the influence of Cy Twombly. But as with Calame's work, the eye is a very poor guide to what we in fact see. First, the lines are not drawn or painted but sewn. Second, the forms are not abstract but derived from images of women in pornographic magazines. One can, once instructed, see that these are stitchings, but I found it as difficult to make out that I was looking at "sexually suggestive postures" as I did to identify as female body parts--cut from the same genre of magazines--the things with which the Holy Virgin Mary is surrounded in Chris Ofili's controversial painting from the Brooklyn "Sensation" show. In any case, Amer is making, by means of stitched prurient imagery, some statement about the representation of women. One would not know this without help. Aesthetics is almost consistently subverted in much of today's art--especially when aesthetics seems initially to be the point of what we are looking at. That subversion is in the service of the larger moral meanings that the works are designed--with the help of explanation--to convey.
Sometimes explanation in fact intensifies the experience of the object. Consider a remarkable work by Paul Pfeiffer--a tiny (3-by-4 inch) video, set into a wall. At first glance it shows a black athlete, standing alone on a stadium floor, distantly surrounded by crowds of spectators. The athlete's fists are held in front of him, and his head is bent back in what appears to be a shout, perhaps of victory. The film is a very short loop: The athlete endlessly advances, retreats, advances, retreats, advances, retreats. One could let it go at that, until one notices the title: Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon)--and one begins to wonder what they have done to that poor man. The artist began with a short clip from a video, showing an episode from a sporting event. He has modified this through digitalization, transforming it into something enough like a painting by Bacon to convert the shout into a scream. The whole scene becomes something resembling the lonely space of a Roman arena, in which someone has suffered or is undergoing suffering, for the entertainment of the prurient crowd. The endlessly repeated movement of the figure has the quality of a fantasy or a trauma, from which the mind cannot break free, enacting, over and over, the same charged happening. The work, repetitive and obsessive, has some of the qualities of the mental state it represents. And it is very successful in using technologies that may hardly have existed when the last Biennial took place--digitalization, DVD players--to present us with an image of which traditional art would have been incapable. It draws on art-historical images and historical imagination, and effects a metaphorical transformation of what in its own right is a fairly banal image from contemporary culture.