Beyond Exhaustion: Dan Graham's Period Pieces
By now, Graham has made more than fifty pavilions, some of them adapted for particular uses (Skateboard Pavilion, 1989; New Space for Showing Videos, 1995; Girls' Make-Up Room, 1998-2000) but all essentially running through minor variations on the same scheme. Architectural historian Beatriz Colomina suggests seeing this "global army" of pavilions as "a single artwork, a single experiment," but the experiment has long since petered out. If Graham's earlier work was characterized by a nervous energy that impelled him to leave things half developed in order to try something new, the past quarter-century of his career has been devoted to dogged repetition. The fox has turned into a hedgehog. But in neither case has he deepened and explored his ideas; he has merely recycled them. That's probably another great source of his appeal to younger artists: his incompletely developed ideas are still available for their elaboration. And precisely because he realizes his ideas in such an offhand way ("I basically do fast sketches, fax them to my architects, we do a site visit, and then they bring one or two possibilities for glass"), he makes it all seem easy. But Graham's is not the deceptive simplicity that opens up to ever more unexpected implications. It's just facile thinking, and a formula for perpetuating a franchise.
Still, I'll bet that if you asked any of the three up-and-coming artists currently showing downtown at X Initiative what they think of Dan Graham, they'd tell you without giving it a moment's thought that he's a great artist. And yet at this moment, anyway, I think any one of them is more interesting than Graham--even the one whose work is the least developed, the youngest of them, Tris Vonna-Michell, an English artist born in 1982. At first glance, his exhibition consists mainly of a sparse array of tables with various objects on them, along with a couple of slide projectors; but at each station there's a set of headphones, and that's where the real action is, because Vonna-Michell isn't primarily an installation artist; he's someone who's perhaps too easily taken on, unexamined, the convention that an installation can be the remains of an event--not the schema but the debris it catches hold of.
But Vonna-Michell is really a performer--or, to be more specific, a talker. Put one of the headphones on and you'll find yourself in the midst of a not-quite-graspable narrative monologue. Part of Vonna-Michell's shtick is that his talks are supposed to have a predetermined duration--one that's always too short for the amount of material he has to convey. It's not clear what ratio of memorization to improvisation is involved, but the incredible rush of his seemingly free-associative verbiage is meant to sound almost out of control; there's something very seductive about the urgency with which he spits out his semicomprehensible, stuttering tales of, say, trying to explore the history of Berlin by way of its streets, subways and train stations. Yet I can't help but feel there's something too evasive here, for all the admirable formal reflexivity and multilayeredness of the artist's self-refractive tale-telling; a tale told very slowly might be all the more enigmatic than one that runs away from you as it runs away with its teller.
Luke Fowler, born in Scotland in 1978, is one of a number of younger artists these days who are playing--I might even say toying--with the conventions of documentary film. Fowler has even set up a sort of movie theater in the middle of his space, with seats and everything, pretending to eschew the conventions of video installation even as he knows full well that building a cinema in the middle of an art gallery is just another way of making an installation. One film is a biography of an eccentric musician called Xentos Bentos. I took it as a parody documentary about an invented subject--not a hoax, because it was all too outrageous to be taken for real, but a pastiche. But second thoughts and an Internet search convince me that there really was a Xentos Bentos--although not much information is available about him and almost every occurrence of his name seems to be preceded by the word "mysterious." I still think the film is a parody--but the joke is all in the style; and the facts, after all, are probably straight-on. Stewart Home has called Fowler's style "a pop appropriation of underground film techniques," but the point seems to be that a ragged, vérité style in which no strong authorial viewpoint seems to be imposed on the material is just as artificial as any other. Pilgrimage From Scattered Points (2006) concerns the British avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew, who started out as a follower of Karlheinz Stockhausen and ended as a Maoist proclaiming "Stockhausen serves imperialism." Made up mostly of period footage, the film has something of the ramshackle feeling of Cardew's efforts to make music democratically with amateur musicians--yet from a disillusioned perspective that recognizes both the inspirational and the absurd aspects of the composer's failed quest. The delicately maintained neutrality is almost dreamlike.
What Fowler does for documentary, the Berlin-based Israeli artist Keren Cytter does for nearly every film genre imaginable--tear-jerker, melodrama, sitcom, thriller, Bergmanesque spiritual self-examination, you name it. She takes them to pieces and examines the fragments with loving yet ironic fascination. Like Fowler, she treats the makeshift as a stylistic apparatus: "When I shake the camera I suppose you could say I'm trying to impress by consciously employing a 'homemade aesthetic,'" she once told an interviewer. Her medium is video, but she calls her works films; it's hard to think of anyone who's manifested quite as voracious an appetite for cinematic sensation since Graham's old favorite, the young Jean-Luc Godard. At X Initiative she has installed her work--in contrast to the seeming purity of Fowler's approach--as an "immersive experience," meaning that the films are placed and sequenced in such a way as to set the viewer into motion. As one film ends, you can hear but not see another one start up somewhere else in the space; by the time you've reached it, you've already missed the beginning--you're in media res. It works because the structure of the exhibition echoes that of the individual films, which also seem without clear beginning or end and repeatedly take the viewer by surprise with abrupt shifts that are no more predictable than the changes in direction of the path through a labyrinth in which one is lost--trapped as her characters are trapped in the stereotypical roles they've taken on.
X Initiative, by the way, is the building that used to be the Dia Foundation's exhibition space on West Twenty-second Street. It was home to some of the shows that linger most poignantly in my memory from the period between the late '80s and the beginning of the present decade, among them impeccable, long-running presentations of artists like Robert Ryman (1988-89), Lawrence Weiner (1991-92), Jessica Stockholder (1995-96) and Fred Sandback (1996-98). Since 2004 the building has been empty; now a group spearheaded by gallerist Elizabeth Dee has the use of it for a year. What they're making of it has not gone without criticism; in New York magazine, Jerry Saltz called its first round of shows, which I missed, "a bit dry (and too close to Dee's exhibition program: She has shown two of the three artists)." Of this second round, it has been widely noted that all three artists were also just included in the New Museum's "The Generational: Younger Than Jesus." Since X Initiative director Cecilia Alemani is the girlfriend of New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni, it's hard not to feel that an organization that idealistically calls itself "an initiative of the global art community, with a goal to inspire and challenge us to think about new possibilities for experiencing and producing contemporary art" has an exceedingly narrow, if not parochial, sense of the global. But the fact remains that X Initiative has done a great service by enabling these three artists to present their work on a scale far beyond what a commercial gallery could house or a museum could justify. For the year, at least, New York City has a Kunsthalle big enough to suit it.