Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent, 28th December 2001 - 13th January 2002
Since the events of September 11th, the assertion that The World Has Changed Forever has become something of mantra amongst cultural commentators, some suggesting that the attack on New York was a wake-up call to the cultural arrogance of the West, with others declaring, with a dramatic flourish that would have made Adorno himself cringe, that after the Twin Towers there could be no more trivia and self-indulgence.
The dreadful short-circuit of September 11th in the usual humdrum functioning of the mass media exposed many cultural critics to the complacency of their ideas about contemporary culture: It’s not so easy to chat about the totalising hegemony of the spectacle when the real jumps up and bites it in the arse. Many commentators, previously cool and sophisticated about the workings of the machinery of mass culture, appeared ill-equipped to make sense of the disaster; in thrall to horror that unfolded on their screens, their hysterical calls for an earnest New Seriousness expressed their already morbid anxiety about the drift of western culture in the past decade; blaming the mass-media for the ubiquity of trivia and banality betrayed a loss of certainty that there might be anything better to come.
This shift in mood inevitably affects impressions of Casino 2001. The first exhibition of the newly established quadrennial at Gent’s S.M.A.K, it’ profile as an upbeat show based on the relationship between art, popular culture and the media lost some of its shine. As these themes are as generalised and endless as they are ubiquitous, they provide the ideal terrain onto which contemporary art continually defers its cultural role and position, whilst having something legitimate to work against.
The ways in which artists relate to these questions finds national variations in the work on show. With a third of the 60 artists coming from the US, you’re particularly struck by the slightly naïve and dated critical tone of much of their work. Multiculturalism, gender identity and media critique are all alive and well, but deadened by a plodding, theory-by-numbers orthodoxy. Cultural hybridity is adequately enacted in the gaudy paintings of Inka Essenhigh, Gajin Fujita and Julie Mehrutu, and the media’s role in the formation of adolescent identity and sexual difference are all capably handled in much of the video work: Andrea Bowers’ projections of girl ice skaters dressed in pop culture costume, or Cameron Jamie’s docudrama on the suburban teenage gangs that emulate the TV wrestling heroes, go only so far in describing the realm of the popular and the mediated. Better are Patty Chang’s video seductions of the viewer that veer into narcissistic self-seduction, such as her ‘Contortion’, 2001. Elsewhere, dumb-assed American consumer culture is observed with equal degrees of caution and fascination, as in Sarah Morris’ ‘AM/PM’ video of Las Vegas people doing everyday things, or in Michael Hines’ cut up of gameshow ‘cash grab’ sequences, in which hapless contestants are stuck in a booth to flail wildly at a whirling cloud of dollar bills.
If the American work has a politically correct seriousness that holds its subject at critical arms length, much of the European work at Casino 2001 tends to assimilate popular and media culture tropes into its fabric more pragmatically, exploiting the institutional context of art presentation. This often leads to the clever, colourful, but slightly dry Euro-context art that riffs with media theory and pop iconography, intervenes in the gallery space, and still manages to look quite tasteful. A typical example is Katherina Grosse’s day-glo spray paint cloud that drifts all over one wall of the gallery (‘Untitled’ 2001), pointing to abstraction, graffiti, and the institutional bounds of cultural expression. This is followed by Olaf Nicolai’s ‘Pantone Wall’, 2000, which perhaps examines systematised aesthetics, reproduction and artistic originality, whilst still looking like attractive wallpaper for a chic modern interior. Right next to it is an equally suave large-scale tape drawing by Swiss artist Nic Hess, of various corporate logotypes combining to form a delirious landscape of capitalist cartoonery, knowingly entitled ‘Tower of Babel’. This tendency to treat the gallery venue as a critical-cultural playground for adults informs not only the ease in which cultural material is brought into the gallery context, but also the strong sense of generalisation and abstraction in much of the European work.
In contrast to the American work which is always about something definite via a clear and unambiguous critical catchphrase, or the Europeans who like to demonstrate their pop-cultural streetwise in contextual manipulations, the British work seems to be either entirely about itself, or about nothing at all. It may be that the British work epitomises the theme of art’s immersion in the mass media and popular entertainment, but if that’s true, it isn’t to the benefit of the work presented here. Witnessing the punk sentimentalism of Tim Noble & Sue Webster’s trash silhouette self-portraits, ‘Cheap and Nasty’, 2000, doesn’t remind me of their endearing raucous celebrity profile back home, but rather of how limited and narrow your options are when you measure your success by your gratification of the mass media. A similar attention-grabbing lack of purpose seems to direct the faux-naïve pop sculpture of Gary Webb’s ‘LA Masterpiece’, 2001, and Victoria Morton’s glam reworking of gestural abstract painting, whereas a kind of base existentialism dominate both Angus Fairhurst’s endlessly revolving animations of sexual difference, and David Musgrave’s relentless involutions of manufacture, process and representation, both artists saved by the deep introspection that insulates their work from its cultural environment.
There is however plenty at Casino 2001 that goes further into the ever-provisional points of engagement between the artist and contemporary culture, and the equally contingent status of contemporary art as that which might be most ambitious within it. In practice this means art that isn’t preceded by restrictive discursive armatures that sign post meaning without it being realised in the work itself. UK based Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wölbers’ video ‘Kilowatt Dynasty’, 2001, is a remarkable synthesis of pop science-fiction visual fantasy, poetic social speculation and personal narrative, that travels further than any one of its constituent genres, a generous complexity also evident in American Jason Dodge’s narrative sculptural installation. UK artist Maria Marshall eloquently merges digital fantasy and narrative structure in ‘When Are We There’, 1999, whilst American Aïda Ruilova’s airless video installation ‘This Is Great’, 2001, turns its vacuous catchphrase into hysterical essay in voyeurism and the obliteration of subjectivity. The precariousness of subjectivity in the face of its own misrepresentation is also forcefully addressed in Minnette Vàri’s ‘Aurora Australis’ 2001, and in Tom Friedman’s ferocious ‘Untitled’, 2001, his paper cutout blasted corpse of consumer anonymity.
The lightest, most hopeful expression of the artist’s ability to circumvent the dead hand of everyday culture, to produce an experience that is both part of and more than what already exists, might be found in the storyboard dialogue by Hungarian duo Csaba Nemes & Ágnes Szépfalvi. ‘The artwork has to be quick, it has to exist in as many copies as possible and in as many places as possible’, one character declares; the other asks, ‘Is it like bread in supermarkets?’ ‘Yes’ comes the reply, ‘it produces an effect quickly and can be forgotten quickly too.’ Even when witnessing terrorists demolishing skyscrapers with jetliners, mass culture’s effects are trivial and quickly forgotten; at its best, contemporary art can establish a space in which that landscape is better understood and, occasionally, transformed.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated