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Avant-Garde, My Derri?

The new academicism.

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By Jacob Weisberg

(posted Thursday, July 23, 1998)

Walking into the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum, you are received by an enormous inflatable dominatrix lying on her back. She wears fishnet stockings and a teddy festooned with baby doll heads and holds a whip. In other respects, the image is that of an Asian kewpie doll–powdered face, braids, tassels, and a silk gown. The irregularly shaped dirigible on which the photograph of this amalgamated woman is superimposed is connected to foot pumps. From the balcony at entrance level, you can step down on these pumps, blowing air into the sculpture below.

Hydra (Monument) is a self-portrait by the South Korea-born Lee Bul, one of six finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize–a biennial competition for cutting-edge artists sponsored by the German menswear manufacturer that takes place at the Guggenheim Museum’s SoHo branch. Lee is the most in-your-face of the group. Her previous works include Abortion, a 1989 performance piece in which she hung upside down and naked from the gallery ceiling, talking about her abortion and reciting song lyrics. In another series,, she exhibited rotting fish decorated with beads and sequins, supposedly to “create a biting satire on women’s servitude in a male-dominated culture,” according to the exhibition catalog.

Lee’s approach and preoccupations are characteristic not only of the Boss prize finalists but of contemporary conceptual art in general. Her work is theory driven and eschews traditional technique. It is based on the manipulation of pre-existing images rather than the coinage of new ones. By appropriating and commenting on them, Lee, like the other artists in the Boss show, aims at a critique of the dominant culture. The key buzzword echoing through the catalog is “otherness,” a term borrowed from formerly trendy French literary criticism. Minus the obscurantism, the idea is that cultural difference–racial, sexual, and national (though never religious)–is the fundamental and brutal truth of modern existence.

Elsewhere on the left, this view is at least subject to argument and criticism. Only in the art world is radical multiculturalism an unquestionable dogma. There is not even a flash of recognition of the irony that this philosophy manifests itself in a big international art show where brings together artists of every race, nationality, and sexual orientation to proclaim that they are despised and ignored. But whatever the merits of essentialism as an outlook on life, its art world fruits, as displayed in the Boss exhibition, are flavorless and repetitive. By the end, what you have learned is that in contemporary art, “the other” is always pretty much the same.

T he Guggenheim has essentially ruled out conventional forms such as painting, drawing, print-making, or sculpture, preferring art that is “process-oriented” to art that is static. Four of the other five finalists present video installations. The wonderfully named Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss who used to be in a rock band, makes–in the guise of commenting on racy music videos–what are essentially dull racy music videos. Her chief submission to the Boss prize is an installation titled, an underwater sequence set to her own version of Chris Isaak’s song “Wicked Games,” which Rist sings and then shrieks. Projected in mirror image on two screens joined at right angles, it turns images of the artist cavorting underwater along with various objects such as a cheese grater and a TV set into a kind of giant vaginascope. Of the artists represented, Rist is the only one who approximates a sense of humor, and it’s a fairly distant approximation.

Levity is not part of the repertoire of the African-American artist Lorna Simpson. Simpson has previously exhibited photographs of black women accompanied by bits of cryptic text. For example, a print of in a dilapidated apartment, one in sunglasses with a drink, the other peering across the room, bears the legend “forecasting visibility from the office.” According to the catalog, Simpson’s pictures of women staring blankly underscore that they are “unheard in a racist, patriarchal society.” Lately, she has moved into film. Her entry in the Boss prize competition is a nine minute black-and-white piece titled Recollection, in which several women conduct disjointed conversations on the theme of forgetfulness.

A rguably the most banal work in the show comes from the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. Gordon is a Glaswegian previously known for having one of his forefingers tattooed completely black and taking, and another in which he slowed down the film Psycho to a speed at which it took 24 hours to watch. One Gordon contribution is a piece of insipid text titled, lettered in white on a blue wall. Statements such as “hot is cold” form a kind of word palindrome that makes Jenny Holzer seem deep. Gordon’s other work is archival footage projected on two free-standing video screens. Hysterical uses film from 1908 of two Italian men putting a masked woman through some sort of psychological treatment.

More inventive than Gordon is the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, who was caught abroad during the Tiananmen Square uprising and now lives in Paris. Huang is also interested in the conflict between Western and Eastern cultures but seems less enraged on the topic than Lee. His previous work has involved putting books through a washing machine cycle and collecting live animals, such as scorpions, snakes, and insects, and setting them to battle in enclosures filled with Chinese art objects. Huang’s installation for the Boss prize, the largest work in the show, is called The Saint Learns From the Spider to Weave a Cobweb. It’s a lattice of copper pipes from which hang a chair and a dozen mesh cages. Inside each cage is a hairy, live tarantula. The title refers to the Taoist Ge Hong, who wrote that “animals are superior to human beings.” Reminiscent of the room-filling iron spiders cast by Louise Bourgeois, it conveys the feeling of being trapped in a philosophical cage–and in so doing perfectly captures the spirit of the exhibition as whole.

B ecause the $50,000 prize to be announced July 29 is for the artist’s whole oeuvre and not the work submitted for the show, I would award it, if forced to choose, to South African William Kentridge, who is known for powerful, many with anti-apartheid themes. Unfortunately, following the vogue of conceptualism, Kentridge has entered a film in the show,, which uses animation of sketches much cruder than the ones he usually does interspersed with documentary footage from the apartheid era. Set against the solipsistic identity politics of the rest of the show, Kentridge’s old-school agitprop is nearly refreshing.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a prize endowed by Hugo Boss should end up being less about craft than about fashion. What makes the exhibition truly dreary, however, is the pretense that it’s daring, when really it’s an exercise in intellectual conformity. All the avant-garde artists included are actually academic, both in the sense of deriving their ideas about cultural difference from French literary critics and in the sense that they follow the dictates of others about what art should be. Subtract the shock value, and what you have here is the salon painting of the 1990s.

If you missed the link about the irony of Hugo Boss’ sponsorship of the prize, click.