Wednesday, August 6, 2008

East Coast Trip, Part One

Hmmm, where to begin? We're back from our eight-day trip out east, and I feel that the trip has provided a hefty amount of art-blog material. I'll be lucky if I finish this blog entry tonight.

We started out in Connecticut, visiting Bruce's parents, then drove up to Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, en route to Vermont. We last went to Mass MOCA about a year and a half ago. I notice the same phenomenon here as at the Headlands Art Center in Marin: the amazing historical buildings outshine and overwhelm the art. In my opinion, the only work that really held its own against the space, and in fact claimed the space as a logical extension of itself, was Anselm Kiefer's. I made one of my first "art pilgrimages" to Philadelphia in 1988 to see an Anselm Kiefer retrospective. I was surprised to see that although my interests have changed since then, Kiefer's work still had a visceral effect on me. His buckled concrete path appeared to have been dropped from the sky or violently expelled from the earth. For me, the piece's elegance arose from the "obviousness" of its materials-- concrete and rebar--and their ability to function as a "memory" of immense physical force.

Anselm Kiefer, Étroits Sont les Vaisseaux.

Anselm Kiefer, Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem.

Jenny Holzer's piece in the museum's biggest space involved projected lines of text rolling slowly from each end of the room to the other, spanning the ceiling, walls, floor, and some geographic-looking mega-beanbag blob things on the floor. (See video excerpt of this piece.) It was a fairly riveting spectacle, but I couldn't get past the thought that many of the projects designed for this room seem like art school assignments: "What would you do with a space the size of a football field, and a limited materials budget?" I wondered what my friend/ former professor/revered art hero Elizabeth King would do if offered such a space. She once described her work as being intended for an audience of one, for close scrutiny at an unhurried pace. She would surely figure out a brilliant and subtle way to direct our passage, and our attention, through the massive space.

Another show at MassMOCA was called Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China. The gist of all the work, by my reckoning, was this: China is big. It has a lot of people, and they make big dams, big ships, big toxic dumps, and big traffic jams.

Art and Water Don't Always Mix Well
Our next stop was West Rutland, Vermont, the site at which my piece, Feral Fence, was installed for the past year. My mission was to get the piece, which had been dismantled and put back in its crate, on its way back to San Jose. The crate was a beautiful one I had acquired on Craigslist from an art shipper-- it was worth $500. Unfortunately, no longer. One week spent outdoors during the recent downpours in Vermont had waterlogged and warped the crate so that we could barely get the lid bolted on. We had to drill big holes in the bottom and pick up the crate (550 pounds of art and water) with the forklift and let it relieve itself for about 15 minutes. It's on its way home now, and I'm anxious about the rust that's consuming the fence parts in the wet crate.

Returning to the quarry site where my fence was installed for the past year. These rusty steel rods were all that supported the 13 foot-tall fence. The monstrous difficulty of the installation last September came flooding back to me.

My crate as it looked last September...

Carbon Fibre Tubing

Next on the agenda: the Serotta bike factory tour in Saratoga Springs, NY. Now I know that Serotta has smaller tolerances than any other bike company: 1/10 mm! I think Bruce enjoyed seeing how his bike was made.
Bruce thinks I didn't do the Serotta tour justice here. I suggested that he start a blog that will do it justice.

NYC Museums
Next: a day in NYC. First we went to the Buckminster Fuller show at the Whitney. As I looked at all the models, drawings, documents and films, I thought of a phrase from my favourite Borges story: "with less clarity than zeal". The review I had read a couple of months ago in the New Yorker gave a refreshing view of Buckminster Fuller as a bit of an earnest, enthusiastic kook-- a generalist rather than a specialist-- with more failed projects than successful ones. Many of the objects were cool, and there was a "model room" that seemed to be a precursor for Olafur Eliasson's model room in his big touring show.

Downstairs from Buckminster was an odd show of installations by Paul McCarthy. Odd, because the work seemed to have nothing in common with the work I think of him as being "famous" for. But I soon saw that this work was the same in spirit. Bang Bang Room kept me laughing as long as it was turned on. A freestanding room in the middle of the gallery had walls that were hinged onto corner posts. Each wall had ugly wallpaper on the inside face, and a door centered in it. When the room was unexpectedly "turned on" by a guard, first the walls themselves slammed into place to form a room, then the doors within the walls started gratuitously slamming, until it was time for the walls to slam open again. I was reminded of pieces like Bruce Nauman's video of his own head spinning and saying, excessively, "thank you!" I was happy to see that Paul McCarthy is another "genre-less" artist who makes brilliant pieces in whatever genre is appropriate for a given idea. (What is it about all these great, uncategorizable artists who teach at UCLA?) The house piece made me remember that I abandoned "kinetic sculpture" years ago because I didn't want to be put in shows with artists who identified as kinetic artists. Paul McCarthy chose to make one or two kinetic pieces and they are amazing because they came from his brain; they are not amazing because he is a "skilled kinetic artist." I have no interest in whether he understands motors and gears or is a good welder. He can hire "skilled kinetic artists" to do that part!

Paul McCarthy, Bang Bang Room, 1992

Elevated Water
Next we took a nauseating taxi ride down to the South St Seaport to check out Olafur Eliasson's waterfalls. We could see all four from where we were. Pretty cool.

One of Olafur Eliasson's four "NYC Waterfalls".

New Museum

We walked to the New Museum, which had a show called "After Nature" that had been reviewed by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker. I was immediately depressed when I saw Zoe Leonard's bolted-together dead tree, whose existence is an affront to my piece called "Salvage (Adjustable Orthotic Structure) and some variations on the theme that I was still intending to make, but probably won't now that I've seen this piece. Peter Schjeldahl had described a piece involving dancers writhing on the floor; I thought he was describing a film, and was surprised to encounter an actual writhing woman at the bottom of one staircase. Embarrassed for both of us, I quickly skirted around her and moved along to the recreated Unabomber shack. I witnessed more than my share of tortured, writhing performance artists back in graduate school at SAIC, and my instinct is to remove myself immediately from their presence.
A couple of times during this visit, I passed a person whom I recognized as Michael Ashkin, from my last blog post. A funny coincidence.

A detail of Zoe Leonard's piece, Tree, 1997.

The best piece in this show was the one you can rent on Netflix: portions of Werner Herzog's amazing film, "Lessons of Darkness," (1992) were being projected. This is a starkly beautiful film depicting the aftermath of the Gulf War in Kuwait. Long camera shots from a low-flying helicopter show the devastated landscape, and later, the oil-field fires and the American firefighters working to extinguish them.

Still from Werner Herzog's film, Lessons of Darkness, 1992.

Still to come: East Coast Trip Part 2.

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