ART REVIEW | 'THE
HAPPINESS OF OBJECTS'
Proof That Things
Are People Too
Published: May 18, 2007
The question, immediately recalling Freud’s about women, also paraphrases
the title of W. J. T. Mitchell’s book “What Do Pictures Want?
The Lives and Loves of Images” (University of Chicago Press, 2005),
the inspiration for an exhibition at the SculptureCenter in Long Island
Mr. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Chicago and editor of the
journal Critical Inquiry, observes that “modern, rational, secular”
people don’t generally treat pictures like persons, yet “we
always seem to be willing to make exceptions for special cases.”
(Most of us, for instance, would be reluctant to poke out the eyes on
a photograph of our mother.) But pictures have desires, too, he argues,
and a primary one is the desire to capture our attention — to “transfix
the beholder” and gain some measure of mastery or power over us.
“The Happiness of Objects,” organized by Sarina Basta, the
SculptureCenter curator, takes Mr. Mitchell’s ideas and tweaks them
to fit an exhibition of work by nearly two dozen artists and artist collectives.
Visitors receive a handout titled “The Object’s Bill of Rights,”
which lays out a series of demands like “The Object has the right
to be claimed or forgotten, lost or found,” and “The Object
has the right to many lovers.”
Ms. Basta moves beyond the relationship between images and the viewer
to consider “what objects want from other objects,” as well
as how context, display, space, light and life expectancy, among other
things, shape a work’s reception.
Much of the art here fits nicely within that framework. Before entering
the building you encounter a painting by Jutta Koether mounted on the
exterior wall: an abstract black canvas with amorphous pools of dried
liquid glass. Another painting by Ms. Koether — also black, but
embedded with thumbtacks like a studded leather belt or jacket —
is mounted in the same location on the interior wall, a back-to-back arrangement
that draws attention to how important placement is when considering images.
The most captivating and imposing work in
the show is “Flatland,” a four-story wooden frame structure
painted black and covered with transparent vinyl that allows you to see
inside, where six artists — Ward Shelley, Pelle Brage, Eva la Cour,
Douglas Paulson, Maria Petschnig and Alex Schweder — have been living
for the last two and a half weeks. (The artists will exit this Sunday;
their experience is being recorded on a Web site, sculpture-center.org.)
Outfitted in colorful coveralls and spread out among the four stories,
which are connected by ladders, the artists create a living tableau in
which ordinary activities — eating, talking on the phone, working
on a laptop or sleeping — become a kind of performance art. Two
were doing yoga when I visited.
“Flatland” is reminiscent of a project in which the Austrian
collective Gelitin holed up in a structure inside a Chelsea gallery in
2005. (Although visitors couldn’t see Gelitin, everything except
the enclosed bathroom is on display here.) It also feels acutely connected
to Mr. Mitchell’s concerns regarding the “lives and loves”
Tom Burr’s “Black Folding Screen (violet)” performs
a different operation, collapsing the idioms of Japanese screens and Minimalist
sculpture into one object. Mr. Burr’s work has often dealt with
gay sexuality and public space and the violet (nearly lavender) mirrored
plexiglass on one side of the screen adds a social spin largely absent
from Minimalist sculpture. Reflected in the mirror is Sylvie Fleury’s
“Road Test,” a scattering of cosmetics run over by an “American-made”
Haim Steinbach’s shelf with kitschy collectibles, including a wicker
basket with a needlepoint swatch that reads “this stuff belongs
to me,” also responds to Minimalism. It mimics Donald Judd’s
wall-mounted works, while exploring the nature of art objects as commodities.
At opposite sides of the gallery two spherical sculptures by John Miller
hang from the ceiling, one covered with excremental-brown paint and tiny
plastic figures, the other with daisies — creating a conversation
across the room.
Craig Kalpakjian’s gray-scale inkjet prints of shapes and spaces
designed on a computer question the relationship between “real”
and virtual objects and environments.
Lan Tuazon’s wall of photographs depicting people turned away from
the camera comes with a note informing us that a portrait with the subject
facing the camera has been placed in each participant’s home.
Olivier Mosset’s ice sculpture in the courtyard has already melted,
offering an example of disappearing artwork. Bodies and objects are fused
in a vitrine filled with vintage Playboy magazine advertisements, in which
nude women commune with consumer products. Architectural objects include
the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s proposals for “Jamaica’s
Future” (that’s Jamaica, Queens), among them a memorial for
Jam Master Jay, the D.J. for Run-D.M.C. who was murdered in 2002.
“The Happiness of Objects” doesn’t make it easy on the
viewer. Mr. Mitchell’s book is, after all, an academic tome (though
quite readable) that delves into complex discussions of everything from
pictures, objects and materials to their relationship with totemism, fetishism
and idolatry. His theoretical touchstones (Freud, Lacan, Benjamin, Bourdieu)
can be detected in many of the works here, and his references to Michael
Fried’s famous 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” are reflected
in the show’s numerous riffs on, and responses to, Minimalism.
But you can also take the easy route and follow one of Mr. Mitchell’s
early conclusions: Some objects want nothing — they are autonomous,
self-sufficient, beyond desire. In other words, they are perfectly happy
“The Happiness of Objects” runs through July 29 at the SculptureCenter,
44-19 Purves Street, Long Island City, Queens; (718) 361-1750.
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view, with a large wall piece by Philippe Decrauzat and a folding screen
by Tom Burr.
Flatland artists in situ.