Along a busy section of Lexington Avenue, just a few blocks north of Grand Central Station, a woman sits in a shop window serving tea to two others; they are engaged in conversation such that they are seemingly oblivious to being on display.
The wall behind the figures, as well as the table at which they sit, are divided into halves — one white, the other black. Each element of the tea service is divided likewise. In the window, this setting resembles a shop display; in fact one of the men currently drinking tea initially stopped in thinking he was entering a housewares store. To come across an art gallery in this part of town is both surprising and refreshing, and particularly successful when its context is exploited, engaging passers-by as the artist Weihong has done as part of the exhibition Houston, the fourth in the “suitcase series” at the Lab Gallery at the Roger Smith Hotel. Contrary to the sense of a highly stylized window display apparent at first glance, the black and white elements of 255 – 0 + Tea correspond to yin and yang, creating an environment conducive to the I Ching notion of constant exchange and balance. Beyond the generosity of Weihong’s gesture, the project finds its primary importance as an experience that changes each who takes part in it.
Weihong’s approach to the notion of encounter neatly illustrates the theme of the show, the works in which all require viewer interaction. The concept of art viewing as a state of encounter is a modern one, having roots in the eighteenth century; but it was only forty or so years ago that the responsibility of engaging this encounter was shifted from the viewer (who merely had to decide to look at a work), to the artist, who began to create conditions for interaction between viewer and artwork. For many 60s artists such as Allan Kaprow, who endeavored to erase distinctions between producer and consumer, casting a wider net over what was considered art and who was considered artist, the beginnings of interactive art had a political dimension. Each of the works in the Suitcase Series revels how participation as a strategy has been transmitted from one generation of artists to another, and reflects a changed social context.
Jahje Bath Ives presents two bodies of work composed of Mylar cutouts painted white, and the shadows these cutouts create. The Ocean, I See (NYC Version) (2004), adapted from a larger work, presented earlier this year at Mackey Gallery in Houston, draws upon the mass media for its imagery. A set of motifs consisting of female divers, soldiers carrying a casket, and a politician giving a speech with arms raised, are intertwined in a decorative vine-like structure resemble a diary composed from images pulled from the daily headlines various newspapers. The images are instantly recognizable as originating in the media, but many are not so easily situated in a specific context. Character Series features double images of figures in poses expressing interiorized messages, such as I don’t know how much longer I can humor you (JH) (2004), all of which seem equally directed at the viewer as they do at the doppelganger of herself. Outlines of the figures are pinned to white paper, isolating them as discrete images. The shadows created on the paper are clear and even; in a trick of perception one is left wondering if the lines are painted, or are indeed shadows. It is necessary to move around the works to see them moderate or flicker with one’s movement. These works draw awareness to the viewer’s role in a more traditional and generic sense — as with any artwork; their completion depends on your presence.
In the far corner of the gallery, a video projector emits a latent dark square on the wall, while a web of colored wires connects the projector to a wooden construction and a small microphone on the adjacent wall. Jeff Shore and John Fisher’s Untitled installation (2004) awaits a viewer’s voice to literally set it in motion. Sound activates all three elements of the installation: the soundtrack, the projection and a wooden constructed armature which slowly arches back and forth, moving a small box with a camera inside that is filming the tableau that is, finally, projected on the wall. The image consists of a room with a couch and two windows, and the connections between the projected image and the armature are indicated by the small bouncing rocks that move across the room at the same rate as the arm, and by the light pouring through between the ceiling and the walls, or the seams of the box, that point back to its construction. The soundtrack results from a program conceived of by Fischer that plugs in different voices/sounds each time it is played, creating endless variations on a theme.
Occupying the center of the gallery, Wesley Heiss’s sculptural installation The First Law (2004) consists of a bicycle attached to a deflated mass of outdoor advertising banners, which were found in dumpsters belonging to uber-media conglomerate, Clear Channel (a Texas based company). When someone begins to cycle, the mass quickly inflates, forming a miniaturized ‘bouncy’ fun house that deflates just as quickly, demonstrating the (arguably misguided) idea about working hard and playing hard. In its dormant condition, the work tempts the viewer to try to fulfill this idea — even in its deflated state; the materials and bright colors of the mass indicate its future shape. The First Law clearly illustrates the art object unfulfilled, the condition under which all of the works in the exhibition operate, at least part of the time. It also illustrates the problem characteristic of much interactive work, that the presence of a viewer alone does not guarantee the activation or fulfillment of the work. I don’t know, but it seems as if outside of New York people are more willing to jump on a bike and become part of the work, and the object of other viewer’s gazes.
Rikrit Tirvanija recent installation purchased by the Guggenheim as a part of the prestigious Hugo Boss Award, Untitled (he promised), which similarly deals with themes of play and participation, provoked me to look critically at how these strategies figure into a contemporary context. The installation, described as a “platform for social activities,” was located in a cavernous room, and consisted of a rectangle of drab gray carpet and a model of a California modern house made of steel that did not nearly fill the space. On the rug, four people were practicing yoga, while others were waiting to receive a Thai massage. An Ana Mendieta video was projected on the far wall, where a group of young women had settled on two of the large orange cushions situated about the room; other videos were showing on two televisions in the “house.” There was nothing about the work, no host or instructions — no tempting smells or sounds, that invited the viewer to participate in any of the activities provided. The enormity of the space made intimacy, which could have collapsed the distance between spectator and participant, impossible. It was disappointing that Tiravanija’s project did not generate experiences that could be differentiated from a party, a yoga class or an art gallery. I felt uneasy with the idea that this set of familiar experiences, because a known artist organized a series of common events, is celebrated as an art that inspires the kind of collective experiences that are seen as having been eradicated from the public sphere. That this particular work did not meet expectations of collective experience raised questions regarding the quality of participation: how the public is used as material, the importance of expanding art’s audience. How has the idea of participation changed from the 60s to the present, how have ideas originating in a certain art historical lineage been transformed by a popular culture obsessed with participation?Kaprow, amongst others like him, has become an important presence to a latter generation of artists struggling with the influence of artists who have removed their practices from the field of art, as they translate these ideas back into that field with the remove of thirty or forty years. Participation- and performance-based art have remained viable practices, while the terms of the art field, its actors and the cultural context have changed. As these practices have become legitimated — the tension between performance, time, and situation-based work — and its inscription into the art field, have dissolved. The idea of participation itself has transformed as it has taken on increasingly significant role in the relationship between the culture industry and the public. The television has become a mirror for the average citizen, whether we are tuned into reality TV shows, home makeovers or the eleven o’clock news.
Recently, in between these programs, Burger King and Anheuser Busch encouraged viewers to vote (taking part in what could have been the biggest illusion of participation, as many “experts” were anticipating that the election would be decided in the courts). Reality television and the like may fulfill what is perceived as the average American’s greatest desire — to be on TV — while only loosely maintaining that the actions and character of the individuals participating determine the narrative of each show. The bountiful cash prizes awarded in shows from Survivor and Fear Factor to Mom Swap only intensify the feeling of participation, while some argue that these shows, as well as the focus on the lives of local people of the nightly news, only shift our attention from the government activity at home and abroad. Of course, variants of this argument far outdate the invention of the television, but the recent obsession with this novel form of participation seems particularly insidious, as it replaces participation as engagement with participation for its own sake.
In no way do I mean to indict the artists in Houston; rather I feel the need both to bring attention to the context in which interactive practices are being played out, and question whether participation is just one technique among others in an art world moment characterized by pluralism and pastiche. The works in the exhibition clearly point to the tension between art and play, complicating a direct equivalence between the two, and demonstrating that they cannot simply be folded into one another.
Marisa White is a graduate student of art history at the Graduate Center in New York.
Images courtesy the artists.