The history of contemporary art is filled with countless outrageous and provocative ideas. Think of Nikki de St. Phalle building walk-in wombs, Chris Burden taking a bullet in Shoot and Keith Boadwee making action paintings using his sphincter. These are only a few examples of “out there” projects that simultaneously propel contemporary art forward and undermine it as a serious medium. Some are dumb. Some are brilliant. Some are so dumb they’re brilliant. Here, in no particular order, are ten of my favorite outré art actions:
1. Modern-day Lolita Laurel Nakadate picks up men and then records their interactions, which include strip-teases, dancing lessons and underwear modeling. Mesmerizing, cringe-inducing exposés of loneliness and horniness, her videos will make her an art star or a face on a milk carton.
2. Slacker superstars Dash Snow and Dan Colen filled Deitch Projects Gallery with two thousand shredded phone books, graffiti and giant wine and pee spitballs. The press release mentioned a hamster cage aesthetic, but most hamsters have a more together aesthetic. This show was anti-formal, anti-commodity and anti-hygienic — I got a rash just looking at the catalogue.
3. William Pope.L, “America’s Friendliest Black Artist,” has been doing odd things for a long time: nailing 1,000 hot dogs to the gallery wall, walking across town with a prosthetic penis in a work entitled Schlong Journey, and sending three white college kids cross-country in a “Black Factory” van to rap about blackness. Somehow, his weird ways always provide new perspectives on artistic creation and racial relations.
4. In an art moment obsessed with youth, twenty-something Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi’s years-long project of dressing and acting like his aging father stands out as particularly wacko-genius. He gained weight, grew a beard, wore stuffy suits, walked slowly, and even sympathetically assumed the burden of his father’s ailments. How old you are is all in your head, they say.
5. I confess I don’t always understand Vanessa Beecroft’s unique brand of bitchcraft, but her monomaniacal drive to aestheticize and adopt two destitute orphan babies, depicted in the documentary film, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, is so wrong that some part of it must be right.
6. The Art Guys’ mini-opera on the subject of layered veneer, Plywood, was a delightful apogee of idiocy. Featuring dancers, a chorus, a smoke machine and lots of wooden props, this paean to the quotidian makes you wonder why everyone gets so hot and bothered about those tired old themes of love, betrayal, etc. The pianist’s tiny plywood earrings were amazing.
7. Gregor Schneider, German creator of the existential-architectural Haus-ur, has a new project: he’s cruising hospices looking for a person who’s willing to die in a gallery as a work of art. This fascinatingly creepy idea puts a whole new spin on the concept of vita brevis, ars longa.
8. Claes Oldenburg thought the Swiss Army knife was a perfect symbol for the country: sharp and practical but screwy in the middle. Nearly all of the Zurich duo Fischli and Weiss’s brain-ticklingly nutty and smart work supports this thesis. Whether lovingly recreating all the contents of museum utility closets in hand-painted and -carved Styrofoam; using flashlights, drinking glasses and turntables to create low-tech psychedelic light shows; or traveling the world to re-photograph tourist clichés, the duo monumentalizes their own loopiness with charmingly stolid, old-world craftsmanship.
9. Andrea Fraser made a video of herself having sex with a collector who reportedly paid $20,000 for the first edition of the finished work. Fraser, quoted in the New York Times, said about the piece, “My first thought was, if I’m going to have to sell it, I might as well sell it.” The question remains, is Fraser prostituting her art or making art of prostitution?
10. Nobody walks the fine line between really clever and stupid better than Jeff Koons. Although you know they’re completely wrongheaded, you always feel like his bronze liferafts, porno paintings and giant flower puppies cut right to the heart of what it means to live in this crazy, mixed-up world. His new, too-big, too-expensive hanging locomotive “train crane” public art project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art couldn’t be more perfect for this stalled cultural, political and economic moment.