No title (n.d.), petrified wood from the studio of Carol Bove, 27 × 12 × 10 in. (image courtesy Carol Bove, photo by Adam Reich)

LOS ANGELES — The question that nagged at me as I walked through the Hammer Museum’s exhibition Stories of Almost Everyone was: “What is this stuff?!” If at many shows of contemporary art this question remains a quiet hum buzzing in the back of your mind, at this exhibition it becomes piercing and urgent.

The show’s self-proclaimed aim is to examine “the relationships between material objects and the stories we tell about them.” The first sentence of the exhibition’s introductory text informs you upfront that it “privileges the narratives that accompany objects.” At other exhibitions, one turns to didactic texts with a feeling of quiet inadequacy to make heads or tails of an inscrutable object, moving towards the wall label like a floundering person swimming to shore. Here, the indispensability and, indeed, the primacy of the verbal supplement pokes you like a stick in the eye, though the show ultimately does more to celebrate than critically examine curatorial mediation as a crutch for artists and visitors alike.

Curator Aram Moshayedi, together with curatorial assistant Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, gathered an impressive array of objects which are mysterious by virtue of their utter mundaneness — there is a broom standing upright in the middle of the gallery, a pair of checkered socks strewn casually on the floor, a mail box, a trash bin, and an oversized Christmas ornament dangling from the ceiling. The show sets out to explore how artists, curators, and institutions go about giving meaning to these reticent readymades, but remains neutral in evaluating the artistic trend on which it puts its finger. It does, however, acknowledge the art’s inaccessibility in a wryly hilarious “promotional” video made with actors Will Ferrell and Joel McHale. Perhaps Ferrell’s statement, “I’m warming up to it, but ultimately, no!”, would have been a more apt title for the show.

Stories of Almost Everyone, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (photo by Joshua White)

The curators position the works, all made in the last 10 years, as descendants of “conceptual and post-conceptual” practices, which often used text to turn otherwise obscure objects into commentaries or polemics on a variety of issues. At the Hammer, I was struck by the degree to which so much post-post-conceptual art has become a reductio ad absurdum of conceptualism’s original impulse, with contemporary artists one-upping each other in how much they can negate any attempt at communication with the viewer and pass on the inconvenient responsibility of generating some coherent meaning to the curators.

Conceptualism, as practiced in the post-war period, set before itself the task of making the invisible visible, of demystifying art as a process and a product of social relations. One might think of the direct connection of art to economics and politics, as explored by Hans Haacke; the desire to make their own artistic process transparent, as explored by John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha; or how discourse inevitably shapes our perception of visual art, as explored by Joseph Kossuth or Lawrence Weiner, to give just a handful of canonical examples. Today, the goal seems to be to adopt conceptualism’s formal language (a deeply ironic turn of events) in order to turn flotsam picked from a vast sea of material culture into vague gesturing at cultural theory or obscure references to “research.” Artists will allude to earlier radical gestures to legitimize this enterprise. In his “printed image” (n.d.), Darren Bader prints as his own work one of Louise Lawler’s graphic “tracings” of her earlier photographs. Haris Epaminonda’s framed empty page, “Untitled #0/4 p/g (V)” (2012), evokes Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” The problem here is not that the concerns the artists raise aren’t new — reflections on the crisis of originality should hardly be expected to be original. But if the work seeks to expose the language games that make “art” possible, it should be articulate in its own right.

Stories of Almost Everyone, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (photo by Joshua White)

The two most compelling pieces in the show do convey their “story” through the materials of the works themselves. Jill Magid’s “The Proposal” (2016) combines two legal documents with a love letter of sorts and a diamond ring whose stone was made out of the ashes of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Together these items shed light on the gray zone in which one individual’s (in this case, the wealthy Swiss architectural historian Federica Zanco’s) legal claims to tangible property (the Barragán archive) clash with the ethical claims of others (the people of Mexico, scholars, and Jill Magid herself) to intangible cultural heritage.

By contrast, Tino Sehgal’s “Selling Out” (2002) has no paper trail at all — not even a wall label. Instead, the artist instructs the museum to hire dancers who perform a full striptease for visitors, speak the work’s tombstone info, and then get dressed again. The resulting encounters are, to be sure, highly open-ended. But the intense experience of the risqué, unexpected situation in the gallery guarantees that whatever emotions the viewer feels — from bemusement to arousal, discomfort, or outrage — are strong enough to elicit reflection on the relationship between stripping and art.

Stories of Almost Everyone, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (photo by Joshua White)

Other works that stand out are those that allude to histories of colonialism and global inequality. Works in this group borrow urgency from stories embedded in capital “H” History where a lot is actually at stake. The museum’s second, more earnest promotional video focuses on one such work, Cian Dayrit’s “Tiis Ganda, Kutis Amerika” (2017). Yet these works also often relegate their “stories” to dry curatorial lingo and feel like missed opportunities, or, worse, exploitation of the trauma of others.

Antonio Vega Macotela’s “Equivalence of Silver” (2011) is a prime example. A small, smooth, unremarkable nugget of silver sits on a hooded plinth. This lump is meant as a stand-in for a grand and tragic narrative, perhaps an emblem of capitalism itself. The amount of pure silver used to cast it, the wall label tells us, is what a Bolivian miner in Potosi extracts in one day. The nugget is also equivalent in volume to the rolled-up coca leaves that the miner will chew in a day to get through the grueling and dangerous work. This nugget, then, is the congealed toil of an exhausted human being who sells his time and health — likely at poverty wages — to produce a paltry amount of a putatively precious metal.

Fayçal Baghriche, “The clock” (2017), vintage clock, motor, 19 11/16 × 7 7/8 × 3 15/16 in. (image courtesy the artist and Galerie Jérome Poggi)

A generous interpretation might say that this piece urges us to pay attention to the important stories that surround us but often remain invisible in daily life. Yet the compelling story the piece attempts to narrate remains strangely separate from the mute object that in the white cube looks like a misplaced geological curiosity.

Whatever the artists’ intentions, the curators’ approach to the show accentuates, rather than mitigates, such muteness through dry and minimally informative texts, a misguided commission of a short story in lieu of an audio guide, and a lack of any effort to reconstruct the original context of the works’ creation and presentation.

The exhibition, we are told, “questions whether objects can reliably narrate their own stories and histories.” The answer to this question has long been, for art historians, a resounding no — objects are entangled in vast networks of stories and histories that no single object can narrate reliably or exhaustively. In this day and age, an effort to demystify the “aura” of the autonomous art object is an exercise in battering down an open door. That said, there is plenty of contemporary art that eloquently conveys the stories and histories that led to its creation. But those works are not, by and large, found in Stories of Almost Everyone. Instead, the show raises an important question: Why do so many artists and curators no longer care about actually engaging audiences with stories they only nominally acknowledge?

Stories of Almost Everyone continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through May 6. 

Ksenya Gurshtein is a curator, art historian, writer, and translator who lives in Wichita, KS. More of her writing can be found here.

23 replies on “When Contemporary Art Feels Too Inaccessible”

      1. Bone up on your art history. R.Mutt is the name that Duchamp signed on his ‘famous’ urinal. And yes, its all his fault, but while it was revolutionary in its time, this is just tired, exhausted and meaningless nonsense trying hard to be ‘art’.

    1. exactly, this would have been shocking 100 years ago, but now it just seems silly.

  1. And, indeed, it takes a very good writer and art reviewer to lend “interpretation/explanation” to what is displayed in this show. Yet, I’m a bit surprised that Duchamp was not brought up…seems like he was at the beginning of doing this very thing, yes, with his R. Mutt, etc.

    1. The only definition of “readymade” published under the name of Marcel Duchamp is in Breton and Eluard’s “Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme”: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” While published under his name, or rather his initials, “MD”, André Gervais nevertheless asserts that André Breton wrote this particular dictionary entry. 14

      Today, in large numbers of peer-reviewed trials worldwide, the artist’s choice has consistently failed to elevate common objects to the dignity of a work of art. It’s didn’t happen, it cannot because it makes no sense, and by now we know that lacking sense does not make a work of art, even among curators who sincerely believe it does. It is not the artist’s ‘choice’ that makes a work of art, but their vision and effort, and only when that vision is transcendent and that effort is successful.

      Art historian and critic Barbara Rose wrote: “What was done in Duchamp’s name… was responsible for some of the most vulgar non-art still being produced by ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops with the idea of putting a found object in a museum.

  2. “Why do so many artists and curators no longer care about actually engaging audiences with stories they only nominally acknowledge?”

    Does this lack of engagement include blockbuster shows that are heavy on audience participation? e.g. Kusama. I feel that there there are relatively few exhibitions that confront the viewer to make cognitive decisions. Most contemporary museum goers view or engage work that falls into long existing aesthetic regimes. Where the idea of experiencing art is an instinctual act and emotional responses are how judgments are made. The hardest thing to do as an artist or viewer is genuinely understand relationships created within the manipulation of materials. If an artist spends 20 years trying to understand the their relationship to a work (sender -signifier/signified) how long should it take for a viewer to understand a work (receiver -signifier/signified)?

    1. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that now art is not seen as the act of a ‘seer’ and/or a visionary but as the result of finely-honed advertising strategies which have a fiscal meaning and a short term return, as in blue-chip investment possibilities. Art for money’s sake could be the catch phrase.
      As for curators, pah! After gallerists they are the artist’s parasites par excellence and don’t let all those degree clutching brats tell you otherwise.

  3. Work that is endlessly self-referencing while working tirelessly to be as obscure as possible while assuming to carry great conceptual weight is, in fact, a failure. More to the point, visual art is engaged with a visual language, or should operate as such, and these works are failing at that as well. Work should stand on its own, not rely upon vaporous wall text, or heady leftover fragments gleaned from MFA professors. We can, of course, play and expand different ideas and concepts as artists. That’s part of the freedom art allows us. This just seems reductive, and frankly, stupid.

    Also, I am so sick of Relational Aesthetics that I could puke. It just comes off as lazy and banal at this point.

  4. One of my theories is that, at least in the West, the modes and styles of art depend on who is paying for it. Before the Renaissance, the Church; during the Renaissance, the aristocracy; later, the haute bourgeoisie; and in our own era, bureaucrats. The peculiar quality of the bureaucrats, as opposed to all the others, is that they exert no taste — no personal, organic reaction to the art. This is not because they are inferior, but because they are not allowed to. The rule of the bureaucrat is to follow the rules. Artistic practice can be brought under various systems of rules, but the bureaucrat is not allowed to write the rules: he or she must follow existing rules. Art that is intuitive, formal, sensuous, emotional, is hard to impose a set of rules on; but art that can be turned into, that really _is_ dry language, or that begs to be turned into language, appeases the bureaucrat’s needs, as do credentialism and hierarchies of institutional repute. Hence grant money (emitted by instituitons, corporations, and other bureaucracies) is directed towards artists who can make out a good grant application, or have one made out. And so conceptualism conquers all, to the point where it is becoming pretty tedious to visit exhibitions of new work.

    The process cannot be too facile, however. Four-year-olds may easily be able to not only paint an Abstract Expressionist work, but to interpret one as well — ‘Blooey!’ as one of my younger relatives said — but there are too many four-year-olds to run up prices. It is evident that many conceptualists have studied the impenetrability and reticence of Taoist and Zen scripture and can retreat into it when threatened by attention.

    Clement Greenberg said of Abstract Expressionism that it had become a fashion, and that fashions are always disposable. I have a feeling the conceptualism is disposable and coming to an end. I think once it starts to vanish, it will vanish quickly. Unlike Ab-Ex and other preceding styles and modes, it has no basis, no fan club, among the folk. Gather yet grant checks while ye may.

  5. You simply did not understand this show. It is witty, full of humor, and gorgeous. It overturns the conventional relations, and what is expected. I thought Dahn Vo’s is a spectacular example, also in reference to his Guggenheim show.

        1. I’m still mystified. The totality of relations between object and label is pretty complicated, and to say flatly that a show overturns them seems mighty ambitious. In any case I don’t see how this show overturns any of the major object-label relations even in the restricted sphere of art gallery lingo (denotation, representation, categorization, and so on). But if it succeeded in doing so, then we wouldn’t be able to talk about it anyway, because labels (words) to refer to the objects in question (the show as a whole, items in the show, labels of items in the show, the overturning of the label-object relations, and so on) would have been severed from the objects we wanted to talk about. As for what is expected, I don’t think cheap obscurantism and mystification are unexpected; they are part of a rather widely played game, are they not?

          1. You’ve put your finger on the point: obscurantism of the highest order, followed by mystification of the banal so that punters feel themselves to be excluded from the lofty heights of comprehension and intelligibility and the resulting art babble further slams the lid on any aesthetic appreciation, labels or otherwise.
            ‘conventional relations between object and label.’ wtf does THAT even mean?

    1. Hmmm….here speaks a stooge or a share-holder. Or an apologist for curatorial inferno. Witty? Gorgeous? A selection of ordinary sad objects? Baffled.

  6. It occurred to me recently that ‘art’ as seen in the context of so many vaulted, security-laden settings is more about ownership than anything else – as if the modern version of the King’s storehouse of looted wealth, the Louvre for example, became an art museum; its curators, the treasurers, never intended to be accessible to everyone; not really. Conceptual, non-conceptual, it makes no difference, it’s not yours and likely never will be. That’s the real message.

  7. It would be nice to explore all this in the context of Marx’s analysis of what constitutes value – in other words – it seems to be all about unravelling or mystifiying the idea of what a work of art should be / makes it valuable…. Artists are exploring/poking fun at/ trying to make a living out of – the weirdness of commodity fetishism and what art is or is not understood to be. Yes, R. Mutt did it a long time ago and it’s time to get beyond that. The reason it’s still going is because the system which produces it hasn’t gone off the scene of history yet. Time’s up for neoliberalism!

  8. Thank you Dominic… you are absolutely right. So-called “conceptual” art is at best an art maker’s quirky aside to real artistic searching; at worst, just taking advantage of the fact that many art institutions and critics today don’t have enough balls to just say “there’s good art and bad art, and this is bad fad art”. And while I’ve admired some of the tangents the Hammer has taken over the years away from real artistic merit, this time they deserve as many lashes as might be dished out.

  9. I have friends who did really creative work till they went to graduate school, where they were standardized. And the standard recently has been the urge to deny art. “So powerful is the impetus towards the collective fake that it is now an effective requirement of finalists for the Turner Prize in Britain to produce something that nobody would think was art unless they were told it was”, so Roger Scrutton writes in The Great Swindle. The dominance of the fake suggests a decadence in our time as bad as ancient Rome.

    My published research includes a bioptic on Marcel Duchamp that confirms he often said the Readymade were never art, the urinal was never art, they were a past-time chosen because they could not have anything to do with art. This applies to all found objects; they’re only found objects and nothing more, they’re not art. You can now clear your museum archives and collections of all that trash from the town garbage dump!

  10. Hammer deserves the public flogging you administered. Emperor charged with public nudity (possibly mitigating works are present?).
    Curator: please administer antidote– Chris Burden retrospective.

  11. The exhibit had me saying ‘no duh?’ To me, it’s a vacuous remake of ready-made from it’s time –– a pantomime of works that hit you in the gut –– there was too much reference, it bled it dry. And, really, how many times and ways must a person be told not to touch the exhibits. WHO TOUCHES EXHIBITS??? I love the Hammer, but, what is happening here?

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