When Contemporary Art Feels Too Inaccessible

Some artists seem to negate any attempt at communication with the viewer, and pass on the inconvenient responsibility of generating some coherent meaning to curators.

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. 

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