An ad hoc group of artists finds an empty retail space, makes a short-term deal with the owner, and for one twelfth of a cooperative gallery’s annual rent, produces a four-week exhibition that leaves each participant’s budget relatively unmolested. Pop-up exhibitions, as these arrangements are known, have proven an ingeniously simple yet effective model for underrepresented artists seeking affordable exhibition opportunities.
A pop-up exhibition recently opened in Midtown Manhattan that adds opulence to the formula, and in doing so demonstrates once again that there is nothing a struggling artist can create that cannot be quickly snapped up by art world power players. Through June 23, the public is invited to a pop-up show with a twist. Presented in a ballroom-size space, awash in daylight from nine arched Versailles-scale windows, conveniently located just steps from Grand Central Station, an exhibition titled Things — consisting of a single new Urs Fischer sculpture of the same name — has been installed in what was once a commercial bank at 511 Fifth Avenue. The installation is presented by Gagosian in conjunction with an exhibition of Fischer’s paintings at the gallery’s Madison Avenue space.
To appreciate the significance of this event, consider the specifics. According to several real estate websites, the average cost of street-level retail space on the corner of 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue is about $300 per square foot. Calculated prior to transactional adjustments, a month’s rent for the 5,000-square-foot space comes in at a low six figures. This is no Bushwick garage. Indeed, half the show’s appeal is its location — a word that, when repeated thrice, forms the chief aphorism of the real estate business.
The sculpture, fabricated in aluminum using a variety of techniques, consists of a life-size rhinoceros standing in the middle of the space, covered with various items that cling to or appear partially embedded in its girth. Visually floating but for their attachment to the docile-looking creature, they read as satellites drawn gravitationally to a greater mass. The items include a copy machine, a lawnmower, a suitcase, a plastic water bottle, a tire, a frying pan — there is no theme I can identify. Even the poetically feeble idea of them being all man-made is undercut by the presence of an aluminum rat stuck between the beast’s hind legs.
As these items appear arbitrary, if not superfluous, the rhino secures the better part of a viewer’s attention, to which mine responded with the notion of a giant piggy bank. Of course, a rhinoceros is not a pig, but the creature’s ridged stance suggests the personal savings device familiar to those of us who in our formative years cherished a swinish ceramic asset collector of similar deportment. As in the porcine version, Fischer plants the animal’s feet firmly on the ground, its stability symbolizing, as any banker is happy to tell you, the security one seeks in trusting a stranger with their money. Worth noting is how the same tradition infers an aspect of license to the piggy part, intended one assumes to surreptitiously dangle the lure of gluttony before an impressionable demographic.
The appeal this initial interpretation held for me was in reaction to the installation’s dual authorship: dealer Larry Gagosian and artist Urs Fischer pooling their resources as folks do in a pop-up exhibition. A large bank emptied of its chandeliers and furniture and replaced with a shiny quadruped struck me as an obvious site-specific gesture. However, upon reconsideration, it began to sound too narrow. It failed to address the playfulness so essential to Fischer’s vision. The laptops, airline pillows, buckets, all those crazy things clinging to the beast, things that initially appeared so harmless, may have other meanings. Fischer’s no stranger to pranks. Remember, it was he who gave New York “Big Clay #4,” a stack of massive aluminum blobs installed on the plaza at the foot of the Seagram Building a year ago. Jeremy Sigler, writing for Hyperallergic, noted its equivocal humor while stating what many people quietly thought: that “Big Clay #4” resembled “something like bodily waste.”
So, in revising my interpretation of “Things” to comport with the artist’s track record of making vague jokes, and in recognition of the obvious privilege and frivolity on display via the installation’s Midtown retail site, I offer the possibility that the exhibition is a veiled reference to the real estate game Monopoly. Think of Fischer’s things as the game’s endearing pieces, aluminum avatars unrelated to one another: a battleship, a shoe, an iron, a top hat, etc. But in this version, one piece’s dominating size indicates an insurmountable advantage over its smaller competitors, the losers drawn to the animal’s mass like sucker fish in a metaphysical rendering of the game’s zero-sum aesthetic; the vanquished desperately clinging to the center of wealth and power. For artists who need the exposure of opportunities like pop-up shows, “Things” serves as a reminder of New York realty’s dispiriting realities.
Urs Fischer: Things continues at 511 Fifth Avenue (corner of 43rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 23.