At Large

Rethinking Art 2005

A visit to London's Tate Modern on the day before July 7.

By 7.19.05

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LONDON -- The Tate Modern is a cathedral of contemporary art, an old power plant set on the Thames across from St. Paul's in London. The power plant had a single tower rising far above the rest of the building. On the footbridge over the Thames, the tower makes it seem that the museum is making an obscene gesture toward the church. But it could not be. At St. Paul's, Kofi Annan will soon be lecturing on African poverty. The cultural left has no reason to offend the religious left. Sometimes a tower is just a tower.

On July 6, I wandered into the Tate Modern to engage once again the maddening puzzle of contemporary art. Finding puzzles was no problem: glasses of water said to be oak trees, piles of brick, and other intimidations posing as art. They all carried the label "this is so cool and if you don't get it, something is wrong with you, stupid." But the museum also had Mark Rothko's "The Seagram Murals" displayed with sensitivity and intelligence. Rothko's murals hold their own with anything in the pantheon of Western art.

I had come to see a new exhibition Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970 which is on view until September 18, 2005. (Some of the exhibition may be viewed here.) According to the curator, the show examines "how art was reconceived in the late 1960s and early 1970s."

Hence we are dealing with artists who make a "radical move" toward "wide-ranging experiments" and seek "the development of a more culturally, socially and politically responsive art." After all, "virtually every mode of authority and order was under attack." Those experiments thus led to "open systems" or "propositions that open themselves to the chances and imperfections of the world and its events."

I can't explain how I felt. The doors had exploded open and a few of us managed to crawl out and down the tracks to Aldgate.

It is safe to conclude that none of the objects in Open Systems will join the pantheon, but one should be wary of dismissing the whole. Robert Smithson's slide show and lecture Hotel Palenque from 1969 engaged me completely. Smithson took photographs of a Mexican hotel that was being torn down and rebuilt. Somewhere in that combination his eye found a strange beauty and intriguing forms. Judging by the lecture accompanying the photos, Smithson does not take himself all that seriously. I wish I could say that about the others in the show.

Early in the exhibit one comes across Meteor 18, B-331: Homage to Cara de Cavalo by Helio Oiticica, done in 1967. De Cavalo, we are told, was "a notorious gangster in Rio" and a personal friend of the artist. You might wonder why an artist would be friends with a gangster and pay him homage after he was gunned down. De Cavalo, Oiticica says, implied that "violent rebellion can be the only way out" of a military dictatorship.

There were bodies everywhere. There were heads and arms in different places, all separated from the bodies. There was a woman’s body with no arms, legs or head, just the torso...There were quite a few kids lying around as well as adults. There were intestines and bits from inside of bodies stuck to the wall.

The next room is more amusing. Two videos by the artist Martha Rosler are playing at the same time. The first Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) features more than twenty minutes of Rosler picking up and saying the names of kitchen tools. The second entitled Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977) features a woman being measured while Rosler offers a Marxist rant. The room fills with an unlikely cacophony: "meat tenderizer," "capitalism," "rolling pin," "the working class," "spatula," "the revolution."

I was on the corner and heard the noise. I went over and there were at least seven people obviously dead. There was a lot of body parts and human debris....At first there was an eerie quiet and a very profuse smell of blood. One man began screaming.

Hans Haacke's Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 gestures toward the future of art, the present we inhabit. Haacke took photos of 142 buildings apparently owned directly or indirectly by the Shapolsky family along with his "research" about the buildings. Haacke's not much of an economist if he believed, as the exhibit implies, that owning 142 buildings constituted a monopoly on Manhattan rental property. Yet Haacke's project is in this room largely because it raised a commotion in 1971 when the Guggenheim refused to display the work. It was so radical, so transgressive, man. Thereafter Shapolsky et al. "became one of the most talked about works of the early 1970s." Haacke introduced us, in other words, to art as we know it, to art as a publicity stunt.

O nation of Islam and nation of Arabism: Rejoice....The heroic mujahidin have carried out a blessed raid in London. Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic in its northern, southern, eastern, and western quarters.

The art of the 1970s, like the decade itself, has nothing to offer our present. Measured against the experience of terror, it seems empty, another expensive waste in a society that could afford to be foolish. Somewhere in a room three thousand miles from my desk, Martha Kosler's dull voice continues to say "proletariat" and "rolling pin." She sounds very tired and very far away. She sounds like she is already dead.

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