[published: July 01, 2009]
This summer go out and watch yourself watching other people watch you watching other people watching you at a new survey of Dan Graham’s work currently on view at the Whitney.
On June 25, 2009, Dan Graham: Beyond premiered at the Whitney. A landmark exhibition, it is the first major survey of the artist’s work in the United States (unbelievably); and it’s a stunning show. Also on June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson died, in case you hadn’t heard (unbelievably). Coincidence? Absolutely. The two events have nothing to do with each other. Yet, whether meaningful in their conjunction or not, this summer no one will find peace from the din of Jackson tributes, rock blocks, conspiracy theories, breaking news and acoustic vigils. The resulting cacophony of melody and eulogy will resound as the accidental soundtrack for the summer of 2009, the entire duration of Graham’s exhibition. Hence, in preemption, I posit a Jackson song as the summation of the retrospective: You Are Not Alone.
The song, Jackson’s last number one hit, invokes the idea of constant company as an affirmation of bolstering community and love without boundaries. Yet, recorded in the wake of Jackson‘s child molestation charges, it is also a critique of the voyeurism and surveillance suffered during the scandal, yet more broadly ever-present in contemporary mediated culture. This is the duality so evident now in Jackson’s wake: music and slander, harmony and gossip, rhythm and paparazzi, transcendence of the community and death of the individual. You are not alone is the contradiction that media culture has an unprecedented ability to bring millions together before its content (Chocolate Rain anyone?), yet that once gathered the throng leaves little air for breath (Chocolate Rain anyone?).
Even now, you are surrounded. I am speaking directly to you, just as your own reflection stares back at you from the dim and unfocused outline of your LCD. Just as you stare into the multitude of cyber-personae in the space beyond the screen, you read this as others do. You shoulder the widening crowd, bustling and bumping over the thoroughfares and passageways of fiber-optic cable on the daily commute to obsolescence. How right the visual metaphor of Verizon’s current advertising campaign: the horizonless, grinning swarm backing the vestments of our telecommunication. As the slogan goes: it’s the network.
Enter into the fracas Dan Graham. Graham’s work on the most basic levels of materiality and content takes these aspects of culture and media as its subject: suburban homes, advertisements, rock bands, corporate structures, magazines, prescription pills and television. The work explores and mimics, laughs with and at the structure and philosophical significance of living within the simulacra. Yet, Graham never loses sight of optimism, nor the opportunities for meaningful communalism inherent in mass media, eschewing the clichéd dystopias of cultural theory in favor of hope. It is the same dichotomy: critical in its analysis of media, yet buffeted by optimism about its potential. You are not alone is a mantra of collectivism, not the paranoia of big brother.
Or to rephrase our summation, “it is not you alone, nor I alone,” as Walt Whitman wrote it in Leaves of Grass. For after all, Graham’s denial of dystopia and his boundless optimism about the value of communalism – it’s Whitman in a way. For in an exhibition so overflowing with reflection, refraction, projection, watching and being watched, contemplating and being contemplated, the internal experience echoes Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. So how fitting that I crossed the East River from my home in Brooklyn to wash up on the fourth floor of the Whitney, on the shores of the exhibition.
Stepping out of the elevator, myriad surfaces and screens project and multiply your own likeness amidst the crowds that fill a New York summer blockbuster. It is a show that puts you both in the position of Whitman’s omniscient eye and in that of the horde passing before the gaze of the poets and philosophers who fill the museum. Glass, mirrors, cameras and screens – you see as you are seen. Or as Whitman wrote, “I see you also face to face / Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!…I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is. . . Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you.” I watch myself. I watch others. I watch people watching other people watching me. I watch myself watching other people and watch people watching myself, in the semi-transparent reflexivity of the one-way glass. It is not you alone, nor I alone.
If the exhibition sounds dizzying, it is—the dizzying fun of a summer carnival. All the titillating nausea of funhouse mirrors or the sickening reversals of a tilt-a-whirl, as spectator/viewer/subject/object rotate and exchange places. Forget art for a minute, the exhibition is simply fun. For instance, Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay broadcasts its room on a six-second delay, over monitors that recall the infinity between two facing mirrors. I ran back and forth across the room, watching the effect alternately on screen or mirror, never tiring of seeing my own body out of phase or my hammed facial expressions, each time with just enough delay that I’d forgotten I’d made them. Or Public Space Two Audiences, an installation of adjoining rooms with two separate entrances where viewers can enter on either side to come face to face with those in the opposite room, seeing the others as if in a mirror. I stood in the white cube, part broadcast room part racquetball court, and found myself in impromptu mime game with a total stranger, making the ogling faces that one does at a baby, or as a baby. There are videos, rock music, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth, lipstick application stations, slide projectors, revolving doors, comedy and nudity. Though Coney Island is diminished this summer, Graham’s show is a fitting replacement, lacking only Nathan’s Famous.
This is not suggest that the exhibition is juvenile in any way. To the contrary, the show is so rife with 20th century cultural theory (Baudrillard, Benjamin, Barthes, Brecht, etc) that it leaves no wonder why even the most severe cultural theorists of October Magazine (Buchloh for one) counted Graham as a beacon of 60’s art. Yet, it is in the base and carnal pleasures that the show truly reveals its politics. In its rock music, in its embrace of humor, parody, sex and pleasure, there is a more sinister political subversion than in that of mere theory. To paraphrase what Graham said in a ramble when touring the show (and you need only YouTube Dan Graham to know the speaking style to which I refer), “Buchloh got it wrong cause he missed the joke.”
In an interview with exhibition curator Chrissie Iles and artist Rodney Graham, Dan Graham discussed this subversive undertone in the work. In his words, “I am trying to subvert, but not sociologically, corporate building and corporate structure. But the program is not to critique corporate culture, but make it into a pleasure situation.” This notion of pleasure, the aspect of play in the show is the reclamation of co-opted spaces and structures. Rather than be oppressed by despotic media culture, one reclaims it by transforming its experience into a pleasurable one. Graham appreciated that in his work he could transform the banal or co-opted into the meaningful. As he wrote, “We all love the cliché. We all like tautologies, things that seem to be dumb and banal but are actually quite intelligent.” Though he makes media the seeming focus of these exercises, his quote just as easily sums up the tropes of conceptual art and minimalism. Just as Graham recasts the banal and insidious and dystopic as pleasurable, so too conceptual art and minimalism transcend their now cliché and banal tropes to reveal the playfulness and stuttering humor in their tautologies. That is to say that even conceptual art seems fun after viewing Dan Graham: Beyond, and that at last the idea that Sol Lewitt’s cubes were conceived as jungle gyms for cats (as Graham loves to remind) is finally as feasible as it is delightful.
Really, the only complaint is that the show is too small, both in scale and quantity. As I finished the fourth floor, I was excited to find what other treasures lay downstairs, only to discover that the Whitney has only dedicated one floor to the show. That the Whitney did not succeed (or even try?) to get one of Graham’s pavilions installed in public space (as they’ve done in the past with Paul McCarthy or Charles Ray) seems a glaring problem, especially for an artist whose work centers on the exchanges between public and private, inside and outside, or corporate and personal space. Certainly, it is sad and telling about the current nature of the art world, when the thought crossed my mind “this show would have looked amazing at Gagosian.” This sad remark is a testament to what a great job galleries have been doing subverting the role of museums (re: Picasso or Manzoni @ Gagosian); and it is a testament to the great jobs museums have been doing putting up small, crammed, underwhelming shows of critically important work.
Yet overall, the exhibition is so filled with gems and joy (and ultimately so well curated) that I find little energy to gripe. One of the real standout joys for me is Graham’s seminal video Rock my Religion. The work, a classic both of rock criticism and video art, delights now as much as ever (and can be watched for those outside New York on Ubuweb). Sitting before the video (on what I must add were the most comfortable benches in museum history), I was struck most by the electricity of the live performances. Both Patti Smith and Jim Morrison who figure prominently in the film suffer in understanding if one only ever hears the recorded material. To forget how weird and raw they both are is to miss something important, something about imperfection or unclassifiable truth. (It’s the same reason that everyone should see Dan Graham: Beyond in person and not just read about it). Indeed, this notion of the power of the live or communal is the central theme of the film, as in the exhibition. Traced from the Shakers to the hippies through the punks and into new wave, Rock my Religion posits the undercurrent of an American quasi-religion of music, dance and shared culture, underscoring the power of collectivism and the truly spiritual role of culture in America.
So if there’s a message in the film or in the exhibition, it’s this: If you do one thing this summer do anything, do something, do everything. In the coming weeks when the city is so surfeit with incredible cultural events, I wonder, as I do at the start of every summer, why anyone leaves the city at all, especially during its prime. So go out into the people. Watch something, hear something, stare at something that stares back at you, and feel thankful. For you are not alone.
Dan Graham: Beyond
The Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, New York City
Through Oct. 11. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 1-9 p.m. Friday
Call (212) 570-3676 or visit whitney.org.
Throughout July, the Whitney Museum is accompanying “Dan Graham: Beyond” with Friday concerts (free with the price of admission) by contemporary bands descended from the punk and grunge bands Graham inspired in the 1970s and ’80s.
Guest programmer/artist Howie Chen interprets Graham’s art through musicians, filmmakers, and performers.
Acoustic Evening with The Feelies
Friday, June 26 at 7pm
Dan Graham in Conversation with Glenn Branca
Saturday, September 12 at 7 pm
Put Blood in the Music, a film screening introduced by Charles Atlas
Thursday, September 17 at 7 pm
Beyond Dan Graham: Beyond, a roundtable discussion
Thursday, October 1 at 7 pm
WHITNEY LIVE: FOUR FRIDAY EVENING CONCERTS IN JULY
Titus Andronicus / Real Estate
Friday, July 10 at 7 pm
Abe Vigoda / Grooms
Friday, July 17 at 7 pm
Wood / YellowFever
Friday, July 24 at 7 pm
Vivian Girls / These Are Powers
Friday, July 31 at 7 pm
Cynthia Daignault is the art critic for Last Exit Magazine. Her previous reviews for looked at The Generational: Younger than Jesus and recent work by Justin Lieberman and Johan Grimonprez.
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