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"Moving Pictures"

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

June 28, 2002 to January 12, 2003

By John D. Delmar

So, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens three blockbuster shows at once - Thomas Eakins (see The City Review article), The Lure of the Exotic Gauguin in New York Collections, and European Paintings from Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen (see The City Review article) - and the Museum of Modern Art opens a whole new museum, the Guggenheim opens - what looks like an attic tag sale: "Stuff We Had Sitting Around In Storage." Well, it is not really titled that. It is called "Moving Pictures" and covers videos, films, photography and other "things" the Guggenheim has acquired or been given recently.

It's an assortment of styles, media, formats, and ideological slants - art you might expect to find at any recent international art expo or fair, from Kassel to Miami. Much of this work is similar to pieces currently or recently on exhibit in Chelsea or 57th Street (where I first encountered several of these works). Here are the ubiquitous large-format color photographs, the fuzzy videos, the politically correct polemics, but, as one spirals down (or up) Frank Lloyd Wright's vertiginous ramp, one discovers many thoughtful pieces and works of value.

"Sixth Mirror Displacement" by Robert Smithson

"Sixth Mirror Displacement, from Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9)," by Robert Smithson, 1969, 9 chromogenic-development slides (exhibition prints, 2000), 12 by 12 inches, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Robert Smithson Estate

There are over fifty contemporary artists represented by 150 works, from Marina Abramovic to Kara Walker to Robert Smithson. Like a balanced political ticket, there's something for everybody. The explanation of the aesthetic criteria used by the curators sounds at times like Prof. Irwin Corey on peyote: obtuse and windy explanations of "visible conceptual systems" and "ephemeral or performative events" (aren't all events "ephemeral"?). This becomes the rationale for linking works as diverse as Nam June Paik's video installations with Vito Acconci's performance documentation with Rineke Dijkstra's large photos of sullen teens.

Paik's "TV Garden" (1974) is placed off to one side of the rotunda, lost up against a wall. When I first encountered "TV Garden" (as part of one of Charlotte Mooreman's Avant Guarde Festivals, I believe), it was installed as an entire room of plants with television sets growing out of lush foliage - video as organic (and contrasted with nature). One crossed the video jungle on a bridge surrounded by the sprouting video screens. The current installation, unfortunately, loses the point. (Paik is also currently represented in a large outdoor installation at 30 Rockefeller Plaza entitled "Transmissions," the car rather than the television type, through September 2, 2002).

More successful is Kara Walker's "Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)" (2000). Walker is given an entire room for her installation, a vision of "Gone With The Wind" gone terribly wrong. Walker takes negative black stereotypes - Mammies and racist images from the antebellum South - and allows them revenge on their patronizing masters. So Rhett and Ashley and Scarlett are beheaded, tortured, molested and cut to pieces as the slaves get the upper hand in a Nat Turneresque revolt. The life-size black paper silhouettes are pasted on walls, while projections of flames and destruction display the fall of Tara. As the viewer walks into the room, his or her shadow is also projected onto the walls, becoming a part of the picture (and, perhaps, part of the problem). Walker has a similar-themed work at the new Queens MOMA, but MOMA hasn't afforded her enough space, thus transforming the installation into background wallpaper.

The Guggenheim provides a handy corner for one installation, where the quirky architecture actually contributes to the work. One of Wright's niches makes a perfect setting for a small seated sculpture onto which is projected a film of Laurie Anderson (see The City Review article), perhaps the only artist displayed here who also was once number two on the British pop charts (and who just gave a live music and narration performance at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). In the work, "At The Shrink's" (1975), the spikey-haired Ms. Anderson looks like a very little person narrating a story about illusion and perspective, presumably to her psychiatrist, who, of course, becomes us. While a tad gimmicky, the piece is quite charming.

Ana Mendieta, Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic are primarily concerned with photographic documentation of performance art. Many of these works make one feel "Well, I guess you had to be there to appreciate the joke." Abromovic's work, while often derivative of works by Yoko Ono and Chris Burden, is represented by one thoughtful piece in which the artist traded roles, briefly, with a prostitute. The artist posing as hooker, and hooker as artist, raise questions on the nature of identity and reality, and feminist questions on the narrow roles available to women.

Among other photographers represented are Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe, both of whom have been over-exposed and have launched thousands of less-talented imitators. One of Sherman's iconic, mysterious film stills is on display, as well as one of her large-format color pictures, "Untitled # 264." The large-format pictures, which often use garish color and horrific images, show that bigger is not necessarily better. Mapplethorpe has three of his well-known images, including the stark portraits of "Ken Moody and Robert Sherman" (1984), looking like chiseled Roman busts. Thankfully, Mapplethorpe's more graphic S & M photos (which Mapplethorpe said stood for Sex and Magic) are not included.

"Library" by Andreas Gursky
"Library," by Andreas Gursky, 1999, Cibachrome print, mounted to Plexiglas, Edition 2/6, 79 by 142 inches, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Photo: David Heald

Mapplethorpe's powerful black and white photos also contrast with the large-format color photos by Andreas Gursky, Anna Gaskell and Rineke Dijkstra. Gursky, given a much-hyped one man show at MOMA recently, is represented by two fairly pedestrian pictures, "Library" (1999) and "Singapore Stock Exchange" (1997). Like most of Gursky's photographs, both these works are digitally altered. However, they are still not particularly interesting images. Dijkstra seems to specialize in larger-than-life images of children with quizical or bored expressions, as in "Coney Island, N.Y. USA, July 9, l993," but I think Diane Arbus created much more compelling images of similar subject matter, and her pictures did not need to be six-foot C-prints.

"Ball on Water" by Gabriel Orozco

"Ball on Water (Pelota en agua)," by Gabriel Orozco, 1994, Cibachrome print, A.P. 1/1, Edition of 5, 15 7/8 by 19 7/8 inches, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Photo: Ellen Labenski

Peter Fischli and David Weiss display many double-exposed images of flowers, apparently trying, like Jeff Koons, to show the "sheer banality of everyday existence" - and succeed admirably. Hiroshi Sugimoto, who takes photos of wax figures, and Gabriel Orozco, who photographs objects that resemble other objects, raise the question asked frequently in this show - what is real and do photographs lie?

Still from "Passage" by Shirin Neshat

Still from "Passage," by Shirin Neshat, 2001, Video and sound installation, 00:11:30, Edition 5/6, Dimensions vary with installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Photo Courtesy Barbara Gladstone, Photo: Larry Barns

At the top of the ramp, the Guggenheim has installed a mini-plex to display videos and films. Many of these were projected to better effect when first presented in other galleries, particularly the mysterious and haunting works of Shirin Neshat. I first saw one of Neshat's work at the Whitney at Philip Morris - in a dark room, suddenly I was surrounded by what appeared to be pious Iranians in a mosque, chanting and wailing. Some of the mystery is lost in the projection of Neshat's "Passage" (2001), which has stark religious imagery, the saga of death and burial in the desert, a story that needs no dialogue. Pierre Huyghe is represented by an amusing video, "Third Memory," which is a bit like looking into a fun-house mirror, as a protagonist of a real-life event depicted in a fictionalized movie deconstructs the reality of the movie by reconstructing the real event. Got that?

Despite a very large and comprehensive show, there are a few of the usual suspects missing. In fact, one could create an entirely different show around the same themes with a whole different crew: where are Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince (expropriation), Andres Serrano (large format C-prints), David Levinthal, Michal Rovner, Doug and Mike Starn, Catherine Wagner, Chris Burden, and so on? Well, some are currently on view at the Whitney, in a show of recently acquired photography (on view through September 22, 2002). As for blurry videos and lots of hugh C-prints, try any gallery in Chelsea.

Copyright 2002, by John D. Delmar


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