"Play's the Thing: Critical and Transgressive Practices in Contemporary Art," May 25-July 8, 2001, organized by the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program at the Art Gallery of the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.
The students in the Whitney Museum's heralded curatorial studies program have come up with a stellar selection of work for their annual exhibition, dubbed "Play's the Thing: Critical and Transgressive Practices in Contemporary Art."
Installed in the CUNY's airy new art gallery at the former B. Altman store on Fifth Avenue, the show features works by 15 leading contemporary artists, all ostensibly having something to do with "play." As curator Frank Motz (the other curators are Susanna Cole, Erin Donnelly and Claire Tancons) writes in the show's catalogue, "Fun has become the No. 1 product of ... the art world."
The New York artist Mark Dion, who has shown his curiously half-imaginary natural-history museum displays at American Fine Arts and Tanya Bonakdar galleries in New York, provides a child's room decorated entirely with dinosaurs, from wallpaper to pillowcases to tons of dinosaur toys. Even the TV is playing Godzilla.
A large jigsaw puzzle by Christoph Draeger, the Swiss video artist and disaster photographer who now lives in New York and shows at Roebling Hall in Brooklyn, illustrates the reconstruction of TWA flight 800. Behind it hangs a fuzzy beige bunny suit, weighed down by 170 pounds of beans, that Nayland Blake wore doing calisthenics in a performance piece, on view last season at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea.
Two basketballs decompose in a fish tank, a famous work from 1985 by Jeff Koons. Three ventriloquist's dummies by Laurie Simmons sit in a row on a wall, while a group of ceramic figurines of mammies and Uncle Remuses, collected by Fred Wilson, share space in a vitrine with a historic photo of a family of Black southerners.
Stuffed animals abound, in photos by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Paul McCarthy, and in a sculpture by Mike Kelley. Down the hall in a separate space are several video projections, notably including three tapes from the 1970s by Vito Acconci, whose Body Art performances (playing dodge ball blindfolded, getting soap in his eyes) are the show's curatorial touchstone. Nina Katchadourian, Louise Lawler, Kristin Lucas, Libby McInnis and Tom Otterness round out the list.
For all the games and toys, however, the theme of the show is not strongly engaged. Contemporary art can be infantile, and indeed Art Brut's identification with the child helped the modernists in their search for authenticity and origins. But it's unclear from the work in this show whether the use of play by Postmodernist artists has been similarly salutary.
Rather, it would seem that the exhibition embodies a painfully dismal view of contemporary art. The theme here is principally one of regression and helplessness.
The catalogue makes tepid mention of the late French theorist Guy Debord's analysis of what he called contemporary Spectacle -- that is, roughly speaking, the sovereign reign of the information industries over social life. Back in the revolutionary 1960s, Debord and his Situationist allies made the "ludic" elements of human life central to their thought and acts.
Sadly, the citation of this work as an explanatory theoretic for art simply heaps warm spittle on a revolutionary's grave.
Today, the Situationist spirit lives in spectacular demonstrations against the schemes of global capital, a political movement that is largely blacked out in corporate media. In London, a group called Reclaim the Streets organizes "carnivals of youth" in public spaces to protest corporate rule. During the inauguration of President George W. Bush, police in Washington, D.C., actually banned puppets in an open admission of the power of artistic display.
Clearly, the concepts of cultural "play" still are embued with true revolutionary enthusiasm. The avant-garde artists in the CUNY exhibition evince not the slightest evidence of cognizance of the historical moment within which their work takes place.
The show inventories a motif: the small furry animal toy, held up before the face in a print by Gonzalez-Torres, sat up as if in conference around a blanket by Kelley, and smashed into ketchup in large-scale color photos by McCarthy. Does presenting work grouped by the theme of "toy" and "play" make some kind of statement on criticality or transgression in art? Does it make some statement about art's relation to society and its bounds?
Dolls are conspicuous -- by their absence. Do girl's toys, then, domesticate rather than transgress?
No such statement becomes clear. Instead, "Play's the Thing" reinscribes the boundaries within which art practice is exercised -- that is, the show defines art as a toy, and this gallery is the playroom.
What's more, the art here seems to glory in self-abasement, to revel in its own purposelessness and powerlessness. Although the exhibition is cast as a view of the "constitution of the subject" in psychological terms, the theme it strikes is ineffectuality, irrelevance and a plea for the safety of the nursery. Katchadourian's piece is instructive here -- it's a sewing kit ostensibly provided for the reconstruction of spider webs.
In the end, Acconci does prove apt. In his 1970 super-8 film Three Adaptation Studies, the artist splashes his face with a basin of liquid soap and sits there, blinking in pain, as if in atonement for something he might done -- or not done.
ALAN MOORE is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.