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|Urban Encounters at the New Museum
by Alan Moore
|A summer of research into aspects of the 1960s has dipped me in Berlinish melancholy, a sand-covered wistful sadness, nostalgia for the 'lost' utopia. As antiquarian I look for coffins and the mummies inside them -- historical objects a-slumber so I may tuck them in with the blanket of history, sheaves and archives, snugly around the necks.
The "Urban Encounters'' exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art did not collude in my program. This serving is live food, crawling all over the plate.
In the rear of the museum's newly renovated basement book shop, in a spacious subterranean gallery, education curator Greg Sholette invited six groups of artists to present their history. The groups strive to turn the exhibition into material performances of the present.
The Guerrilla Girls' flat, cut-out display fixture at the entrance is a stand that sells "spy kits''--six dollars for men, three dollars for women, and $.25 for children under 12. Buy one and see for yourself the art world's on-going inequality and heavy investment in various machismos.
Behind this trademark female gorilla cut-out is Anton Van Dalen's skeletal stencil of an advancing policeman. This lurid figure strikes the political leit-motif of the exhibition -- the long-term resistance to the transformation of the Lower East Side from an immigrants' quarter to a bastion of over-charged middle class youth.
The two loudest installations belong to ABC No Rio and Bullet Space, the dueling banjoes of the punk art world. The artists of Bullet, a gallery in a squatted building, constructed a full-scale hut (probably bigger than most $1,200 studio apartments) and hung it inside and out with mostly flat art stuff. This is a gigantic show compressed into a tiny space.
ABC No Rio tackled a few phases of its 18-year various history, rolling video from two political demonstrations, and including a large construction in the shape of lock-cutters (by Seth Tobocman) that told in political-comic-book style the story of the initial seizure of real estate that led the city to offer the artists a space, as well as a more recent lock-out where several squatters "took busts.'' (I was involved in that first 1980 action which now seems almost genteel.) ABC also mounted an interactive CD-ROM of gallery history in a kiosk, produced a "zine,'' and displayed a light-box cartoon of the space's queer theater era.
REPOhistory, the group that curator Sholette belongs to, presented a curious column-girdling installation of index cards from the PADD archive at the Museum of Modern Art library interleaved with more recent additions. The Asian American artists' organization Godzilla straightforwardly historicized itself with an elegant conventional installation of vitrines. One contained a copy of the print portfolio Yellow Pearl, a 1971 edition with one peasants-with-guns image calculated to raise J. Edgar's hackles.
This exhibition seeks to identify and represent these artists' collectives as historical "objects." Instead of organizing that himself, Sholette asked the groups to do it. And, as in most constructions of history, there is a density of minutiae, an enforced encounter with a collection of "proofs" documenting events and actions that remain for the most part inscrutable, and altogether unpresent to the viewer.
Twin threats in this kind of exhibition are nostalgia and boredom: if you were there you'll care, if you were not it has to appear to be your kind of fable. The deep commitment of left progressive ideology to critical analysis can lead artists directly into this trap, that is, failure to intrigue and entertain, and thereby to engage.
Bullet Space and ABC No Rio avoid this to some extent by formal invention. ABC No Rio naturalizes its history as popular fable by representing it as cartoon, including some by Seth Tobocman, also a principal in the World War III Illustrated comic book collective exhibiting in the New Museum bookstore.
Bullet exhibits only images, objects and poetic text. (I ignore their 1990? publication, Your House Is Mine, although even in that collage, a propulsive convex 'surface', dominates the selection of texts.) Bullet's installation also simulates the space of exhibition itself; with the grotesque, grandiloquent gesture of constructing a shanty in the gallery, they triple the wall space available to them. It's as if they're sure they'll never get another museum show, so they shoot the works.
During the opening I heard the suggestion that Greg's show was a rejoinder to Julie Ault's 1996 Drawing Center curation "Cultural Economies: Histories from the Alternative Arts Movement.'' "Urban Encounters'' is about a different strategy of representing the histories of creative artists' organizations and initiatives, as process rather than as objects collected. This is a contest between process and product; the "object" of art and the objet d'art; the sofa and the picture above it.
ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.