"The Hugo Boss Prize," Guggenheim Museum SoHo, 575 Broadway NYC 10012 (June 24-Sept. 20).
Installation art, one of Marcel Duchamp's inventions, used to have built-in subversiveness and class. It came off both radical and aristocratic, anarchic and chaste, for its tacit hostility to commerce in painting and sculpture. It was populist like the circus and elitist like seminars. It was one-stop shopping for transgression and virtue. It cost money while, in principle, not making any. It was an art-tribal potlatch.
Installations have never made it as an art form. They remain gestures in institutional spaces, consuming more energy than they produce. Even good artists, making good installations, end up out-of-pocket in creative capital for their pains. If the artist is creatively as loaded as a Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, David Hammons, or Cady Noland, the deficit might be barely noticeable, but diminishment is the rule for everyone, including Duchamp. Vital art forms make something out of apparently nothing and more out of something. Installation art makes less out of whatever.
Installation art is over as a live issue. This is the message of the Downtown Guggenheim's show of finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize. Versatile celebrity Dennis Hopper -- who shared that he is under contract to wear nothing but Boss clothes, of which "I am very proud" -- betowed the $50,000 prize last Wednesday evening on the bland Scottish video installer Douglas Gordon (who accepted with the sneering arrogance of a total prick). The choice is wretched. The only sanely conceivable winning candidate was Pipilotti Rist, towering above a field rounded out by Huang Yong-Ping of China, William Kentridge of South Africa, Lee Bul of Korea and our own Lorna Simpson.
Boss's people keep hastening to say that the award is not based on the work in the show. Why do they have the show, then? As it happens, I have seen enough things by Gordon to testify that his multiscreened tape of a 1908 film clip, while extraordinarily feeble, is not dramatically below his norm. The clip, a creepy slapstick of alleged psychiatrists roughing up a supposed female hysteric for her own good, pushes some recent theoryland buttons, I suppose, but what happens aesthetically has been done far better (by Stan Douglas, not to mention Nauman) and is instantly tedious.
The same goes for the video by distinguished photo-and-text artist Simpson, which amounts to film noir at the script and acting levels of an after-school special. Kentridge's anti-apartheid animated cartoons are generic in all ways. Lee Bul's feminist-cyborg sculptures could have been phoned-in by a cultural-studies teaching assistant. And Huang's copper web festooned with caged, bored tarantulas is harder on the spiders than on us, only because we can leave.
The Boss Prize, as an institution, is artistically barren and politically repulsive. It herds putatively far-out and leftist tropes of 1990s art culture into a dog and pony show for corporate image polishing. It's fascinating how a patronage-dependent mode of work that emerged in virginal horror of gallery merchandising has become a whore of megacapitalism.
Last week's mobbed, jolly award reception made one appreciative anew of New York summertime, which removes older, uglier specimens from town and leaves the stage to scuffling, scrumptious youth. Knockouts of assorted types and sexes sucked water from souvenir-labeled squirt bottles that were proffered on silver trays. I wish I could say that the party had nothing to do with art, but it is germane to a dead end that art has gotten jammed into.
The impasse is a phony internationalism adorned with multiculturalist chestnuts. Manufacturers targeting silly yuppies everywhere -- Boss, Bennetton, Absolut -- see no downside to high-culture sideshows with pietistic ideological glosses. There is no down-side unless you count an engulfing unreality that renders art moot. In a way, the whole deal is so self-defeating as to be anodyne, but it does sort of make one want to be dead.
Pipilotti Rist's ravishing video installation is tellingly at odds with the occasion, and not just because the judges robbed her. Rist, a 36-year-old Swiss, may be the first great artist of music videos, which are a real art form with structural constants that enable comparisons and, in theory, growth. Music videos dwarf museum art. Their economic base is the global entertainment industry and their social site is the univeral cyberair. Rist opts to function as a museum artist, but don't be misled. She exploits the museum for music video's sake, not vice versa.
On the soundtrack of Sip My Ocean, Rist sings a bittersweet Chris Isaak love song in a fine, cutely haunting, Melanie-ish voice with some overlaid, appropriate screaming. To a very pretty tune, "Wicked Game" goes in part, "What a wicked thing to do/To make me dream of you." The accompanying images, in breathtaking saturated color, are mostly low-tech underwater shots from some coral vacation spot. A winsomely goofy woman (Rist) and a dreamboat guy make fleeting appearances. A coffee cup and toys sink to a sandy bottom. Conventional nature shots and psychedelia erupt with shattering lyrical power.
Lounging with other viewers on a comfy carpet, I watched the eight-minute Sip My Ocean repeatedly. One could spend the better part of a day studying the rhythmic warp and woof of Rist's interwoven sights and sounds. Analysis is hard. How do you parse perfection? Rist has seemingly effortless access to music video's holy grail of eyesight fused with hearing such that the heart registers something like stereo emotions. The emotion here is specific: melting excitement and flat nausea of falling in love with the wrong person.
Here's why I am now in love with Rist: Sip My Ocean put me in a state where, with a nudge of pathos here or there, I could easily have been made to cry. That Rist refrained from waterworks of that kind bespeaks a trust-worthy artist. The verge of tears is common spiritual territory for the best art. Tears themselves are a standard destination of trash.
In another projection at the Guggenheim, forming a small pool of colored light on the carpeted floor, Rist gesticulates with sweet yearning toward the helicopter-mounted camera from the lawn of an estate in a suburb. Close and distant views overlap. The work is soundless but intensely musical. But the way, while I was present, a diapered infant crawled into the projection, made an exploratory grab for the tiny open-armed Rist, then came stock still for the longest time, a statue of baby enchantment.
I felt like leaning over and saying, "Great, huh, kid?" But I didn't do it. Connoisseurship needs privacy.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.