Originally a jewelry store and diamond exchange, Margaret Lee’s second-floor Chinatown project space at 179 Canal Street is already a fascinating readymade. With its dark green stone-tile floors, some rather cheesy crystal light fixtures and a heavy metal safe, the setting is perfect for Devon Dikeou’s"It’s Déjà vu All Over Again," a witty retrospective of artworks first made between 1991 and 2007. Appearing in their latest incarnations, they act out a Duchampian masquerade that touches on labor and commerce, two central conditions of art that are often overlooked.
"Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking" – Timex Ad Campaign (1991-ongoing), for example, is an actual time clock that allows viewers to write their own names, or fictional ones, on time cards and punch in and out of the show -- as if going to look at art was a job. Turning the routine of wage slaves into a game, Dikeou manages to produce a strange record of the show’s visitors at the same time she invites people to circumvent this infernal machine.
People are welcomed into the gallery’s front room by a cornucopia of ersatz greenery, via a pair of arrangements of artificial plants in mirrored boxes, titled Cajole (Oriental Opulence and Tropical Paradise) (1992). Extensive labels placed on sticks describe each fake species as if it were a living plant, ending with saccharine sentiments. The placard for Tropical Paradise, which includes ferns, bird of paradise flowers and a poppy bush, reads, "Bring a little of this tropical warmth into all our lives."
Dikeou is clearly fascinated with the ways that titles reflect our most grandiose aspirations, despite the humble realities that often underlie them. In Displaced Denver (2000-2007), a series of large Cibachrome color photographs of the front-door facades of various run-of-the-mill apartment buildings, the incongruous monikers include Vogue, Bermuda, the Fountainhead, and Versailles. It’s an American thing -- baptize your locale as if it were. . . someplace else.
A picture of a building named Emily Dickinson hangs next to a wall of transparent mesh screens, complete with screen door, that divides the gallery in two. Titled after a work by the reclusive 19th-century writer, "So We Must Keep Apart, You There, I Here, With Just the Door Ajar, That Oceans Are, And Prayer, And That Pale Sustenance Despair!" -- Last Stanza, Emily Dickinson Poem (1993), the screen is both an entrance and a permeable separation -- a reference, perhaps, to communication’s failures and successes.
Moving through the door while remembering Dickinson’s ghost, the viewer can enter the show’s second section, What’s Love Got to Do With It: zingmagazine 1-21 (1992-ongoing). On the walls hang a row of 21 directory boards, of the old-fashioned sort often found in lobbies and vestibules. Each lists the contributors to one issue of zingmagazine, a publication Dikeou founded in 1995. Issues of the appropriate magazine can be found on a shelf below each directory, and a table and chairs for reading is placed in the center of the room. A kind of curated exhibition of works and images contained between paper covers, zingmagazine allows Dikeou to collaborate with artists, curators, writers others.
Distorting sheets of mirrored mylar cover the back wall of the space and its two bathroom doors. "Cres Jewelry Exchange, All Welcome," reads the lettering on the wall, implying that treasures to trade can be found in the toilet. For this version of Peep (1991), Dikeou has added a peephole to each door, looking into the rooms instead of out. Rather than identify intruders, outsiders can, as Dikeou says "watch people doing their business," potentially invading someone else’s privacy.
Resembling Duchamp’s Étant Donnés without the simulated nude and landscape, Peep offers a sight to be seen that is real. The inside of the doors are also covered with distorting mirrors, so that users can watch themselves while being observed. The bathroom becomes a site of production and voyeurism both inside and out -- a complex and comical interpenetration of twisted reflections, and a meditation on the excrement that everyone creates.
Devon Dikeou, "It’s Déjà vu All Over Again," May 6- 31, 2010, at 179 Canal Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.