Artists are a pretty mopey bunch, that much is for sure. If they’re not slitting their wrists or overdosing on dope, they’re playing with skulls and every other emblem of death anyone could possibly think of.
The Guggenheim Museum’s new survey exhibition of works from its collection, "Haunted," Mar. 26-Sept. 6, 2010, presents more than 100 photo-based works by 60 artists, organized by Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, two curators at the museum. According to the nice catalogue, which was kindly sent to me in the mail, the show isn’t about ghosts, which is too bad, as that might have been kind of fun.
Rather, the exhibition is designed as an up-to-the-minute look at the post-1980s critique of representation, engaging themes of appropriation, documentation, history, the archive, nostalgia, trauma and the uncanny.
No doubt. Meanwhile, walking up the ramp of the inimitable Wright building, a visitor is treated to one morbid, depressing artwork after another. Christian Boltanski’s familiar Holocaust memorials. Sophie Calle’s five-foot-tall black-and-white photographs of gravel-covered graves, headstones marked "Mother" and "Father." Andy Warhol’s Orange Disaster #5 (1963), a grid of 15 silkscreened images of an electric chair.
From Zhang Huan is his famous 1994 self-portrait sitting nude in a disgusting room covered with flies. From Anne Collier comes a photo of a stack of records leaning against the wall, with weeping Ingrid Bergman illustrated on the front cover. From Hiroshi Sugimoto are his large black-and-white photos of wax replicas of dead celebrities.
Death is everywhere, whether imagined, as in Adam McEwen’s premature New York Times obituary of Richard Prince, presented as a 4 x 3 ft. photo, or actual, as in the photos from the gravelike "silhouette series" of Ana Mendieta, who died after plunging from her loft window in NoHo.
The show includes Paul Chan’s break-out video animation that evokes people falling from the World Trade Center, and Tacita Dean’s multi-screen film installation of the aged, all-but-immobile Merce Cunningham, sitting in a chair doing a performance called Stillness, accompanied by John Cage’s silent musical composition, 4’33".
The Dean work encapsulates one of the irritating things about trauma art. Works of mourning tend to be immune to criticism -- who could begrudge a senior artist making an artwork, for instance, or complain of people expressing their sadness at death and disaster -- but they also touch on something that many of us already know quite well. Faced with our own, real, personal experiences of age, infirmity and death, the artworks here can seem. . . glib, trivial, opportunistic, hollow.
One exception is a suite of color prints by the Canadian artist Sarah Anne Johnson, which manages to make palpable the distance between on-the-ground reality and the kind of imaginary world that we carry around in our heads. Chronicling a kind of summer 4H project where young people worked together to plant trees, the project juxtaposes photos documenting the ignoble aspects of the venture (hard work, dirt, mosquito bites, beer-drinking, hooking up) with ones taken of the artist’s handmade dioramas, in which little painted figurines enact idealistic scenes of people working together and communing with nature, the very stuff of good memories and more. Works like this, uncovering the mechanics of representation and ideology, are always welcome.
Perhaps "Haunted" is destined to draw good crowds, just like Shutter Island, Twilight and even Avatar and The Hurt Locker. When the show’s over, people can go out into the sunshine and take up their everyday lives again, no harm, no foul.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.