(This article—a review of two exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art—was originally written for The Indypendent in March of 2011, but ended up not being published. Better late…)
Frances Stark’s 1993 carbon-paper drawing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was based on a copy of the titular Eliot poem that the artist found somewhere, with someone’s notes scrawled in the margins: Stark’s drawing reproduces both the properly typeset poem and the tumbling, handwritten asides. And, the notes themselves really aren’t very interesting; what’s interesting is the tension between anonymity and notoriety, between the ephemeral and the eternal. Elsewhere in the same exhibit (“I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing” at the Museum of Modern Art) are two untitled paintings by Robert Morris (from 1962 and 1990, respectively), made by covering bits of newspaper with gray gouache: the works suggest an intruded ideal, a dim solitude punctured with the inescapable news of the day.
“I Am Still Alive” and the parallel show (literally—it’s across the hall) “Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960” are each about the precarious position of the human subject in the modern world. “Staging Action” includes four photographs from the 1995-2003 “Study of Perspective” series by Ai Weiwei (who, despite worldwide protest, is still being held prisoner by the Chinese government*): the photos show the artist extending a conquering middle finger, grandly flipping-off the tourist-trapping likes of the White House or Tiananmen Square. It’s a stupid, puerile thing to do, but it’s also the bold assertion of an individual self in the face of overpowering institutions. Around the corner, there’s VALIE EXPORT’s irresistibly hip “Action Pants: Genital Panic” (1969), a series of screenprinted photos showing the artist (a woman, it should be noted) in terrorist mode, brandishing a machine-gun and with her genitals exposed. The piece immediately raises questions on the perceived relationships between gender and violence. Similarly, excerpts from Laurel Nakadate’s slightly despicable “Lucky Tiger” series (2009) involve snapshots of the artist in campy, vampy poses, the photos themselves stained with the fingerprints of men who have been, well, examining them. As with much of Nakadate’s work, this piece uncomfortably addresses issues of sex and power between men and women, with Nakadate herself as the scantily-clad ideological fulcrum.
Back in “I Am Still Alive,” Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s classic “untitled (USA Today)” (1990) consists of a pile of red, silver and blue candies (which you can eat if you want). This piece combines a perpetual grievance—U.S. politics and media-as-usual—with a hidden current of grief: the weight of the candies echoes the weight of Gonzalez-Torres’s lover, who died of AIDS not long after the piece was made. The work remains as a personal record: of the life and struggle of an individual, and the indifference of their surrounding society. The name “I Am Still Alive” comes from On Kawara’s “i am still alive” (1970), a conceptual performance in which Kawara sent out telegrams to friends and associates bearing just those four words. This was more than forty years ago—a time when sending electronic messages or publicly confirming one’s selfhood were much weightier acts than they are now. Perhaps that’s why the work in these two exhibits feels so timely, even though much of it was made decades ago: it recalls the endless array of stupid things that we do every day, the little struggles to remind the world that we’re not dead, and the hope that someone will remember us once we are.
*Ai was released on June 22, 2011.
“I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing” ran from March 23 through September 19, 2011 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
“Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960” ran from January 28 through May 9, 2011 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
Illustration adapted from Frances Stark’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1993; Carbon transfer on five pieces of paper, 23″ x 34 3/4″).