When Hangover Becomes Form
Consider the hangover. Hangovers produce a brand of discomfort that can promote useful reflection on previous excesses, pleasures, and abuses. The planning and the form of this exhibition could be read in terms of both pleasurable abuses and unfulfilled desires. Rachel Harrison, Scott Lyall, and I had not collaborated before; our respective locations in different cities contributed to a peculiar—and productive—condition of displacement and desire that permeated many aspects of the show’s conception and content. From the outset, I contended with the desire to understand how the exhibition would express my own aesthetic and theoretical approach to the genre of installation art. This fantasy was frustrated by the artists’ disinterest in the category of “installation” and by the inevitable truth that with each new installation the composition and material elements of the exhibition would change —as the combined product of premeditated designs in relation to the generic spaces of the white cube gallery and a more open response to the specificity and localities of each site.
A hint of hangover is provided early on. Harrison and Lyall did not delineate direct paths through the installation. For the exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, the artists blocked the gallery entrance with a wooden crate lid, leaning against an imposing, stacked tower of painted pedestals. The undefined paths created a staggering effect the first of several procedural decisions—should I enter, should I go left or right, what should I be looking at? The glow of the video may have been a preliminary guiding factor, attracting a viewer’s attention, Or they may have halted—perhaps momentarily before—to peruse a relatively rough small assemblage of images, found objects and abstract forms or venture forth along the length of a low-lying platform, smoothly constructed of plywood and foam insulation. The viewer may have speculated that certain diminutive assemblages warranted more attention, as they could seem, for an instant, to be featured. But the allure of technology and the possibility of narrative coherence from a video image might have distracted them again: a frog is seen resting peacefully on a river stone. The shimmer and sounds of a brook are discernible, and the reptile’s throat expands and contracts at a regular pace that is interrupted only by a fly buzzing across the screen. Not much interpretive closure offered there, although a tentative association could be made between the laconic condition of the frog and a hangover that immobilizes to the extent that the sufferer may only muster a blank stare and focus on steady, recuperative breathing.
Nine rough assemblage sculptures were linked formally, each were composed of foam and wood pieces, were covered thickly with paint and shared a vertical posture. These similarities vaguely reference the artist’s hand, but they still stubbornly deny any specific narrative context or personal expression. This denial is ensured by a liberal coating of pigment and cement—a mostly monochrome mask that functions to prevent detailed figurative identification. And yet they were each articulated, dressed, and situated in differing ways: while one served as support for a poster of the Pop icon Cher, another maybe perched more prominently. At the CAG one of these assemblages sat atop a display structure shaped like a table with elongated legs; beneath it lay a fur coat on the floor and another light blue version wore a skimpy white undershirt; and a gold sequined skirt hung off of a yellow specimen. For me, this imagery suggested the aftermath of a wild party, a notion enhanced by the vomit-like hues of another assemblage occupying a navy-blue, low-lying pedestal; the sculpture functioned as a cradle for a Q-tips box with its contents spilling out. And a salmon pink version in the shape of an arch was placed on the edge of a large shipping crate, accompanied by a scattering of brightly colored candies, weathered birthday candles, and a few cans of Red Bull energy drink.
Such festive features were balanced by the more menacing celebrity presence of Ronald Reagan—as a reproduction of a painted portrait—and a Mel Gibson poster that was rolled up, but loosely, so that his face is apparent.1 The semantic status of these celebrity images remained unclear, partly because of the way they competed compositionally with the mute abstraction of the assemblages, and the elaborate configurations of pedestals and platform structures that do not quite qualify as having their own sculptural identities. Harrison and Lyall further discouraged interpretive certainties through the casual and ephemeral connotations of other found objects in the exhibition that have been granted similar importance within the installation: adjacent to the crate were flowers in a bucket of water, and on an orange pedestal rested a mere plastic bag with a happy face that might fly away in a breeze. Placed over a low pedestal was a poster with fragmented and troubling medical data as well as distorted digital graphics of what may be cyst.
When Hangover Becomes Form may indeed be envisioned as the setting for an uneasy morning after the festivities.2 Harrison and Lyall provided a challenging environment. They arranged the installation in a non-hierarchical manner so that the viewer was discouraged from using one isolated portion of the composition as an interpretive key to the work in general. Hence, the gallery visitor was encouraged to accept an unfocused condition, and to proceed by scanning and circulating while engaging in speculation about competing ways of reading parts of the work as well as the work as a whole.
The title of Harrison and Lyall’s project echoes When Attitude Becomes Form, curated by Harald Szeemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969—a show that presented a remarkably varied assortment of work that had not yet been comfortably categorized—as minimalism, conceptualism, Arte Povera, process art, information art, and so on.3 Szeemann’s show is a landmark partly because of the grand way it enacted a methodological change in exhibition culture: artists were free to do and show what they wanted, often choosing to directly challenge the well-behaved, traditional status of the museum object; they did so in ways that included throwing hot lead in the gallery and destroying a section of sidewalk outside. “When Hangover Becomes Form” offered a misbehaving mix of thematic, historical, and visual references—to monochrome painting, to conceptual procedures of the 1960s, to the Pop preoccupation with celebrity, to the minimalist plinth, to scatter art practices of the 1970s, among others—that avoids registering as a coherent stylistic statement.
As such the work resolutely resists the role of an efficient transmitter of cultural and historical content. The exhibition refused to serve up the easy fascination of gimmickry and eye candy which pervades so much of the installation art genre. Accordingly, the viewer could read the show more generally as a poignant critique of the cultures of entertainment that permeate the world of contemporary art.4 The work may also be interpreted according to the notions of displacement, recycling, and removal—signaled by the presence of the shipping crate and by materials that simulate, recall, or recapitulate works by both artists that were displayed in other contexts.5
As a critic, I read the “Hangover” show according to an urgent need for the theoretical definition of installation art, a tendency that has a ubiquitous presence in the international art world. Given its pervasiveness and its heterogeneous characteristics, there have been surprisingly few attempts to discuss installation art according to aesthetic categories. Categories require exemplars. The terrain of installation art, while intuitively familiar to the critics who are its best explorers, has not yet been mapped in a rigorous manner. My desire is to understand Harrison and Lyall’s work as one standard by which the critical value of other works may be evaluated.
1. The image reproduces part of a work by Hans Haacke, Oelgemaelde: Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers, first shown at Documenta 7 in 1982. Haacke’s piece includes a small oil portrait of Reagan and a photo mural of a peace demonstration in Germany, protesting the President’s lobbying for deployment of American missiles on German soil.
2. For relevant and refreshingly critical (although at times problematic) discussion of the notion of antagonism in contemporary art, see Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October v. 110 (Fall 2004): 51-79.
3. The layered aspect of Szeemann’s show is further indicated by its subtitle, “Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information.” A quick online search reveals how the multiplicity of practices in the show have been reduced and distorted to a “survey of conceptual art” or “post-minimal art.” Its worth noting that the show—which was Szeemann’s last in Bern before becoming an independent curator—appeared in a different form at another venue, the ICA in London—another similarity to “When Hangover Becomes Form.”
4. My discussion is informed by the important article by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Detritus and Decrepitude: The Sculpture of Thomas Hirschhorn,” Oxford Art Journal v. 42, no. 2 (2001): 41-56, esp. Buchloh’s treatment of Hirschhorn’s altar pieces.
5. For example, Harrison made the nine small assemblage sculptures as part of an installation shown in Venice in 2005, and Lyall included the fur coat in the exhibition Washington Square held at Greene Naftali Gallery in 1997-98.