Ghost in the Machine

Katie Anania at the opening of a Shiraga/Motonaga show at the Dallas Museum

Left: Dallas Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson with dealer Paul Schimmel. Right: Curator Gabriel Ritter. (Photos: Tamytha Cameron/DMA)

“BETWEEN ACTION AND THE UNKNOWN,” the Shiraga/Motonaga show at the Dallas Museum of Art, is studded with death and damage, or at least with simulations. One of the highlights of the exhibition tour I attended a couple weeks ago was Kazuo Shiraga’s painting Wild Boar, 1963, in which a real boar hide is splayed across a six-foot canvas and covered in red paint meant to simulate entrails. Gabriel Ritter, who curated the show with Koichi Kawasaki, tells us that Shiraga, frustrated with his inability to hunt and kill a wild boar on his own, ended up buying the hide at a market. Next we shuffle around a reinstallation of Please Come In, an eight-foot-tall conical structure made of painted wooden logs whose interior surface Shiraga hacked with an axe in 1955 to simulate brushstrokes. Disappointingly, it’s walled off to the public: “In this case, Please Don’t Come In,” Ritter jokes. We laugh, but I wonder who among us is masking their impulse to come right in, axes swinging. For a second we’re all wedged between punk rock and a bit of Deliverance.

That evening’s conversation with Paul McCarthy, Axel Vervoordt, and Ming Tiampo turns to other risky ventures like falling and fluids. “What connects [my work to Gutai] is the subject of liquid, or the subject of goo. They kind of cross over,” says McCarthy. (We all wonder somewhat archly if any of this will extend to the catering, but it doesn’t.) At dinner, Ritter and I speculate about connections between Gutai and the American punk ethos. It will not surprise you that such connections are tenuous to nonexistent. McCarthy is jammed into my table and seems unconvinced or uninterested in this conversation. Instead he offers other insights on death and crime: how to photograph someone being lynched and make it look real, for instance. “You’ve got to really hang them by the neck,” he insists. No one challenges this, especially not me since I have eaten not only my own dinner but also that of my absent tablemate (canceled at the last minute) and am waiting to be told I am in trouble for it. I stand by my claim, though, that a salad cannot sit without an owner.

Themes of death and damage continue apace during a tour of the Melvin Edwards show at the Nasher Sculpture Center. We’re agog in front of the works, which look like dynamic but eerily purposeless machines or like staring faces. Edwards’s scythe-y “Lynch Fragments” from the late 1960s and his barbed-wire installations are especially haunting. During the tour, the art historian in me prattles on about steel and metal representing an elemental twentieth-century American conflict—“Y’know, because during Vietnam, the tools of prosperity are also the tools of imperialism.” The headbanger in me quietly realizes that death metal is about all of these things too: making the objects of productivity (chains, sickles, saws, etc.) signal destruction.

Left: Artist Kate Jarboe. (Photo: Katie Anania) Right: Paul McCarthy next to a reinstallation of Please Come In in “Between Action and the Unknown The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga.” (Photo: Tamytha Cameron/DMA)

Lunch at the Warehouse (a collaborative gallery space that is the brainchild of several collectors in Dallas, and where dealer Paul Schimmel briefly grooves out on Richard Tuttle) and dinner at Cindy and Howard Rachofsky’s house help propel us from this sensibility for a minute, but not before we learn three crucial facts about Dallas art and culture during our tour of the downtown area. Number one: The seats in the Winspear Opera House are padded with an acoustically responsive textile that simulates the presence of human bodies, so even during rehearsals when the space is empty, musicians and vocalists have the sensation of playing to a packed house. (In other words, Dallas is rife with ghost listeners.) Number two: The Dallas Museum of Art houses a reinstallation of Coco Chanel’s former home in the South of France. The reinstallation includes Chanel’s staircase, which was originally built to Chanel’s specifications and was later discovered to be the same staircase as the one in the orphanage where she grew up. (Ditto ghost orphans.) Number three: Downtown Dallas has over ten thousand underground parking spaces, which are convenient for visitors but also make the streets of downtown Dallas look oddly deserted. (Ditto ghost transit.)

I sneak away to meet artist Kate Jarboe at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. She has declared herself the artist-in-residence there and has been making work based on engagements with the space for the past year and a half. On the day we meet she’s paying her fortieth out of forty-three planned visits to this museum. She gives me a tour and tells me about her work: a replica of an archival box full of redacted official documents and a sound installation with a megaphone similar to the one Bush used when he was a Yale cheerleader and when he made his famous Ground Zero speech. Sadly, these are all exhibited off-site. I wish her interventions had included firing-range headphones, because the single salient characteristic of the George W. Bush Museum is its total aural cacophony. Each section of the museum relies mostly on TV clips to narrate the historical crests (or troughs) of Bush’s presidency: Katrina, 9/11, and so on. The TVs have speakers but no headphones and the exhibits have no spatial boundaries, so we’re assaulted with sound. Swelling sound tracks and journalists’ voices pulsate into gelatinous aural goo, laying bare the notion that the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum contains, above all, no facts. At least not ones we can hear.