PRINT May 1993


Jan Avgikos

“EXCUSE ME, COULD YOU turn the sound up? This piece is supposed to be making music.”

“No. No one can touch the art.”

“But,” I say, wanting to give my companion the full benefit of Jack Pierson’s Diamond Life installation of 1990, “part of the work, the tiny, tinny, mono-sound of Brenda Lee belting it out, is missing.” Besides, I had heard it a day or two before, and seen another guard tending to the record player and selecting LP’s. I knew my request wasn’t outrageous, and anyway I was somewhat irked that none of the installations that were supposed to have a musical component, like Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office, 1992–93, and Pepón Osorio’s The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), 1993, had any volume, without which they were sort of dead in the water.

“I told you. No.”

He was wearing Daniel J. Martinez’s lapel pin that said “I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE.” So was I. He was black. I was white. So what. I know, I know, that was precisely not the message of this raucous multiculti Biennial. The crowd pulsed with more color and fashion statements than the pages of United Colors of Benetton’s magazine. People were having fun. The institution was pretending to be liberal. There was hope. The unfolding irony was almost too good to be true. My companion was shrinking away into the cluttered abyss of Martinez’s installation (Terms of Engagement): Third Movement (Coda or Aria di Sortita), Exit Aria, There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat or The Shadows Are Not Blind, 1993, as my conversation with the guard approached “incident” level and the arm of the record player looped lazily in the blank space at the end of a scratched LP. At that moment, Pierson’s seedy recreation of a desk in a pathetic studio, supervised by a guard with attitude (he would be great at the front desk of Mary Boone’s gallery, should she ever want to embrace the “new” spirit in American art, I thought), could have come straight from the pages of a sequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Obviously, Derrick, the guard who couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be white, wasn’t buying the rosy hype of cultural exchange in that he chanted “Kill All White People” as I walked out on my way to the patio downstairs to get a look at Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s and Coco Fusco’s golden cage.

“So what did you think of that piece?” a friend asked. Fusco had been on display, performing native crafts. I had thought about what I was probably supposed to be thinking, and what in fact I was thinking, as I stood gazing at the installation/performance.

“The only thing the piece offered me,” I said, “was amusement. I mean, I can’t stand there and suddenly realize that cultural genocide is a horrible thing, or that native societies have been raped X number of times, or that when ethnic artists play with stereotypes the results are automatically instructive. What I did think about was how beautiful Fusco’s scantily clad body was—which is probably what just about everyone else was thinking too.”

“But,” my friend the cultural theorist added, “the piece isn’t meant for someone like you.” Bells go off when I hear those words, as they do when someone says, as he did, “Think about the public. They could have a real art experience.” And he went on to discuss how fresh it could be for the uninitiated to discover the joys of art that is “about” something (read: a cultural truth), and to find the museum so user-friendly. He was excited. I was not. Maybe, I thought, when Fusco and Gómez-Peña are absent from the golden cage, we could substitute members of the public in their stead, and all the critics and theorists and curators could take turns having their photographs made in front of those bars and those savages.

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor of Artforum.