PRINT December 2005

Editor's Letter

Editor's Letter

WITH EVERY DECEMBER ISSUE of Artforum there is the vague temptation to complement the cornucopia of “best of ” accolades with a “top ten” of editorial regrets, a kind of modest, residual hot list comprising all things missed, failed, or forgotten—a minor literature of might-have-beens. Of course, such a list could not be limited to a single year: The present always alters one’s view of the past, and, conversely, it may be that episodes from earlier times offer a useful perspective on our moment. As Dan Graham once noted in these pages, it is often a look at yesterday’s papers—events from the “just past,” the uncomfortable period out of fashion but not yet ripe for nostalgia—that most productively unsettles our reading of today’s news.

Consider, for example, Artforum’s roundtable on globalism and the large-scale exhibition, published just two years ago in November 2003. Because it involved an international array of artists, critics, and curators, the conversation was forced to take place “virtually” online and often in participants’ spare moments. As a result, entries considering the virtues and vices of globalization brimmed with asides like, “We have arrived at a very important point in the discussion, I think, but the pilot has instructed us to turn off all electronic devices, so I must say goodbye for now.” Editorial miscalculation number one: Taking the conversation too seriously, we removed these telling passages, which would have offered a kind of absurd truth about the art world and, more generally, about fundamentally changed modes of “communication.”

A second mistake, however, is more significant: The discussion was couched as “an occasion for reflection before we encounter the generations of large-scale exhibitions that undoubtedly lie ahead.” In other words, as a kind of beginning, when today it seems rather to have marked an end—a cap to a certain dialogue, a brief goodbye to questions on the roles, qualities, and reach of large-scale exhibitions at a moment when their fabric was in fact falling into the weave of much broader and more abstract cultural forces. Indeed, no one could have anticipated the extent to which an unprecedented international art-market boom would fuel an ever-expanding and ever-accelerating infrastructure of presentation, circulation, and exchange over the next two years. Today, these once “grand” shows have been all but subsumed in a continuous cycle of events around the world—a year-round circuit of destinations whose character has grown increasingly indistinct. While Venice in 2005 offered “The Experience of Art,” art fairs, for instance, began to evoke the “experience economy,” engaging audiences with discussion forums hosted by distinguished curators and with special projects like those of any other biennial.

As we look back on the past year, this heated economy was one of the topics that arose most commonly in ordinary conversation and theoretical tract alike, whether approached in terms of the art world’s commercial expansion and institutional proliferation, or with regard to individual artists’ negotiation of those circumstances. But such negotiations still ask for a macrocosmic consideration (and it is here that more abstract forces come into play). For if art has inevitably borne the inscription of mass culture and commerce for more than a century—whether in the bourgeois pastimes of Impressionism or the gleaming products of Pop—then how might that inscription be figured today? What connections ought to be drawn between the nature of this more expansive field and the very artistic practices it fosters, such as the wave of installations that evoke branded space or the lately ubiquitous miming of given contexts (by artists inhabiting the roles of curator, dealer, and designer)? To put a finer point on it, as the context of artistic production expands and accelerates, what corollaries do we see between art (its subjects, sensibility, display, even the age-old desire for the “new”) and a style of mass commerce that perpetually migrates to ever-more intimate spheres, and which then revolves around ever-more abstract commodities—whether attention, emotion, or environment—such that whole architectures of experience are, in a sense, mediated?

The question brings to mind another observation made in passing during the round-table by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. He wrote optimistically, “We have not spoken about the city itself as a potential ‘living’ biennial,” referring to how work might spill across the urban landscape to “trigger something on a different plane.” This hopeful formulation is hardly systematized. But given the course of large-scale exhibitions, it seems not unreasonable to wonder what projects in this vein we’ve seen in 2005—projects, that is, that engage a site, but primarily to bleed into or provide a Borgesian map of it, making the environment of a piece with the work, the whole then seeming (forgive my rhetorical leap of faith) at once fictional and real, remote and close, virtual and present, a kind of intimate mediascape. Anyone viewing Pierre Huyghe’s October performance and filming of A Journey That Wasn’t in New York’s Central Park was bound to see the city itself rendered televisual, a rain-drenched, Blade Runner-like backdrop replete with orchestral soundtrack for the artist’s hermetic meditation on global warming. The scene reminded me of William Burroughs’s “reality studio,” and, in fact, certain of Huyghe’s colleagues have portrayed the gallery as a kind of studio set. Yet more to the point here is an observation made by the artist himself in these pages this summer: “The place of presentation is real, but it incorporates fictional elements. The fiction is a reality principle.” (Significantly, the question remained in the minds of many as to whether Huyghe had actually undertaken the journey to Antarctica on which his project was ostensibly based.) A similar sensation was to be had with Francis Alÿs’s recent video for Artangel, in which Coldstream guards from a single division wandered alone in uniform through London’s architectural theater, joining up in formation as they randomly crossed each other’s paths—a strangely Cagean display of solitude and solidarity. (Documentation included in the show similarly conjured the poetry of the archive, but here one reality was rendered all the more piercing by the seeming unreality of another: A letter on display from the company’s sergeant major regretted that they would not be able to attend the show’s opening party, since they were already back in Iraq.)

And, finally, the exhibition highlight of my year may be considered in precisely such terms: Paul McCarthy’s intervention—or “exorcism,” as one Austrian friend put it—at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. In McCarthy’s hands, the Albert Speer–designed structure became a kind of mise-en-abyme stage set. Sound tracks of his videos washed over the space, the screams and visions part B-movie and part Max Beckmann’s Night; a flicker film of Disney and Hitler suggested a kitsch society of media control, of pop grotesqueries; and a series of photos of the artist’s trip from his native Utah to Los Angeles seemed a snapshot-by-snapshot descent by jet plane into Hollywood’s unique circle of hell. Significantly, the juxtaposition of historical works and new ones revealed an evolution in McCarthy’s practice, a turn from the body as such to the body immersed in mediated space. “LaLa Land Parody Paradise,” as the show’s title suggests, is both a dreamworld and a nightmare, making one wonder whether the year’s newly emergent framework—in which fiction and reality meet and the real and represented are coextensive—is a figure of possibility or a figure of loss.