PRINT December 2007

Claire Bishop


1 Steve McQueen, Queen and Country (Central Library, Manchester, UK) Ninety-eight sheets of postage stamps, each bearing the image of a British soldier who died in Iraq, are arrayed on racks in an austere, coffinlike wooden display case. Because the photographs were donated by the families of the deceased, many are painfully intimate. These amateur domestic portraits are compressed into stamps—small slivers of public space—poignantly overlaid with the silhouette of the monarch in whose name they died. Installed in the Great Hall of the library, its rotunda encircled with glorious maxims about knowledge, Queen and Country stood as crushing proof of a nation’s inability to heed these exhortations to higher civic virtues.

2 Dematerialized Münster The most emblematic projects of this decade’s edition of the Skulptur Projekte reinvented Land art as a journey we could all take (Paweł Althamer’s meandering footpath Ścieżka [Path]) and as an appropriated, collective social system (Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You, Jeremy Deller’s framing of the town’s communal gardens, with their idiosyncratic huts). Both works offered enchanted escapes from the tickit- off bike tour and invited you to relish the present rather than consume an object.

3 Aleksandra Mir, Newsroom 1986–2000 (Mary Boone Gallery, New York) Drawing can be so boring; how do you bring it up to date? Ensconcing herself in Mary Boone’s Chelsea gallery with boxes of black felt-tip pens, a team of assistants, and the covers of fourteen years’ worth of New York’s fin-de-millennium tabloids, Mir turned an outmoded studio discipline into an office job under public scrutiny. Exuberant drawings of the front pages were churned out at the same rate as the dailies themselves. This closed loop of mass-media production, popular subject matter, and collective authorship generated one of Mir’s best projects in years, demystifying the studio while disinterring the outmoded obsessions of the just-past.

4 Two postcards in Documenta 12 (Kassel) Documenta had many flaws, but it was never boring. Its most esoteric dimension was a meditation on the conventions of exhibition display, with each venue alluding to a different century and its conditions of spectatorship. The clues were spread sparsely. My favorite was a pair of postcards in a vitrine near the lavatories in the Neue Galerie: Johann Heinrich Tischbein’s 1783 painting of the Fridericianum, Europe’s first public museum, next to Édouard Manet’s Exposition Universelle de 1867, the painting so brilliantly described by T. J. Clark as marking the emergence of spectacle in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. This tiny, metareflexive gesture rightly positioned Documenta as conflicted heir to those dual impulses of exhibition culture: public patrimony and touristic consumption.

5 Christoph Schlingensief, Parsifal (Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, Germany) Cult film director Schlingensief staged his final take on the Wagnerian epic this past summer. The production was a layered mesh of live action, painted slogans, and projected film, the last providing closeups of, and oblique counternarratives to, the operatic diegesis. With a revolving stage to destabilize the performance space, and the artist’s “family” of disabled lay-actors to disrupt the singers’ seamless professionalism, the production also featured references to Beuys, Dürer, and refugee camps. The closing scene—a vast projection of accelerated footage of a decaying rabbit—provided a devastatingly antitranscendent climax to the Grail myth. When I left the Festspielhaus (Prince Ludwig’s theater for Wagner and home of the original Gesamtkunstwerk), a violent storm had ravaged the town, leaving the roads strewn with toppled trees. A cosmic standing ovation!

6 “Robert Gober: Work 1976–2007” (Schaulager, Basel) This magnificent exhibition revealed the full force of Gober’s precision and intelligence, and featured works I never thought I’d see: his untitled 1992 Dia installation—with forested walls, running water, and prison windows—and “The Meat Wagon,” 2005, his curated display of his own work (hairy cheese included) alongside objects from the Menil Collection. Sustained thinking, uneasy forms: shiver-inducing.

7 Artur Żmijewski The video Them, documenting Żmijewski’s social experiment in which members of four disparate ideological groups engage in a combative painting workshop, was a highlight of Documenta. It followed on from “Selected Works,” a corrosive series of video portraits at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Each portrait condenses twenty-four hours in a different worker’s life to fifteen minutes, immersing you in the banality of low-paid daily labor and the mess of human physicality. Żmijewski’s visual acuity is supported by an unflinching intellectual courage in interviews and writings, as seen in his provocative essay “The Applied Social Arts,” a plea for more overtly politicized artistic positions in the former Eastern Bloc, published this year in Krytyka Polityczna.

8 Jerôme Bel One summer afternoon I went to London’s Live Art Development Agency to watch video documentation of the Parisian choreographer’s works. I was smitten. Bel manages to create dances that involve barely any dancing, to distance himself from the medium’s fate as entertainment and still be entertaining, and to import issues of appropriation, authorship, and spectacle while deftly avoiding didacticism. All this plus self-deprecation, humor, pathos, and pop music: total exhilaration.

9 Hélio Oiticica, “The Body of Color” (Tate Modern, London) Two highlights here: first, the experience of moving from a room of Oiticica’s intensely hued bólides (fireballs) to the overwhelming yellow ambit of the Grande Núcleo, 1960–66; the saturated austerity of these suspended planes hovering over pale gray stones was so quietly forceful I was paralyzed. Second, Ivan Cardoso’s 1979 film HO contained riveting footage, including Oiticica dancing in a plastic parangolé and shiny tight green trousers decorated with pink lightning bolts. That Oiticica was capable of both abstract rigor and camp glam excess elevates him yet higher in my pantheon.

10 Matthew Barney’s bull in “Il Tempo del Postino” (Opera House, Manchester, UK) At the end of an evening of otherwise patchy performance art by seventeen international artists, Barney, with a dog on his head, took command of the theater. Halfway through the enigmatic proceedings, a mythologically proportioned bull was led onto the stage and encouraged to enjoy congress with a sculptural appendage fixed to the back of a Cadillac. This garlanded, golden-horned beast failed to rise to the occasion—despite the presence of contortionists, balaclava-clad trumpeters, and ample quantities of Vaseline. I was left feeling ritually contaminated. Utterly inexplicable.

Claire Bishop is assistant professor in the department of art history at Warwick University and visiting professor in the curating contemporary art department at the Royal College of Art, London. She is writing a book on the history and politics of spectatorship in socially collaborative art.