PRINT December 2008

Walead Beshty

DESPITE THE CITY’S PLACID EXTERIOR, apocalypse is LA’s perennial leitmotif. Gazing down from Mount Shasta toward the distant Los Angeles basin, Clarence King, the first head of the United States Geological Survey, mused that in the California lowlands, “men and women are dull, unrelieved; they are all alike. The eternal flatness of landscape, the monotony of endlessly pleasant weather, the scarcely varying year, the utter want of anything unforeseen and the absence of all surprise in life, are legible upon their quiet uninteresting faces”—a quiescent veneer that, for King, concealed the “distinctly catastrophic” nature of the Western landscape. King’s words rang with a prescient disaffection as I meandered this past fall through the J. Paul Getty Museum’s “Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California,” elbowing my way through the crowds gawking at Watkins’s stunning views of an all-but-empty California—a sensation befitting Richard Meier’s glowing hilltop museum-cum–space station, a complex that stands decidedly above and apart from the city below.

Watkins worked on the surveys with King in the mid-1860s, producing images that would come to stand for the “archaean America” King elaborated in prose. While King had a flare for the Dantean, his view of these lands was not an uncommon one. People-watching more recently on the boardwalk of Venice beach, Jean Baudrillard surmised that Los Angeles was a “post-catastrophe world.” Bertolt Brecht was more succinct, describing Los Angeles simply as “Hell.” Yet the uncanny thing about King’s pronouncement was that he made it in 1870, when Los Angeles barely existed. It is as though the mythology of moribund decadence and the promise of divine retribution were somehow sown into this seemingly innocuous landscape, saturating anything that might one day be built on it. As Thom Andersen puts it in his epic 2003 film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, “Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled.”

As I recount the story of 2008, King’s pronouncements come insistently to mind. By the end of 2007, the notion that the market was indestructible had become a commonplace; most artists and curators (and even some gallerists) seemed to feel guilty by association, while critics were wondering aloud and in print whether the flow of cash wasn’t hurting art. (We’ll see if market collapse will produce as much enervating opining. Thus far, the prognosis seems good.) Regardless, the party didn’t seem like it was going to end; even in LA, art events were getting bigger and shinier, approaching the excesses of its siblings, to which it has always played second fiddle.

Against this heady backdrop, the Murakami retrospectacle at LA MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary seemed perfect for its time and place. LA, like the art world, has a tendency to merge seamlessly with its own symbols, and no show distilled both the potential and the drawbacks of this condition with such clarity. As I took in the expanse at the Geffen, it was hard not to appreciate the delirious intricacy of Murakami’s unrepentant entrepreneurialism. His constantly expanding business model has allowed him to parlay his just-over-fifteen-year career into an international corporation whose tentacles extend into a network of alliances spanning the entertainment industry, corporate image consultation, toy manufacturing, and high fashion—this aside from the production of art objects. His ability to mold productions (and services) of varying scale into an ornate constellation is as mesmerizing as his willingness to almost selflessly dissolve into his own business complex. It’s a transformation Murakami describes with all the panache of an engineer. At MoCA, the multivalent outputs of this machine were splayed out as if in a massive showroom (without irony, Murakami said of his last show at Gagosian: “I knew it would be a shopping mall”), from the gift shop to the exhibition halls to the fully functioning Louis Vuitton boutique on the second-floor landing. The scene, with its constant stream of visitors, was a triumph of high-culture-inflected consumerist populism. More than a few apologists, adapting the theoretical framework that developed in tandem with Pop art to describe the expanded field of Murakami’s productions, have proposed that what lurks within Murakami’s practice is some sort of critical parody. But this explanation seems halfhearted at best. Perhaps, as many artists of the late 1980s and early ’90s were doing, Murakami formulated his strategies in response to a fundamental change in the conditions of aesthetic practice. The interminable slickness of his work (and the head-scratching that ensues) only seems possible within the context of our collective sweating-out of the entrenched polarizations that fueled the critical debates of preceding decades, during which the art worker, paragon of ’60s artistic radicalism, received a promotion to CEO.

When all was said and done, the most telling aspect of the exhibition, which closed in February, was Murakami’s divining of the precarious position of the modern museum, uncomfortably caught between the private and public spheres. Faced with the untenable requirement of competing with the contemporary entertainment complex (merely in order to survive) while maintaining an Enlightenment facade, museums often make compromises that leave them vulnerable to dismissal on the grounds that they are compromised. Murakami exploits this schizophrenia, making any attempt to delineate the edge between resistance and reification appear anachronistic at best, since these arguments turn on the question of ironic self-awareness—which, he implicitly asserts, has now become moot. What seems most radical about his practice, as became clear in the show, is not so much his use of corporate structures to scandalize the art world (a crowd that fetishizes having its value system slapped around) but his radicalization of consumer products by imbuing them with the reflexivity of the art object. If we are to accept that the traffic of a work of art, its role in the market, is a key element of its meaning, and that the work can be evaluated according to the same criteria for success or failure as any business venture, then we may also need to accept that this is perhaps a radical displacement of bourgeois taste—an accomplishment foreshadowed by the avant-gardes. The proposition of art as a vehicle of self-conscious critique, its positioning of itself as a mode of opposition on the side of either negative parody or total rejection, is no longer an effective form of resistance in and of itself. The borders of the discussion have become blurred; its language has lost the charge it once had. As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello put it in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), “Artistic critique is currently paralyzed by what, depending on one’s viewpoint, may be regarded as its success or its failure.”

Either way, just as Murakami outflanks most of his theorization, the contemporary topography of art, in its relation to mass culture, has outstripped the critical frameworks intended to reconcile the two. For his part, Murakami seems to posit that art must renounce its privileged position above the fray and traffic itself seamlessly, like a plush toy or a handbag, if it is to again take up the avant-gardist mission of unifying aesthetic discourse and quotidian life. Regardless, what became abundantly clear in his show, in both its procession of onlookers and its pop flash, was that the pressing questions pertaining to the contemporary politics of aesthetics could no longer be formulated in the same way. As though announcing a new fashion line, Murakami proclaimed to a reporter for the LA Times that the “new concept is: back to history,” a trend that one hopes the next generation of historians will follow.

THE MURAKAMI EXHIBITION was hardly alone in suggesting such fault lines. At the other end of the spectrum was an equally hallucinatory and highly anticipated retrospective with implications as resonant for the status of reflexivity and criticality, although with a noticeably different patina (and although the sharp contrast between the two may simply be a question of branding). Opening this past January, Michael Asher’s exhibition at the more modest Santa Monica Museum of Art briefly provided a counterpoint to “© Murakami.” Just as Murakami is often set forth as an exemplar of the marriage of art and material culture, Asher epitomizes ascetic, oppositional critique. Gazing through the exposed stud walls he had built—a labyrinthine conflation of forms based on the temporary walls that had been installed in the Santa Monica Museum’s gallery over the course of nearly a decade’s worth of exhibitions—visitors were subjected to an almost stroboscopic sensation, a kinesthetic perceptual cacophony that evoked the artist’s earliest engagements with his own form of bare-boned minimalist phenomenology. The overlaid structures created a procession of proscenium arches that constantly redirected attention, indicating that Asher is far more comfortable with theatricality and visual seduction than his conventional representation within the orthodoxy of institutional critique might suggest. The sometimes awkward fit between Asher and the well-received models that are brought to bear on his work became all the more apparent in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s talk “Strategies of Voiding the Void” the weekend of the opening. Holding forth on the oppositional logic of Asher’s oeuvre, particularly its refusal of instrumental meaning and its resistance to the reification of the structure of commercial art, Buchloh seemed uncertain about the artist’s return to the context of the gallery. The historian could only account for this return as an uncharacteristic moment of self-quotation, a sign that the artist had entered a “mannerist” phase. After all, if Asher had inspired some meditation on the confinement enforced by the museum’s walls—by creating a space that, for Buchloh, induced “intense . . . physical discomfort” and “delusional disorientation”—he had also dematerialized the grounds on which these might be separated from the other ideological frames to which the artwork is subject. Just as the condition of the work of art is inseparable from, if not constituted by, its conditions of display, it is similarly indistinguishable from the naturalized modes of its exegesis. If nothing else, Asher’s return to the confines of the gallery indicated that the easily mapped borders of the past, the very ones that allowed for the transcendence of object-based production to be legible as radical in the first place, had dissolved—much as Murakami’s insistence on the unification of the museum with high and low commerce alike not only revealed that these commercial modes might be able to flow freely into each other, but implied that they already had. And so even when an accomplished art historian, Miwon Kwon, resituates Asher’s practice in arguments that are a quarter-century old, writing that it is “nothing short of a radicalization of the exhibition situation . . . an antidote to the forgetfulness or willful blindness that refuses to see the white gallery walls for what they really are and what they really do” (a rhetorical transformation of the small kunsthalle into a totalizing concept of “museum-ness”), one is also forced to consider how the persistence of certain critical ideologies attests to a similar form of “willful blindness.” Not to do so risks facilitating the transformation of once-viable forms of critical resistance into a melancholic allegory depicting their failure: art criticism’s own mannerist phase. Certainly, art’s fictional image and its material condition, in their evolving dialectic, are ever more difficult to wrest from each other.

Such conflations were bookended, for me, by screenings of Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which I watched this past spring and again in the fall. The film’s narrator proposes at the outset that “if we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” Andersen poses a vision of Los Angeles as a pile of free-floating fictions and stray narratives that dovetail with and, if only briefly, intervene in the everyday life of the city. Resorting to few if any of the pat summations to which LA is so often reduced, Andersen proposes neither the image world nor its material counterpart as the reality of the city. Instead, the film puts forward a montaged interweaving of the historical and the topographic in a single surface that echoes its chosen subject. The screenings I attended took place at one of Los Angeles’s living monuments, the Egyptian Theater—a much-celebrated icon that I had previously experienced in images. (A photograph in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon of the theater’s entryway, with the winking caption ‘Early Egyptian’ Movie Temple,” has always transfixed me.) Coming out of the Egyptian one night in late September, I passed by one of Los Angeles’s largest “fake” living monuments, located just a block away, whose peculiar circumstances vividly underscored the ironies of Andersen’s vision of Los Angeles. At the corner of Hollywood and Highland stands a full-scale replica of the Babylon set from D. W. Griffith’s mammoth Intolerance, the 1916 film that is heavily represented in Hollywood Babylon’s pages and undoubtedly inspired its title. The structure plays a double role in the densely packed tourist trap that is this portion of Hollywood Boulevard, serving as a public memorial and a middlebrow-to-high-end mall. Its developers had some of the worst timing imaginable, opening the massive complex just after September 11, 2001. While the correspondence of this invocation of Babylon with the subsequent failed war in Iraq was a perversity beyond anyone’s control, the thematic fashioning of the opulent and expansive complex on one of the most massive and notorious movie flops, which itself attempted to represent the mythic Mesopotamian city and its fall, has an inscrutable hubristic irony about it. (Moreover, the Babylon set was an urban blight that lingered in the vicinity of Los Feliz for years after the film opened. Griffith’s bankrupted production company couldn’t afford to haul it away.) Perhaps this is what history looks like when it becomes a theme. It occurred to me after leaving the Egyptian Theater for the second time that my first viewing had coincided with the inauguration of the Sunset Boulevard gallery Overduin and Kite’s ambitious program; the space had presented an exhibition of Tony Conrad’s Beholden to Victory, a modular, fragmented, open-ended digital reworking of his early-80s send-up of the military-film genre that serves as a bizarre echo of both the absurdity of war and its popular depiction. Conrad’s film is a complex parody set in Southern California chaparral (all too appropriate as a contemporary backdrop to war). Yet in the mall-cum-monument, with all its tacit historical implications, the quizzical absurdity of a city that conflates history with its imago was in full effect in all its unthinking glory.

Brecht complained that Hollywood, a metonym for Los Angeles, was filled with the “oily smell of films,” a nod both to the entertainment industry’s slickness and to the primordial ooze that once was the city’s financial engine. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art spent years combating seeping oil after its opening in 1965—a battle that ended when it paved over its iconic reflecting pools in surrender to their unremitting sullying by bubbling petrochemicals. If Murakami’s exhibition posited that the integration of the entertainment industry’s penchant for demotic spectacle into contemporary art was a necessary condition of art’s public reception, then at the opening of the Broad Contemporary, we saw that an out-and-out courting of celebrity culture was not too far behind. On the occasion of the newest addition to the LACMA campus’s pastiche of architectural tropes, the shiny half of the Brechtian bipartite LA and the LA art world intersected, copulating in a gala that seemed more like the Oscars than the museum’s usually staid events. I didn’t attend the VIP christening, but the scope of it was documented with flair and humor in this magazine’s online counterpart. I did attend the subsequent “Free Community Weekend” sponsored by Target. With the teeming masses of Angelenos touring Renzo Piano’s spacious structure (the galleries built on a scale unmatched any elsewhere in the institution, or in the entire city with the exception of MoCA’s massive Geffen Contemporary), the building’s bright red accoutrements and bleached terra-cotta played off the pop brashness of the Koonses, Warhols, Shermans, Therriens, Krugers, and Baldessaris to dizzying effect.

Surprisingly, the tone of the addition evoked less the pomp and circumstance of institutional solidity than the user-friendly populist branding of the weekend’s big-box sponsor (a chromatic resonance I wonder whether anyone had noticed beforehand). Of course, museums and department stores have much in common. The modern manifestations of both were prefigured by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built on the occasion of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. That single event was the dual birth of both highbrow and lowbrow populist leisure, which were again brought into spatial and temporal proximity at BCAM’s unveiling. The hushed narrative of the opening was the revelation that the Broads, contrary to all expectations, would not be donating their collection to LACMA after all. The ambiguous state of our public institutions, permitting the loan of the institutional imprimatur of public good to a privately held collection, elicited much grumbling about a compromise between LACMA’s public and private missions.

But certainly this was the hangover of more conspicuous times. By the summer of 2008, the writing was literally on the wall, or at least in the window. Jeff Kopp’s illuminated text that spanned the second-story floor-to-ceiling window of the Chinatown gallery Redling Fine Art, pointed to what some of us were thinking: It read NEW END. Los Angeles’s role as a financial center for the art market may have to wait; its landscape is being reshuffled in midswirl. In the past year several of its galleries closed up shop, while others expanded or are in the process of moving to larger venues—a confusing result indicating neither contraction nor growth. One of the saddest send-offs was that of Anna Helwing Gallery, whose final show, “Going Out of Business,” organized by gallery artist Karl Haendel, offered a chance to consider the changing terrain. Just around the corner, another closure gave me pause: that of Christian Haye and Michele Maccarone’s MC Kunst, which opened in 2005 and whose challenging series of exhibitions will be sorely missed.

In other galleries, some of the most interesting work had been made decades ago—again the “new” theme comes to mind. There were notable if posthumous rediscoveries of Southern Californian art: At Mara McCarthy’s Box, Wally Hedrick’s haunting black monochromes, made from earlier works covered in black paint, pointed with somber acuity to a historical blindness; at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, a presentation of the work of Robert Heinecken brought back an era of ’70s photography that was far more advanced than is usually acknowledged. As I recently rewatched another work from Southern California’s recent past, Raymond Pettibon’s 1989 film Sir Drone at Regen Projects, a sense of LA’s fragile smallness hit me: It dawned on me that the city’s unique character perhaps lies in its tightrope walk between provincialism and internationalism. Sir Drone’s story of the founding of an LA punk band, complete with adolescent infighting and inside jokes, was a telling reminder of the micropopulations at work within the whole. In the swath of the city, the art-world clusters rise up around common objects and gestures, a mortar that fills in the gaps of the major entertainment complex.

Coming off the 110 into Chinatown after a particularly dry and exhausting midsummer’s day, I was transfixed again by the window of the small office building that stands adjacent to the downward arc of the off-ramp. The building is the one I work in nearly every day, just another of the bland low-slung stucco facades that LA is crawling with. But inside it on this particular evening was an orangey glow that matched the ubiquitous orange of Los Angeles’s twilight sky. It was a work by Morgan Fisher, another installment in Redling Fine Art’s series of weeklong shows. The dim glow of televisions—one of the many backdrops of Los Angeles—hummed with washes of yellow-orange and a faint hint of blue. Here the televisions were hidden from the street, pointed at the gallery’s empty walls. What one got was walls as theatrical scrim; the skyline seemed to flatten out. The building resembled an empty frame; looking through its windows, I had the illusion of seeing straight through it to the orange-yellow surface that seems to sit behind everything in this city. It made me think of a quote from Ed Ruscha, who, when asked what he liked about LA, responded that it was “all facades here.” All at once the city felt like it was compressed to a single microthin sheet, a massive picture screen, not unlike Murakami’s superflat field or Andersen’s speculation on the intermingling of fantasy and urban history: The horizontal city again went a queasy vertical.

Walead Beshty is an artist based in Los Angeles.