PRINT March 2022


Jason Hirata, Sometimes You’re Both (detail), 2019, three-channel HD and digital video (color, sound, indefinite duration), auxiliary HD video (color, sound, 10 minutes), loaned artworks, loaned video documentation, 80WSE Gallery, New York. Photo: Carter Seddon.

WHEN ARTISTS SPACE REOPENED on New York’s Cortlandt Alley in 2019, the building’s entrance moved and a beautiful basement carved out and cubed, there were water bottles (Dasani, Snapple, Poland Spring) spread out across the floor full of urine of different hues. Dazzled by the newness of the space, my eyes, somewhat annoyingly, kept shifting downward to look at these funky things (in part to avoid tripping over them), only to be hit by a wave of repulsion and embarrassment. Here I was, a grown and credentialed man—a critic!—staring at piss, leisurely scratching my chin. If you walk around New York with your eyes open, you’ll see these repurposed bottles all around, tossed from car windows by professional drivers of trucks, Ubers, or Lyfts who have to go on the go because they can’t stop going. These vessels, then, are cast from a precarious economy, but they’re sexed and gendered artifacts, too, since they’re mostly the products of persons who can aim their penises into the mouth of the opening and feel uninhibited enough to hurl the results out into the scrum of the world: bombs of bad manners, golden F-Us. So was the fact that an artist carried these objects into the gallery some kind of masculinist way of marking territory (even if he had to bend down and get his hands dirty to do so), or was it that old Duchampian move of bringing the outside in to test the boundaries of the institution? The artist apparently returned the bottles to the street after the exhibition’s close, thus completing the work. All I could hope was that he wasn’t asking us to see beauty in the everyday.

Jason Hirata, Floaters, 2020, projectors. Installation view, Artists Space, New York, 2019–20. Photo: Daniel Pérez.

There were other things in the Artists Space exhibition too, some of them by the same artist. One gallery was ringed with digital projectors sitting on the ground (lowness is a throughline), casting snowy white fields onto otherwise darkened white walls. Shooting blanks, the work dealt in avant-garde techniques of negation and refusal, but only to focus on the medium of the projectors and the ways they’d been calibrated. There’s no true Platonic white, the work seemed to insist, simply real-life versions of the idea. At the same time, the piece created a kind of negative media environment, capturing the viewer in a patchwork of screens. The work was not just a low-key piece of video art, however, since the projectors had a provenance, each borrowed from New York University’s 80WSE gallery, where the artist was staging another exhibition. (Artists these days–—Danh Vo and Cameron Rowland serve as bellwethers—are obsessed with where things come from, perhaps even more so than with where they end up.) There, some twenty blocks to the north, on the east side of Washington Square Park, even more projectors were projecting, but there they screened versions of works the artist had assisted in producing—it was literally his work, but like most work, others had made it, too, and most of it originally appeared under their signatures. (The title of a key outing by Ei Arakawa, “Non-Solo Show, Non-Group Show” [2009] seemed a pertinent precursor here.) To figure out how one should look at this remixed exhibition was very difficult—I felt sucked into a web of networked insiderism and proper names. Works by Carissa Rodriguez, Hannah Black, and Hito Steyerl offered symbolic weight, but the works weren’t quite by them anymore, and to complicate things, several of the videos had been on view at other New York venues just months earlier—Black’s Ramney and Raymond, 2018, at Performance Space; Rodriguez’s The Girls, 1997–2018, at Sculpture­Center— their presence here creating a sense of déjà vu. In this new context, they functioned mainly as records of relationships, and eventually one had to wonder if all story isn’t backstory, if all textuality isn’t intertexuality after all. “Sometimes You’re Both” (that was the name of the exhibition) was somehow the sausage and how the sausage gets made at once—and importantly, the stuff of making, the computers and cords and whatnot, was perfunctorily placed on folding tables, studio style, as much on display as the videos themselves. Let’s call this artist The Assistant.

Jason Hirata, Sometimes You’re Both, 2019, two posters, each 23 3⁄8 × 33 1⁄8".

In many respects, The Assistant works in the wake of the Pictures generation; things borrowed and received are his métier, but the way they are staged is important to him as well. In this sense, Louise Lawler’s interventions, often pointed directly at the art world, are the artist’s true antecedent, and the look of her photographic work clearly guides the various poster projects featuring found and generic imagery that the artist has undertaken over the years. But where the Pictures artists often took the media’s imaginary—its advertisements, B movies, cowboys, and figurines—as raw material to challenge their own authorship, The Assistant leans firmly on media as material to confront his. He is interested in the materiality of media, in other words, and he understands media, as McLuhan did, in an expanded sense—not just electricity, the internet, and TV, but all the things that work us over, working conditions included. The artist doesn’t so much picture, or re-picture, pictures as display dynamics, and while most of his work is two-dimensional, all of it offers a lens to see through. His medium is bound less by a particular discipline (painting, sculpture, video) than by a set of processes—and in this sense, I think we can say that the artist is motivated more by a concern with ethics (i.e., how one works) than by an interest in aesthetics (i.e., how something looks). One might call him, too, The Ethicist.

He is interested in the materiality of media, and he understands media, as McLuhan did, in an expanded sense—not just electricity, the internet, or TV, but all the things that work us over, working conditions included.

At a recent two-person exhibition at Theta in New York, staged with Tony Chrenka, the artist presented a set of brutally squished shelving units that recalled something of modernism’s exquisitely dysfunctional machines while at the same time coyly winking at today’s endless discussions of the supply chain. Everything was out of stock, in that the shelves were empty (so one might as well squish them, save space), but the sculptures were also themselves made from stock, which is to say material available and at hand, or at least on Amazon. That, in fact, is a key characteristic of much of the artist’s work: It is somehow both empty (like stock photography) and part of the inventory (like stocked goods). Its raw material, however, is not simply the physical things that surround the artist (shelving, piss, box fans, leftover video, etc.), but also the social material and “media” available to him—what the writer Joseph Lubitz calls the artist’s “friendships and jobs.” For all the blankness and opacity that the artist’s work evinces, however—the exhibition at Theta included spectral gray silhouettes titled Jason Hirata cut to the shape of the artist’s body—history often hangs around like a specter: It is the thing that’s not there. For a performance staged at the Center for Experimental Lectures some years ago, the artist recited a list of foods served to his grandparents in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II (a concern with the body and digestion forms another thread of his practice). And that’s how history is, isn’t it? Despite the spectacular pictures flashed by the media, and which the art world today seems to hunger for, the past is rarely in our face—rather, it nags at us through the noise and fuzz, gnawing at the edges.

Alex Kitnick teaches art history at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.