New York

Don Celender

O.K. Harris Gallery

Though a consummate buffoon, the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” mandates a truth to which all his subjects must submit. The little child does not yet know to be obsequious; it is he who proclaims the “naked” truth. Shaken for a moment, the emperor regains his royal composure by insisting nonetheless that the “show must go on.” By continuing to play in what has proven to be a fiction, the emperor proves that the absence of objective truth not only doesn’t topple his authority, it may well reinforce it.

Things are because of what they are said to be, or what we experience them as being rather than what they actually are. This is the focus of Don Celender’s work. His two newest projects are the second edition of an “Observation and Scholarship Examination for Art Historians, Museum Directors, Artists, Dealers and Collectors,” a multiple-choice identification test, and a collection of official correspondence between Celender and various trucking and rigging companies regarding the transport of a monumental cake-batter replica of Myron’s Discobolos.

Both projects make us laugh; this laughter springs from utter disbelief that anyone can be subjected to this sort of testing or foolery. But there we are in the gallery taking a brand of art history “achievement test” which has long been phased out as a result of our cynicism toward that which unerringly defines, identifies and renders “truths.”

By asking us to identify small details of famous artworks rather than complete images, Celender leads us to realize that truth is not a construct of closure in reality so much as it is a construct of mind and memory. I was surprised that I had the faculties to identify a complex whole through very small and vague cues. Just as he fragments “famous” works of art, Celender, in his list of possible answers, traverses millenia. Moving from the Paleolithic fertility-cult Venus of Willendorf to Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure of 1938, he snips our holiest of holies, the linear art historical time line. When we flip to the back of the book to check the answers, we pull with us a thin thread connecting a visual cue with its mother image. We may nod in recognition of the “true” answer, and the “wholeness” of the complete reprint, but we are still one step away from truth. These are reprints, merely intimations of a corresponding reality.

The exhibited correspondence between Celender and numerous trucking and rigging companies negotiates the transfer of a yet unconstructed and never-to-be-built cake-batter replica of Myron’s Discobolos (which is in itself a replica, a Roman copy of the bronze Greek original). The letter sent to these companies presents the problem faced by an unnamed but “prominent artist” who, “inspired by the Montreal Summer Olympics,” is moved to create this 35-foot, 3-ton, discus-throwing doughboy. As president of Great Monuments and Replicas Associates, the fictional company emblazoning the letterhead, Celender requests information concerning type of equipment, amount of personnel required and the estimated cost of transfer to New York City where the artist has “an established reputation.”

With the inflow of replies, this fictitious thing gains a dimension of reality by being referred to as a “commodity,” by needing ICC authority to cross state lines, by exceeding the 14-foot bridge clearance of the interstate highway systems, by being declared too heavy for transport via helicopter. Suddenly this invisible sculpture made of the cake-batter of art—words—almost materializes through all the gyrations in words it undergoes. It is infused with life by being verbally crated, dismantled, laid on its side. The last paragraph of Celender’s form letter states that the “completion of the replica is dependent upon the information” that the companies would provide “relating to logistics and cost.” As a word-charting of something which exists in that world of words, this cake-batter sculpture verily has been built and transported with every proposal.

Each day we deal with truths so amorphous that they could well be fictions. Our economy is based on transactions, on movements of money which never actually occur in time and space. Currency is used as a medium of exchange although the coinage itself does not correspond to its physical worth. We are not preoccupied with doubt every time we use money because there is a tacit understanding that to be part of any system, a level of objectivity must be suspended. In the art history examination, Celender lets us discover that we need not see a whole to be able to identify it; our response is to subtler cues. The trucking and rigging companies, in their sober and businesslike replies to a most unusual request, responded to cues such as the imposing letterhead and the words “prominent artist,” and “established reputation” to make the invisible true. The one individual who begins to burst Celender’s bubble by not discounting “the possibility of a clever hoax” says: “if this is indeed a hoax, I am amused and would be very interested in continuing it.”

Like the emperor in the children’s tale, no matter what our senses or objective criteria say,we want the procession to continue.

Judith Lopes Cardozo