Chicago

Phil Berkman

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Phil Berkman, a conceptual artist, is also Chief of Security at the Museum of Contemporary Art. His performance, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, addressed the absurdity of equating art with money; it occurred just as the theft of three valuable Cézanne paintings at Chicago’s Art Institute focused attention on museum security.

Berkman folded a one hundred dollar bill into a child’s paper airplane and pushpinned it to the wall. Then he stationed young uniformed security guards to watch the money (they rotated every 20 minutes or so)—coincidentally all were artists too.

Entering this “guardscape” as a viewer, I too behaved as if the setup were a parody of routine museum life, the money on the wall a stand-in for art. I inspected its convexities and concavities, its light and dark textures, the guard intently watching me all the while. When I tried to remove the money from the pushpins, the guard gestured wildly, “Don’t touch the art!” Did he really care, or was it only part of the performance?

Berkman’s gesture recalls the original motives of conceptual art: to diminish collectible object status in favor of idea content, which one would not have to protect against potential thieves but could hope to distribute, free, to as many people as might be interested. In the case of a “valuable” painting, is the guard there to protect effective esthetics or to proclaim financial wealth? One might say that object art is “guarded” for what in the existential sense is the least important or worthwhile thing about it.

It follows that the person who spends all day watching people watch art, ready to protect it from its viewers, is involved in a bit of a comedy. And by folding the money into a paper airplane—and putting a small, barely visible harmonica in the mouth of each guard—Berkman expressed a witty cynicism. As the guards breathed, that harmonica sounded softly, in and out, in and out, a sort of regular humdrum Muzak. When anyone did approach the money, the guard stepped forward and the harmonica sounded more quickly—an elaborate ritual with perhaps more structure than sense.

Berkman’s other recent performances have frequently concerned the nonsensical behavior of human beings in set-up situations. 99 Bottles of Beer reveals the art gallery situation as a sort of Skinner box in which people carry out their prescribed roles, attitudes and behavior. The supposed reason for being there could be art, money, or bottles of beer upon a wall.

C. L. Morrison