New York

Group Material

New Museum

Group Material’s strength lies in its “alternative” curatorial role; concerned with the nonelitist, sociopolitical responsibilities of art, and particularly sensitive to context and audience, it has operated as often “on the street” as in the more conventional exhibition space, bringing together artists of different cultural backgrounds who may not otherwise be very visible. Its current, traveling installation took shape from an invitation to over a hundred artists to submit an image 12 inches square that, altogether, would express the diversity of contemporary imagery and seek a common ground between popular imagery, such as record sleeves and advertisements, and art practice. The result is a 12-by-40-foot work spelling MASS and encompassing notions of mass media and mass culture, the masses and the density of bodies.

In its relation to our reception of mass culture, MASS’s density of imagery works with more irony than was possibly intended. The immediate effect is of a homogenization of images and words that makes it difficult to focus on anything in particular, rendering it a perhaps too apt reflection of a TV culture of limited time/space slots and multichannel switching. As with TV, the dizzying blend of fragmentary images and narratives tends to slip into meaninglessness in the absence of any adjudicating principle by which one might assess any “truth value.” MASS nevertheless has some incisive moments: for instance, the comment on Reagan’s Tom and Jerry militarism reflected in a toaster, like the TV screen, popping up representations of the world and El Salvador (by Conrad Atkinson) was juxtaposed with the image of a TV screen with ”AS SHOWN ON TV“ inscribed over lines repeating ”I will pay attention during current events" (by Dennis Thomas and Day Gleeson).

Too much attention is sometimes paid to the currency of events and too little attention to our motivations for addressing them. MASS gives us an opportunity to identify and to reflect upon the nature of some of our preoccupations over the past year. Aside from the usual references to corporate power and Reaganomics, Central America and South Africa figure heavily in the domain of current affairs. While the plight of peoples elsewhere should be of direct concern to us, there is still an inadequacy in the way we express that concern. Perhaps there is too much familiar political rhetoric and not enough interrogation of our cultural mindset in relation to others. In MASS we find that it is left to the poignant resonances of Surplus Buffalo (Richard Ray Whitman) and Oh, Those South African Homelands. You Impose U.S. Indian Reservations (Edgar Heap of Birds)—the work of Native Americans—to remind us of our amnesia about the repressions operating inside US borders, inside our own cultural unconscious. Bearing this in mind, Group Material’s inclusion in MASS of images of the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence is doubly ironic, especially in a year of intense celebrations of liberty that have produced more popular rhetoric than usual.

The problem of mass presentation is by contrast succinctly revealed in a singular image—the design of a Malcolm X logo printed over the black activist’s autobiography (Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival). Here is the image of a self that has been canceled out but nevertheless raised to the power of a cultural symbol, and not effaced in an amorphous mass. Surely it is through the work of the particular, the autobiographical self, in its relation to the social body that the truth value of culture may be constantly tested? Were we to reduce individual difference to a signifier of “mass culture” we would relinquish the power to effect change; we would be digging a mass grave. The multiple messages of MASS may be interpreted in other ways, and will no doubt be reinterpreted yet again as the installation travels over the coming months to other places.

Jean Fisher