Los Angeles

David Bunn

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Until the expected completion of its Frank Gehry-designed exhibition space in May 1989, the newly constituted Santa Monica Museum of Art has been exploiting the unfinished site (a former egg-processing plant) through a series of site-specific installations entitled “Previews: Art in the Raw.” Although the concept is hardly new, it clearly illustrates the current art institution’s sensitivity to post-Conceptual challenge, inviting artists to critique its mythifying role, all the better to circumscribe the resistance from within. The debut show—David Bunn’s ingenious Sphere of Influence—attempted to outflank the museum’s strategy by critiquing itself as an allegory of museological closure. Bunn has already forged a reputation as a deconstructor of imperialist schemas through a series of photographic and video works that can best be described as geographic abstractions. For Bunn, charting, mapping, and sorting are ideological procedures, enabling the political and cultural institution to equate the territorial subdivision with esthetic classification and organization. Governments carving up the third world for the profit of monopoly capitalism thus directly parallel museums dividing natural phenomena into esthetic genres and -isms.

Sphere of Influence consisted of a series of modern, archaic, and homemade viewing devices—binoculars, telescopes, a kaleidoscope, camera obscura, metal tubes—mounted on microphone stands and arranged in a roped-off circle in the geographic center of the room. Pointed at the raw interior of the exhibition space, each instrument isolated and/or magnified a seemingly innocuous detail, the sighting of which Bunn notated by date and identification on accompanying index cards. Bunn pigeonholed these visual phenomena into geographical and art-historical categories. Thus cracks and scars in the concrete floor were dutifully labeled “The Amazon River,” “South America,” or simply “Earthwork”; scuff marks on the wall became representational, abstract, and structural gestures; the intersecting panels of raw plasterboard were variously signified as “The Southern Cross,” “The Crucifixion,” or “Suprematist Elements.”

Bunn’s classifications were clearly arbitrary, culturally derived interpretations of a palimpsest of preexisting signs. Rather than predating language, meaning was obviously superimposed upon it, creating a historicist orthodoxy from which all conceptual analysis would emanate. Bunn critiqued this system by doubling it, indicting his own signification through allegorical irony. In the selection, designation, and contextualization of phenomena, Bunn and the audience played the role of explorers and discoverers, logging sitings like an esthetic Lewis and Clark. Bunn’s instruments and notations (typed on an old portable typewriter) were in themselves museum pieces, so that the museum’s historicist function was further doubled and framed through historicized scientific and recording processes. The whole package thus took on a critical stance, encouraging the viewer to question both content and context as a closed, reified contrivance.

The installation was complemented by Low Down, a computer-generated ambient sound sculpture by Michael Brewster. Composed of one low-frequency and two slightly different high-frequency tones, the drone fluctuated according to the viewer’s changing position and movement within the space. Audience participation and interaction was thus essential for the spatial and temporal delineation of the work. The resulting dialectic between “open” sound installation and “closed” visual system reinforced Bunn’s attempt at self- and institutional critique. By applying an evolutionary, historical interpretation to the environment as a whole, the viewer was encouraged to look beyond the museum space to its origins as an industrial site. Bunn’s work placed art, site, and institution within a continuum of alienated or deferred capitalist production. Esthetic myth was co-opted by political myth, and both innately ideological frameworks were successfully disclosed.

Colin Gardner