New York

Sowon Kwon

Whitney Museum at Philip Morris

“I LIKE GENERIC, DEADPAN TITLES.” Such was Sowon Kwon's apt comment on her recent installation Two or Three Corridors, 2000, a work christened while the artist was evidently in a '60s state of mind—think of the piece as the indecisive offspring of Richter's Eight Student Nurses, or Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations, or Kosuth's One and Three Chairs. Kwon's installation itself, however, was structured more in the spirit of Michael Asher's “situational aesthetics,” as the artist displaced a series of works from the collection of the Philip Morris offices to the Whitney's space in the corporate lobby.

Presented salon-style in the first room of the gallery, Kwon's rehanging comprised only six images; no selection process seemed at first to be in force except perhaps for the collective triviality of the assembled work—an ugly Warhol, a lame Wegman, an Alechinsky etching from the vintage year of 1988. Andrea Fraser once performed a similar displacement on the art collection housed in the Vienna headquarters of the EA-Generali insurance company, displaying the pieces in hierarchical order descending from the art hung in the director's office to that hung in the spaces of the lowest-ranking company employees. Kwon's rehanging, like her title, offered no such precision. If anything, the selection seemed to testify only to the corporate collection's function as the repository of the pompier art of the present. The sole discernible theme appeared to be that most of the works concerned movement; some, like the Warhol, depicted dancers.

In a second, darkened room, a video flickered in silence like an image surging up from the depths of memory. Here one saw the corridors of the title. a series of office hallways where the displaced artworks had formerly hung. The works themselves were still visible at the framing edge of each of Kwon's scenes, which recorded too the chance movements of office workers walking with purpose—but in slow motion—through the corridor spaces, passing the artworks without a glance. It was onto this footage that Kwon superimposed an animated, computer-generated line drawing of a character appropriated from the statistical language of ergonomics: the “Average Female,” a recurring element in Kwon's earlier drawing projects. At once infantile and abstract, the Average Female interacted with the workers and the space: In some hallways, she performed jerky balletic movements; in others, she hid from the human figures; in another space, she walked back and forth in perfect simulation of Bruce Nauman's 1968 performance Walk with Contrapposto; at times she melded directly with the workers' bodies, providing a linear, quasi-scientific rearticulation of their motions.

With this superimposition, the logic of Kwon's installation became clear. Like others such as William Kentridge, she has turned to the layered reserves of the palimpsest for her larger reinvigoration of the contemporary functions of drawing. Indeed, the structure of the palimpsest captured the various confrontations driving the dialectics of Kwon's project: the strange overlap of public and private space in the Philip Morris gallery, for one, or the matching futuristic decrepitude of Kwon's drawing idiom and the corporate spaces into which it was inserted. Most poignant were the disjunctions caused by Kwon's layering into her project of references to ‘60s art. For in their wake one could not help but view the corporate corridors as afterimages of the heightened phenomenological spaces constructed by Minimalist practice, the workers’ slow march of drudgery as evocations of the bodily performances that such spaces required. It was a chilling move, like all allegorical gestures, and yet Kwon managed to retain a certain measure of the utopic in her presentation. Perhaps a moratorium should be enforced on explicit references to '60s and '70s artistic practice in contemporary projects unless the citations can reach the level of ambiguity in Kwon's piece: at once dessicated and comical, ironic and somehow loving. Neo-Conceptualism's time for hero worship is evidently—finally, thankfully—over. For only when one forces the achievements of the past into the mess of utter ambivalence does the new erupt.

George Baker