New York

Nils Norman

American Fine Arts

For the past decade Nils Norman has been devising a series of imaginative proposals for improving urban living conditions through community-based initiatives. He is no starry-eyed utopian, however: Norman is all too aware of how blind devotion to social progress under modernism has often been misguided and destructive. The foibles of dogma provide abundant material for an artist keen on uncovering hypocrisy. Norman has struck a careful balance between parodying visionary zeal and maintaining faith in alternative solutions to contemporary civic malaise.

Typical of his approach was the recent show “Dismal Garden,” in which several projects were displayed as a loose group. The sober side of Norman’s practice was represented by a straightforward collection of photographs, mostly from his recent book The Contemporary Picturesque (Book Works, 2000). The artist investigated a wide range of urban “quality of life” restrictions on the gentrified streets of several major cities, documenting “bum-free railings,” “anti-climb devices,” etc. The antidote to such invidious municipal planning can ostensibly be found in his own suggestions for more citizen-friendly policies: A poster recommends the construction of an “Edible Playscape” on the site of a traffic rotary in England; a pamphlet details the layout for an “Exploded School” that would give free art instruction in a nonhierarchical educational system.

Norman’s current undertaking, the Geocruiser, offers a glimmer of hope for those who like their art to promote the common good. Developed with the Institute of Visual Culture in Cambridge and the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Geocruiser is a fully functional bus complete with library, reading room, and photocopier (powered by solar panels on the roof) dedicated to spreading the word on eco-activism and “radical among other progressive topics. Production plans and meticulously crafted models for the bus were on view in the gallery; in August the full-size vehicle launched a yearlong tour, visiting sites around the UK and Europe.

Taking a less specifically didactic tone was Dismal Garden, 2001, fifty-three computer-drawn color prints that present a comic narrative. They tell the gleefully sordid tale of the demise of art’s old-school traditions—embodied by a trendy dinner theater for artists and curators—which should open the way to a glorious “new zone of critical combat.” The story features a lively and bizarre cast of characters who are led on a journey of discovery by the spectral images of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the caricaturist James Gillray, both active in England in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Other historical figures, including Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht, and William Morris, dressed in current fashions (Prada, Gucci), rub elbows with eerie composites of contemporary art-world denizens. Too complicated and absurd to allow easy description, Norman’s multilayered satire manages to simultaneously attack pretentious sartorial posturing, point out the gradual dimming of revolutionary fires, and even poke fun at its own efforts.

Participating in a long history of sociopolitical critique, Norman wisely acknowledges art’s limited effectiveness, especially given today's narcissistic, market-oriented scene. Yet he is not willing to give up the notion that art can offer a useful means of disseminating valuable information. Works like the Geocruiser attest to a continuing belief in the need to operate in a less hermetic, public realm.

Gregory Williams