“Casino 2001”

“Casino 2001: First Quadrennial of Contemporary Art” (the SMAK being housed in a former casino) was the kind of show where you think you know what to expect beforehand: the usual array of young artists, mainly from Western Europe and the United States and mainly from a certain network of galleries, curators, and art schools. However, it was such a poor example of this genre that it became an unintended assault on the whole system.

Curated by New York gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, “Casino 2001” included works by sixty artists, and the imbalance between chaff and wheat was extreme. Most of the better contributions were in the SMAK itself; the other main locations—the medieval Bijlokemuseum and a disused underground bunker in the park—were almost complete disasters. In the Bijlokemuseum, Keith Edmier's somewhat disconcerting collaboration with his idol Farrah Fawcett was a rare exception to the general torpor: Their works included a sculpture of Rodin-like hands and a photograph of Fawcett's head resting on Edmier's naked shoulder (The Space Between You and Me, 2000–2001). Edmier has taken fandom to its uncanny limits, raising questions about our secular star religion. To see the works in the other “exotic” location one had to be accompanied by a guard through the bunker's gloomy concrete corridors. Darren Almond's elegiac black-and-white video of a ride through an amusement park's haunted house (Geisterbahn, 1999) was the only work that profited from this dominating environment while not being completely dependent on it for effect.

In the SMAK there were some examples of painting “expanded” beyond the easel picture. Katharina Grosse covered the walls with cloudy color fields, while Olaf Nicolai's wall decoration with stripes of Pantone colors entertained a more conceptual dialogue with mural painting. Michel Majerus showed an installation of paintings, some of which were traditional canvases and some of which were computer prints. The different panels were structured to form three aisles, each with a band in a different color on the sides. For Majerus, everything in our visual culture is material to be reprocessed into stylish patterns and compositions devoid of meaning but full of atmosphere and suggestion. It is a rather cynical art, but at least Majerus is superb at the game he's playing. Looking at this work, it is hard to believe that painting has often been declared obsolete—if anything, Majerus's art is rather too emphatically of its time, too cool for its own good. There is an immense contrast with the sobriety of Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij's color film Bantar Gebang, 2001. Bantar Gebang shows a slum on a large garbage dump near Jakarta; the film consists of one continuous shot during which dawn rums to day, with a static camera reminiscent of primitive cinema and of video surveillance. Gradually the image becomes less atmospheric and the squalor becomes more visible. Such a focused and uncompromising work seemed to utterly condemn the superficiality of almost everything else in the show.

In the catalogue Rohatyn tries to give her assembly of artists some theoretical foundation, citing Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle and claiming that “Casino 2001” tries to “strip the Spectacle of awe”—a transparent attempt to give this insipid collection of commodities some sort of theoretical street cred. One imagines Debord turning in his grave even more frantically than usual, as his work is reduced to a quasi-theoretical excuse for a group show whose artists eagerly participate in the spectacular economy he opposed. By its sheer bluntness and inadequacy, “Casino 2001” showed the whole system of biennials, triennials, and so on stripped bare, and it's not a pretty sight. Perhaps it's time for art criticism to leave this type of show to the attention of sociologists—or to conspiracy theorists.

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