Andrea Fraser

On returning home to Berlin from Hamburg, where I had seen Andrea Fraser’s midcareer retrospective, I was besieged with questions about the artist’s new “sex work,” a videotaped performance for which she was “commissioned” to have sex with a collector. “Did you like it?” I was repeatedly asked, and I found, even to my own surprise, that I had to answer yes, I liked it very much. This work, called Untitled, is clearly in keeping with a risk-laden artistic investigation that began in 2001 with two pieces: Kunst muss hängen (Art Must Hang), Fraser’s re-creation of an impromptu 1995 speech by Martin Kippenberger, and Official Welcome, a performance that had been criticized for its “exhibitionism,” since Fraser strips in one part. With Kunst muss hängen, Fraser had announced a new phase in her methods of what I would call “incorporating appropriation,” performances in which the line between “being” and “acting,” between authenticity and imitation, is no longer drawn. Fraser convincingly mutates into Kippenberger, attempting to “become” him in all his drunken provocations and sweeping gestures. Similarly, in Official Welcome, which originally took place in a private home in New York and was revised, restaged, and documented on video for its presentation in Hamburg, Fraser moves among curatorial, critical, and artistic styles of rhetoric. It is a testament to Fraser’s impersonating capacity that this carefully scripted role-playing doesn’t veer into irony. Rather, one has the impression that she lives and breathes the modes of speech she appropriates.

One could argue, as Adorno has, that this form of art, which mimetically gives itself over to that with which it is grappling, is nevertheless a kind of critique. But when Fraser, in Little Frank and His Carp, 2001, visits the Guggenheim Bilbao and literally snuggles up to the museum’s architecture—what Adorno would call its “petrified conditions”—caressing its curving walls and, by suggestion, fucking it, the claim of criticism becomes questionable: This hardly constitutes distanced analysis. Still, Fraser’s work forces us to rethink the idea of critique as a form of abandon, enabled simultaneously by the relative autonomy of art and by its institutional constraints—a critique that both delves into the belly of the beast and analyzes its features.

In Official Welcome, this kind of critical abandon is also manifested as the exposure of the artist (especially the performance artist), an idea Fraser pushes to its literal extreme: When she undresses, her naked body is placed at the mercy of the public, and yet this objectification does not prevent her from retaining her subjective autonomy. During the performance, she removes her dress in a remarkably casual way—quite unlike the suggestive disrobing of a stripper—continuing to speak, unperturbed, words flowing in a mix of reflection and recounted experience, of autobiography and fiction. When Fraser steps out from behind the lectern, she is naked, fully revealed to the audience and camera, but she assumes the overdetermined pose of a Vanessa Beecroft model. In Fraser’s shaking sobs at the work’s conclusion, the authentic blends into the play-acted: She actually cries and plays crying at the same time. That’s why it is so moving.

That celebrity artists’ bodies are, in a sense, on display alongside their work—note that Fraser wears Gucci in Official Welcome—is a recurring theme. In her “sex work,” the client—a collector who remains anonymous—purchases the right to have sex with Fraser and to participate actively in the creation of the piece. But what may at first look like a tired comparison of art and prostitution is actually much more complicated. Fraser’s formal decisions to work with a fixed video position resembling that of a security camera and to eliminate sound create a distance from the conventions of pornography (cum shots, close-ups, sighs) and from artistic projects that have evoked these conventions, such as Jeff Koons’s lush and kitschy outdoor settings in the “Made in Heaven” series. Viewers see something relatively discreet: a small monitor showing a view of an elegant hotel room. In addition, the collector does not lecherously throw himself upon her. Quite the opposite: He lies entirely motionless, seemingly paralyzed. It is not enough that Fraser has sold this piece and by consequence herself to him—no, she also has to work to seduce him. The atmosphere is less sexually charged than oppressive; intermittently, though, a bit of humor comes through, and there are some positively tender moments. Obviously these surprising aspects lend complexity to the theme of the artist’s role in the marketplace. Everyone knows it’s not enough to do “good work” and then hope for an interested audience. Even those artists who have exhibitions must often pay for them by fronting their own money or, as Fraser’s work implies, in some other way.

Unfortunately, these recent efforts receded within this overly comprehensive retrospective. One couldn’t escape the impression that the far-flung expanses of the Kunstverein had to be filled at any cost. Since Fraser rarely produces objects for sale, information aesthetics dominated: tables with monitors, files, videotapes, sound installations. This had its pros and cons. While in the entrance area early works like Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989, were properly inviting, in the main hall one felt overwhelmed by all the projects, manuscripts, and data. It was also debatable to have included the collaborative project Services, 1994, which assured that it would be subsumed under Fraser’s name. Wouldn’t discussing this project—a seminal exploration of the idea of “art as service” initiated together by Fraser and Helmut Draxler—in the catalogue or inviting some comment from its other participants have been more appropriate? True, such hindsight-inspired suggestions always sound abstract and presumptuous, not to mention somewhat petty, in light of the enormously risky new work Fraser is currently engaged in. If she’s pushing the boundaries this far at midcareer, one can only wonder how she will top this strategy in the future.

“Andrea Fraser” is on view at the Institute of Visual Culture, Cambridge, England, through Dec. 28.

Isabelle Graw is professor of art theory at the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.

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