New York

Ward Shelley

Pierogi

For his recent project here, Ward Shelley took the mouse as metaphor, built a gallery inside the gallery, and took up residence in the gap between the two. But while most rodents do their best to remain out of sight, Shelley had rigged a complex of cameras, peepholes, and monitors—eight of which were mounted on a wooden post in the center of the inner gallery—so that viewers could witness him scurrying, sleeping, or making art in his new habitat, and he in turn could watch them watching him.

Shelley had made a series of pencil drawings on canvas that scrolled through a hole cut in the inner wall and openly invoked the tradition of the artist living in the gallery or designated performance space. Famous Art You Never Saw (all works 2004) included images of Joseph Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974, in which the German artist lived with a coyote in the René Block Gallery in New York for a week; Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano’s 1983–84 performance in which the two artists chained themselves together for a year; Chris Burden’s 1971 MFA thesis project, for which he squeezed himself into a locker and stayed for five days; and Vito Acconci’s infamous Seedbed, 1972, in which the artist masturbated under a ramp installed at Sonnabend Gallery, his moans audible to visitors via speaker.

Shelley might also have referenced newer works: Oleg Kulik living at Deitch Projects, pretending to be dog for the brilliantly titled I Bite America and America Bites Me, 1997, or Rirkrit Tiravanija’s October 2003 project in which a life-size model of the artist watched TV in a specially built room within GBE Modern. Even the profound reconfigurations of gallery spaces wrought by Thomas Hirschhorn, Gregor Schneider, and Christoph Büchel could be considered part of this lineage. In Shelley’s own The Cube, 2001, visitors crawled through a claustrophobic maze constructed inside the gallery as tiny cameras in the walls took their portraits, creating an experience similar to Büchel’s or Schneider’s in that the viewer became both physically and psychologically implicated in the work.

Unfortunately, the nods and references the artist himself provided cluttered more than clarified the work. Shelley would have done better to leave out the extras: the “diary” of T-shirts hand-lettered daily with slogans like “Living the unexamined life” or “There goes my 15 minutes” and hung on a rack; the Famous Art scroll itself; or Shelley’s own hand-penned metaphysical musings pinned up around the gallery (though they included Bruce Nauman’s terse Eat/Live/Shit/Die, which had some amusing relevance). The mouse metaphor and its attendant references to gentrification (the press release linked the mouse’s survival strategies to the ways in which “prosperity and development have made things harder for Williamsburg’s hand-to-mouth residents”) were also more distracting than illuminating. And the mouse, in the end, seemed like a safe choice compared with the more tenacious and embattled (and less cute) rat.

The key to the works cited in Famous Art was the physical presence of the artist—which this project shared—and endurance, which it didn’t (Shelley allowed himself to leave the gallery). On the other hand, technology, which the other projects did not address, was a solid element of “We Have Mice.” The sense of presence, absence, and dislocation in the surveillance imagery added a fascinating angle to the work, and with walls and cameras alone Shelley would have sparked the viewer’s imagination, allowing him or her to make a host of connections among architecture, theater, surveillance, art, and beyond.

Martha Schwendener