“Funky Lessons”


Whenever anyone headed toward the exit during the daily run of “Funky Lessons,” a young woman startled visitors by melodramatically swooning at their feet and, with a faraway gaze, uttering a few cryptic words before quickly rising and returning to the reception desk. She spoke in a monotone of moving “beyond the cul-de-sac of a false choice between harmless hermeticism and patronizing gestures,” a dichotomy that formed the premise of this show organized by German critic and Frieze editor Jörg Heiser. Lifting lines from the show’s press release, Tino Sehgal arranged for the impromptu performances (This Exhibition, 2004) as his artistic contribution. In this vein of comedy clashing with earnestness, Heiser also included twelve other artists who combine humor and didacticism to confront the charge of pedantry frequently leveled against conceptual art.

Even the show’s title—adapted from Adrian Piper’s well-known Funk Lessons, 1983, projected here onto a large wall—has an amusingly forced ring to it, sounding like a scene from Mike Myers’s Saturday Night Live sketch “Dieter’s Dance Party,” though unlike Dieter, Piper’s poker-faced directives are contradicted by the surprisingly loose and unselfconscious moves of her amateur dancers. The other historical anchor of the exhibition was John Baldessari’s Baldessari Sings LeWitt, 1972, a seminal black-and-white video of the artist singing Sol LeWitt’s instructional “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” 1969, to tunes like “Tea for Two” and “Camptown Races.” His hilariously deadpan performance confirms that the first-generation Conceptual artists themselves had a sense of how funny their typically stern and sober language could be.

The bulk of the exhibition consisted of work produced after theory became firmly entrenched in the art academies in the late ’80s. Annika Ström’s aphorisms painted in colorful block letters on paper—for example, I have no theory about this text, 2004—treat the emptiness at the heart of much “message-driven” art. Martin Gostner’s series of eight posters, “Festival of Fog,” 2004, pairs fictitious ads for yoga and kung fu courses with announcements for imaginary talks at BüroFriedrich. Eva Grubinger’s Das Diaphaidon oder die dezente Verwechslung der Gleichaltrigen (The Diaphaidon, or the Discrete Mix-up of Contemporaries), 1991, shows the artist sitting before an unseen audience with a film of a caged hamster projected behind her; while reciting a litany of dry scientific texts, her High German gradually shifts to her less comprehensible native Salzburg dialect, undercutting her pedagogical clout. In fact, it is the insertion of the artistic self into the midst of an unassuming public that leads to situations of mutually awkward edification in some of the more recent pieces. Passersby gawk as Andrea Fraser, prompted by an Acoustiguide tour, rubs her body provocatively against Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim interior in Little Frank and His Carp, 2001. Aleksandra Mir’s roughly edited video Organized Movement, 2004, derives from footage shot at parties, on the street, and in stores as the artist made her way through the urban spectacle, coaching strangers to synchronize their movements or make spontaneous commentaries. Erik van Lieshout’s video LARIAM, 2001, projected in a low shack made of cardboard and tape and resembling an upside-down pillbox, captures the artist in Ghana asking locals to help him turn a hard-to-pronounce Dutch phrase into a rap song. In all three, the artists themselves are caught up in an unpredictable exchange of information that does anything but guarantee their didactic authority. Yet having learned from their Conceptual-art predecessors, they do not completely abandon the goal of criticality—its effectiveness is simply no longer taken for granted.

Gregory Williams