NL Architects (Pieter Bannenberg, Walter Van Dijk, Kamiel Klaasse, and Mark Linnemann), Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003, color photograph.

NL Architects (Pieter Bannenberg, Walter Van Dijk, Kamiel Klaasse, and Mark Linnemann), Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003, color photograph.

“Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye”

The fact that tourism is “the largest industry in the world” is trumpeted several times in the opening pages of the catalogue for “Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye,” curated by Francesco Bonami and featuring more than seventy artists from nearly thirty countries. Given that museums themselves compete in this industry, usually by throwing millions at brand-name architectural add-ons while lining up blockbuster exhibitions of designer evening wear and laying off staff, the decision to make tourism the subject of curatorial investigation would seem a welcome instance of enlightened reflexivity, an opportunity not just to get swept along by this trend but to question it.

“Universal Experience” offers glimpses of the neocolonial politics of tourism, its use as a strategic weapon both by first-world invaders (as in NL Architects’ digitally manipulated photograph Cruise City, City Cruise, 2003, showing amusement parks erected on the decks of prowling aircraft carriers) and by third-world hosts (as in Dinh Q. Lê’s faux travel poster Come Back to My Lai, 2004, showing a picturesque shoreline beneath the slogan “Come back to My Lai for its beaches.”) But for the most part, the exhibition portrays such cross-cultural encounters as sparking not political frisson but postmodern ennui. Nostalgia pervades many of the works (which sigh with titles like The Last Tour, 2004, by Marine Hugonnier, and The Last Resort, 1983–86, by Martin Parr), while the souvenir as degraded reproduction and fake emerges as a subtheme (as in Andy Warhol’s Double Mona Lisa, 1963, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s The Last Supper, 1999). A number of large color photographs of tacky theme parks and other tourist traps (like Alexander Timtschenko’s views of Las Vegas and Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s portraits of phony sacred statues) adopt a “post-tourist” viewpoint, delighting in the irony of seemingly archaic cultural essences concocted for the marketplace or the obviousness by which shopwindow techniques are applied to fantasies, landscapes, ethnicities, histories. From this perspective, the profound importance that internationalism and “other cultures” held for modernism is seen as only the first trickle of a global mudslide toward sameness. Robert Smithson, represented here by the film The Spiral Jetty, 1970, and the slide show Hotel Palenque, 1969–72, is made the poster child for this erosion theory of tourism.

The exhibition’s most energized room is a long, churchlike chamber on the museum’s top floor, at one end of which looms a projection of Warhol’s black-and-white 1964 film Empire. Further illuminating the darkened space is Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Visible World, 1986–2001, a ninety-two-foot-long light table covered edge to edge by hundreds of color slides documenting the art duo’s far-flung travels. Together, the Empire State Building and the procession of snapshots grid the room both vertically and horizontally, as the temporal vigilance of Warhol’s camera complements perfectly the spatial reach of the massive photo archive. Bonami, betraying his gallows humor, adds a third element, enshrining Jeff Koons’s Rabbit, 1986, under a spotlight midway down one of the long walls. Appearing at once coldly technological and perversely ritualistic, the sculpture superimposes a concrete figure atop the x- and y-axes of the other two works, as if it were embodying their themes of aggression and acquisition, a transecting of capital and empire in the commodity. Not only that, the bunny also extends the sense of panoptic surveillance, since every person in the room is reflected in its rounded, stainless-steel surface.

The title “Universal Experience” suggests the influence of John Urry’s 1990 book The Tourist Gaze, which addresses how formerly distinct spaces, institutions, and activities are now increasingly staged and themed to conform to touristic modes of perception, thereby, in Urry’s words, “universalizing the tourist gaze.” But in contrast to Urry’s analytical model, Bonami’s more possessive trope of “the tourist’s eye” subjectifies and personalizes. His show equates tourism with transit in general and, beyond that, with any sort of flow of events, which further gets reduced to experience per se and life itself. “Exhibitions encounter crisis,” Bonami warns in the sole essay included in the 280-page catalogue, “when they start to worry more about being understood than the experiences they offer.”

And so “Universal Experience” sees no need to separate tourists from drifters, pilgrims, campers, flaneurs, and nomads. The show collapses not only the modern distinction between vulgar tourists (too often equated here with working-class families on holiday, as in Parr’s mean-spirited snapshots) and enlightened travelers (here represented by artist-adventurers like Simon Starling and Rirkrit Tiravanija) but also the more basic difference between wanting and needing to travel, between the fantasies consumed by tourists and the realities confronted by, say, asylum seekers (the latter portrayed in Phil Collins’s How to Make a Refugee, 2000). This confusion is further amplified by the catalogue, which accompanies Bonami’s short text with a hailstorm of quotes from more than one hundred writers. Here you find Antonio Gramsci alongside Yogi Berra, pearls of wisdom from both Gautama Buddha and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. There’s a list ranking countries that produce the most refugees (Palestine and Afghanistan lead with 3 million and 2.5 million, respectively) as well as a map pinpointing all the international biennials and triennials of contemporary art ever mounted. To make “tourism” into a metaphor this all-encompassing is to render it utterly stupid.

Bonami has been faulted along these lines before. But it’s misleading to take his obstinate refusal to produce focused shows as a sign of either egomaniacal overreaching (although he does start off the present catalogue with a picture of himself at age sixteen touring Norway on a Vespa) or sheer laziness (although “Universal Experience” does reprise works from Bonami’s past efforts at Manifesta and Venice). Whether consciously or not, he’s only adhering to today’s dominant consumer-business model. Simulated randomness is de rigueur (“Life is random,” says an Apple ad campaign). The motto Bonami unveiled in Venice, “the dictatorship of the viewer,” happens to also be the sales pitch for TiVo. International curators like Bonami have achieved dominance because of their power to set the artworld’s master checklist, the seemingly exhaustive inventory from which we each download our supposedly “personal” artscapes. In our age of deregulated, free-market global capitalism, the canon may have collapsed, but in its place has risen only the curator’s Rolodex, the artworld’s iPod writ large.

Lane Relyea is assistant professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.