New York

Andrea Fraser

There’s a storied moment in Andrea Fraser’s 2001 video Little Frank and His Carp: Touring the Guggenheim Bilbao, the artist, exhorted by her audio guide to admire the architecture, proceeds to share an erotic interlude with a wall. Fraser’s twelve-minute video A Visit to the Sistine Chapel, 2005, on view in her recent show at Friedrich Petzel, has a similar premise. It, too, follows the artist on an audio-guided tour, this time through the Vatican Museum. But its humor is less outré, as befits the setting. The laughs derive mainly from Fraser’s deadpan reactions to the inevitable rhetorical absurdities that crop up as the interactive Acoustiguide leads her through the vaunted halls of old-world culture. (“The Sistine Chapel is one of the finest examples of art being used to express the Word which God revealed to mankind. For more information, press the green button.”)

In the Vatican Museum, all roads lead to the Sistine Chapel, toward which one is beguiled by enticing signage, a little like P. T. Barnum’s famous THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS. A Visit finds Fraser holding the Acoustiguide headset to her ear as she negotiates the throng and takes in the Gallery of Maps, the Sobieski Room, and Raphael’s Rooms. The video’s style is more or less that of a PBS documentary, with the camera following Fraser closely but occasionally turning to the art or the crowds of visitors. But the real focal point is the sound track: Fraser’s disembodied docents, speaking in English accents over occasional flourishes of classical music. Whoever writes the Vatican’s audio-guide scripts is evidently untroubled by the sins—Eurocentrism, elitism, colonialism—for which other Western cultural institutions have labored to atone (albeit with varying degrees of conviction). Thus the Brits approvingly note that “a visit to the museums and galleries becomes the experience of a lifetime”; that cartography helped to create the “modern world”; that the king of Poland, immortalized in a giant history painting, saved Europe from the Turkish hordes; that Raphael’s painting “consecrat[es] the union between Christianity and knowledge”; and so on. It all adds up to a remarkably concise summary of how art abetted the creation and maintenance of European (thence “Western”) subjectivity.

As she listens, Fraser’s alternately wry and bemused expressions suggest the tenor of her thoughts. But she lets the museum speak for itself and allows viewers to mull the disconnect between the overcrowded, commercialized museum they are seeing and the mythologized cultural mecca they’re hearing about. Ultimately, the historical trajectory posited by the Acoustiguide terminates in the spectacle before our eyes: Snapping pictures and buying tchotchkes at merchandise kiosks, the heirs of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have devolved into an atomized populace of consumers.

On view alongside A Visit were seven photographs in which Pollocks are superimposed over Titians, and de Koonings are layered over Raphaels: A de Kooning female figure is bizarrely interpolated into the sepia chiaroscuro of a Raphael Madonna and Child drawing, while Pollock’s seminal drips and spatters profane the alabaster skin of Titian nudes. The visual and conceptual juxtapositions seem pat, but the works become more interesting when you learn that they are recent prints of images Fraser created in 1984 from slides she’d obtained from museum libraries and gift shops. In other words, even at the beginning of her career, she was experimenting with direct and trenchant gestures that render institutional mechanisms and ideologies transparent.

Elizabeth Schambelan