“Imagine Action”

The Lisson Gallery turned forty this year, and in celebration its summer show explored the work of a new generation of (mostly European) artists whose practices are rooted in the Conceptual work that the gallery helped pioneer. Curated by Emily Pethick (director of Casco, Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht), “Imagine Action” was billed as a “look at the space between the individual and the social”—a phrase that raises various teasing problems. Given the inseparability of constructions of individual identity and collective social formations, this “space” might be nonexistent. And yet if the individual case is stripped of its particularity and represented as just another category, it is effectively negated. Reflecting the paradox, many of the show’s exhibits both revisited, yet seemed subtly to ironize, Conceptualism’s tendency to present social relationships through abstract schemata rather than via representations that particularize and concretize subjective social experience.

The single piece representing the Lisson of the ’70s was a work grounded in the models and experimental practices of ’60s psychology, sociology, and anthropology: Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror, recorded on video at De Appel, Amsterdam, in 1977. (Graham also repeated the performance live at the gallery during the course of the exhibition.) the artist’s audience, seated before a mirrored wall, is treated to a running commentary on the minutiae of its, and Graham’s own, appearance and actions. At an abstracted, structural level, the piece is absolutely reflexive: The physical relation of performer and audience provides the work’s explicit subject matter. As regards institutional relations, however, the work’s mechanism is very different. The youthful (student?) audience greets Graham’s banal chatter about his belt loops, elbow positioning, and lack of dandruff with fidgeting, polite smiles, and respectful silence; the artist’s right to monologue goes unchallenged. If Graham’s performance of quasi-pedagogical authority is reflexively self-critical, then that reflexivity is premised solely on factors of context and interpretation, not the “letter of the text.”

Thus, Graham’s piece seems only partially reflexive regarding the subject-object relations it establishes. Luca Frei’s sculpture Untitled, 2004, installed downstairs, seemed almost a commentary on that situation. Six diminutive benches, their cotton-covered seats colored in rainbow hues (faintly recalling Art and Language’s stretched-canvas chairs and tables), surround a simplified “tree” made from black powder–coated iron rods. Hexagonal Plexiglas disks in colors matching the benches hang like fruit from its branches. The work suggests kindergarten furniture: “circle time” for small utopians-in-training. Hinting at both liberating play and disguised indoctrination, it’s a studiedly ambiguous artifact. So is Althea Thauberger’s Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt (Social Service ≠ Art Project), 2006, a video of a dance performance developed over several months by Thauberger and a group of young German men participating in a government program for conscientious objectors, as an alternative to military service. Clambering around a bare scaffolding set, the men mime a sequence of schematic social scenarios, announced by written captions: “A misunderstanding leads to conflict,” for example. Shot in monochrome and beautifully lit, the film is faintly camp, yet also sincere, even epic. Posing questions about the social uses of aesthetic production, it undermines its own title’s sign of nonequivalence.

The practice of abstracting social relations is questioned most explicitly in Pia Rönicke’s Model for Cinema, 2007. A foam-core model holds three miniature screens on which videos are projected. Each relates to experiments in architecture as social engineering. In one, three developers roam a prospective site, improvising generic planner-speak about “ensuring that all values are rooted” and “establishing a critical forum.” The rote phrases hint that real social relations and individual experiences slip through the net of such formal abstractions, and they return viewers to an overarching concern of the show: the problem of the unfixed relationship between representational form and ideological valence.

Rachel Withers