David Levine

Galerie Feinkost

Desire for success is as integral to the economy as money. The same applies to the so-called cultural economy. Both, however, evince a yawning gulf between expectation and return. The number of those who just about get by—let alone “make it”—is dwarfed by the armada of unknowns who labor for years, agonize, and fail. Nevertheless, with sheer tenacity, they write yet another application and throw themselves at the mercy of the market for the umpteenth time. David Levine’s exhibition “Hopeful” picks up precisely from this point: Its only materials are applications written by actors to a New York theater agent, unanswered and thrown away. Since May 2005, Levine has literally been pulling them out of the trash, collecting, and cataloguing them.

And so the walls of the gallery are full of cover letters, envelopes, and, most strikingly, more than two thousand head shots, simply sorted into chronological blocks. Sometimes appearing amateurish, sometimes very serious, relaxed, or even in specific roles—banker, dreamy guy with naked torso and coffee cup in hand, soldier—these actors offer themselves to us. The images are all extremely different in spite of their largely standardized formats. But each tells the same story of the absolute desire to succeed, the irrepressible hope of being signed by an agent, gaining professional representation, and thus being anointed a “real” actor.

You observe this panorama of self-salesmanship with a mix of sad empathy and voyeurism. And, above all, you wonder at this unbelievable mass of cultural waste. It is possible to read Levine’s installation as a critique of an economic system that produces this discarded heap of hope, not by chance, but out of necessity. You could transpose this entire ensemble from the world of film, television, and theater to the art market, in which the rules are not so different. Or do these different worlds actually extol different values, even if linked here by a path leading from the expensive investment in the application folder to its “invalidation” by the agent, and finally to its “revaluation” as part of an artwork? And, moreover, is it actually morally acceptable to show these applications without their authors’ knowledge? Can you “illegitimately” appropriate rubbish?

The installation’s “medium” is clear: At heart, it consists of nothing more than a kind of sociological archive. This overwhelming accumulation and the plethora of questions it provokes appear to have a powerful effect. And yet, contrary to the formal reduction on which it is based, this exhibition overreaches in terms of its content. It draws so much of its charge from the frisson of authenticity—from the fact that this is a piece about “real” applications and the “real” fates of “real people”—that, unfortunately, it cannot bind the affective potential sparked here to a deeper message and to its own “positioning,” its implication in a system comparable to the one it takes as its subject. What remains is, in its visual and material vehemence, an emphatic visualization of the abstract rules of an economy in which all must sell themselves, and yet only a few find a buyer.

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Emily Speers Mears.