New York

Zefrey Throwell, Ocularpation: Wall Street, 2011, still from a color video, 19 minutes 58 seconds.

Zefrey Throwell, Ocularpation: Wall Street, 2011, still from a color video, 19 minutes 58 seconds.

Zefrey Throwell Klemens

Tanja Grunert Gallery

Zefrey Throwell, Ocularpation: Wall Street, 2011, still from a color video, 19 minutes 58 seconds.

On August 1, less than a month and a half before last year’s occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, Zefrey Throwell staged the performance Ocularpation: Wall Street. At 7 AM, fifty volunteers, dressed in the garb of a range of professions—from personal assistant to trader, prostitute, dog walker, janitor, and lawyer—gathered in front of the New York Stock Exchange and at other locations on Wall Street and stripped naked for five minutes. Three performers were arrested, charged with exposure, and later bailed out by the artist. Throwell has stated that this project was triggered by his mother’s loss of retirement savings during the recent economic crisis, and that his intent was to shed light on the “mysteriousness,” the opacity, of the downtown financial industry by highlighting the diversity of its workforce.

At Gasser Grunert, Ocularpation was presented as a video, with amateurish intercutting of still photos and live-action footage, a sanctimonious voice-over by the artist, and a trite electronic sound track that attempts (in vain) to heighten the drama. If the video were straightforward documentation, or if the performance were an investigation into the limits of the use of public space in relation to the New York Penal Law, section 245.01 (Exposure of a Person), it might have had greater resonance. Even more worrisome are the jarringly grandiose claims made by Throwell in the voice-over. He asserts—seemingly without irony—that the performance not only catalyzed Occupy Wall Street but also spawned the Occupations that subsequently emerged around the US and the world. Ocularpation, he states, “was the flash point for the current massive unrest in the United States; a fifty-person naked performance galvanized the American consciousness and paved the way for OWS to blossom, pollinate, and spread across the globe.” The video’s opening sequence features clips of Occupy Wall Street and its national and global outgrowths, and the artist intersperses the footage with quasi-revolutionary slogans such as THE SPARK IN THE TINDERBOX, FROM WALL STREET TO ALL OF NEW YORK, FROM NEW YORK TO THE WHOLE WORLD. Perhaps Throwell was intoxicated by the copious media coverage his performance received—and really, who could resist reporting on folks “exposing” corruption by stripping on the street—but that hardly excuses his narcissistic and patently ahistorical claims about the performance’s influence on the Occupy movement. As much as I’d like to give Throwell the benefit of the doubt, his project gets uncomfortably close to ego-activism camouflaged as good-faith social action.

In the performance, Throwell effectively positions himself as the ringleader, which is directly at odds with the horizontal, nonhierarchical spirit of the Occupy movement. He seems oblivious to the thorny, ideological implications of autonomous artistic authorship vis-à-vis decentralized organizational politics. Yet a selection of artworks generated by the performance may represent an attempt by Throwell to allude to the contradictions of working within the sphere of art commerce. These works include painted silk screens that ape a Rauschenbergian style (incorporating photographs of the performance and clothing typical of traders) and a display of everyday objects that represent the props utilized by the performers (handcuffs, brooms, coffee cups, BlackBerries, ties, baseball caps, etc.), here covered in gold enamel and presented on shelves. However, merely alluding to the umbilical cord of gold that connects art and lucre has little critical value in 2012.

Many people lost money in the financial crisis, harbor deep skepticism regarding the bailout, and remain frustrated by income inequality. Artists will continue to respond to these conditions, but I’m not convinced that Throwell’s provocation was particularly salutary or influential: He comes off as an activist-cum-showman groping for a persuasive aesthetic.

Joshua Decter