Los Angeles

View of “Stories of Almost Everyone,” 2018. Photo: Joshua White.

View of “Stories of Almost Everyone,” 2018. Photo: Joshua White.

“Stories of Almost Everyone”

Hammer Museum

View of “Stories of Almost Everyone,” 2018. Photo: Joshua White.

A KIND OF POST-CONCEPTUAL malaise crept over me when, twenty minutes into viewing “Stories of Almost Everyone,” a group exhibition centered on the narratives that “accompany” objects, I found myself spending more time reading and rereading wall texts than looking at the works themselves. Of course, one could graft this overreliance on mostly dry, institutionally crafted text onto a critical argument about the further evacuation of art’s aura—and a concomitant call for further engagement with the discourse surrounding art’s production and reception—but I don’t think that’s what curators Aram Moshayedi and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi are after.

Rather, in attending to the narratives attached to objects, the curators aim to pressurize our expectations of those objects’ purposes and histories. Many of the works in the exhibition, such as Danh Vo’s Lot 34. Replogle Thirty-Two-Inch Library Globe, 2013, which takes former secretary of defense Robert McNamara’s light-up globe as a politically charged readymade, struggle valiantly with and against museological recounting. Jason Dodge’s The Acrobats Are Sleeping,2010–11, four small pillows that have “only been slept on by acrobats,” and Christodoulos Panayiotou’s Independence Street, 2012, comprising five heavily used electricity poles from Limassol, Cyprus, similarly posit circumstance as a magic wand that turns otherwise unremarkable things remarkable. Whether the artist contrives these circumstances or merely points to them doesn’t seem to matter much; simply communicating them is intended to make viewers reassess what they thought they knew about the thing appearing before them.

I’ll grant the exhibition this: At first sight, it is bracing and courageous in its installation. The curators have gathered a series of sculptural provocations—two socks on the floor (Kasper Bosmans, George IV Kilt Hose, 2017), an empty postcard holder (Ceal Floyer, Wish you were here, 2008), a broom standing upright on its bristles (Michael Queenland, Untitled, 2017). And their best text is not theirs at all but a reeling, evocative, fictional audio guide written and performed by Kanishk Tharoor. Over the course of six vignettes, Tharoor reveals what a delicate business description can be, and what an oblique approach can achieve.

Still, too many of the works rely on the same operation—they are appropriative husks, coming too late to once-novel tactics that have long since sedimented. Mark Leckey’s Copy of Richard Hamilton’s Diab DS-101 Computer (1985–89), 2014, and Darren Bader’s Sculpture #3 and printed image, both dates unknown, each remake another artist’s work. Compounding the trouble, at least in Leckey’s case, is the fact that Richard Hamilton’s sculpture DIAB DS-101 Computer, 1985–89, which is also on display nearby behind a dividing wall, is itself a readymade that was chosen in a technotopian moment. When Leckey remakes Hamilton’s work in cardboard, his efforts seem not only unnecessary but also devoid of the strangeness that Hamilton’s work still possesses—perhaps an elaboration of its spectacular obsolescence. The mise en abyme of authorship, with its emphases on materiality and delay, is less and less surprising with each encounter here.

Three works from Kapwani Kiwanga’s 2014–17 “Flowers for Africa” series. From top: Tanganyika, 2014; Algeria, 2014; Libya, 2014. Photo: Joshua White.

The most successful works in the show are more puckish in tone. Shahryar Nashat’s Last Seen (Memorial for La Shape), 2018, purports to be a memorial to a green dodecahedron sculpture known as “La Shape,” a prop in some of Nashat’s prior works that met an “unanticipated demise at the height of its career.” An otherwise empty tinted-Plexiglas case tops a shiny pink plinth, signaling a queer glitch in museological display. Nashat has wrapped the pages of the exhibition catalogue on his work around the outside of his sculpture, effectively doubling the wall text and cheekily winking at La Shape’s new life as a representation of itself. Here it isn’t, here it is.

In attending to the narratives attached to objects, the curators aim to pressurize our expectations of those objects’ purposes and histories.

In another gesture toward circumstance and its manipulation, the curators chose works that delegated performances to the gallery guards. In one room, an attendant rings Amalia Pica’s prostrate bell (Time Keeping, 2009); in another, every thirty minutes on the hour, gallery personnel push a small button on the underside of a piano, sending the instrument into convulsions (Martin Creed, Work No. 569, 2006). In the last room, a guard (or, more precisely, a performer posing as a guard) takes off their clothes, engaging in an extended striptease that ends with a declaration of the work’s title (Tino Sehgal, selling out, 2002). These sounds—the bell, the banging lid of the piano, and the voice of Sehgal’s performer—mark one’s time in the exhibition and enliven a viewer’s experience. But does Sehgal’s work, which considers the entanglement of desire and careerism, have to be placed next to Kapwani Kiwanga’s wilting flower arrangements, sourced from archival images of various African countries’ independence celebrations? Kiwanga’s “Flowers for Africa” works, produced between 2014 and 2017, recount the end of formalized Western colonialism on the continent through Western art history’s most intractable metaphor for fleeting life: the decaying flower. Both times I saw the exhibition, Sehgal’s performer was a young, thin white person. The juxtaposition cheapens the effect of Kiwanga’s project primarily because of the unambiguous nature of this particular Sehgal work. Kiwanga’s installation is quiet, unfolding over the duration of the exhibition, while Sehgal’s performance “colonizes” the attention of viewers in any space in which it is performed. In this pairing, Kiwanga’s flowers function as mere set decoration. One could fashion, as I just have, a link between the two projects via the language of occupation and liberation, but what happens in the room is less interesting.

“Stories of Almost Everyone” toggles between being earnest, feinting, and being earnest about feinting. The “Almost” in the title is an important, and often infuriating, hedge. This is best summed up by a piece of petrified wood from Carol Bove’s studio, importantly not credited as a work by the artist, but exhibited nonetheless. Count this as a return to the aura via the conceptual processes that helped remove it in the first place.

Andy Campbell is a Los Angeles–based art historian, critic, and curator.