#museums #historicity #institutional critique #detournement #appropriation
The exhibition Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology at UCLA’s Hammer Museum is an effort to comprehensively document the artistic modes of appropriation and institutional critique that emerged in American contemporary art of the 1970s–1990s. While related, these are two distinct forms—appropriation being the art of repurposing images and forms from an established, original context to a new, transformative one, while institutional critique is generally defined by installation-based art practices that appropriate and détourne forms and images from within institutional contexts such as museums and academia. Artists associated with institutional critique include Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson, Renée Green, Martha Rosler, and Adrian Piper, all of whose work is included at the Hammer. Within the period of the exhibition’s scope, these artists had practices that were boundary-pushing and provocative. Nonetheless, that era is more than twenty years in the past, and the edginess and discomfort associated with these artists has largely given way to sanctification. As the critique generation enters the canon, it’s appropriate to ask whether the form of institutional critique can evolve to remain relevant and keep pressure on institutions that remain problematic and change-averse.
The first work I saw at the Hammer was Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), a performative lecture and collection tour at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a fitting introduction to the exhibition’s larger issues. In this work, Fraser, in the guise of a docent, articulates the unspoken class privilege that underpins American art museums that are invested in a Neo-Classical ideology imported from Europe. Fraser’s casual noblesse oblige is jarring, her distinction between the haves and have-nots blunt, but her tone differs dramatically from that of today’s tycoons who tend to favor more inclusive and populist rhetoric while disinvesting in culture as a public benefit. By comparison, one might even feel a kind of nostalgia for the targets of Fraser’s critique. Fraser’s own ascent to the highest levels of the art world has paralleled that of institutional critique as a discipline. As her profile has risen, the forms of her critique have shifted, from models rooted in her body and in specific sites to works that engage the global networks of back-room deals and questionable funding sources that underpin contemporary art markets worldwide. Like the medium of institutional critique itself, Fraser is embedded in and supported by the very institutions she critiques. As such, her often stark analyses are themselves circumscribed by the targets of her criticism, softening her impact. This is a challenging condition shared by many of the artists in the Hammer show because they must be inside the institutions in order to critique them from within, but their criticisms are also instrumentalized and dampened by the institutional context.
A panel discussion, “The Future of Institutional Critique,” brought several artists together with the exhibition curators Anne Ellegood and Johanna Burton to discuss these very issues. Fraser joined Mary Kelly, Dara Birnbaum, and Judith Barry in a discussion of the philosophical and psychoanalytic doctrines that gave rise to the conceptual methodology of institutional critique that they each employ. As a form, institutional critique exists somewhere between installation art and curatorial practice. Its basis in Marxist philosophy and psychoanalytic theory manifests through emphasis of material as historical trace, audience as subject and object, and labor as performance. For example, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–1977), an excerpt of which is on view at the Hammer, is a material archive of objects associated with the artist’s young son. When Kelly marks her child’s onesies with intersubjectivity axis diagrams derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis, framing them as art objects, she makes transparent her own deeply personal need to nurture her son’s developing sense of self and her struggle to balance that with the cool, critical distance of the conceptual artist. It is the artist’s vulnerability as much as her intellect that causes the work to remain vital and powerful. Conversely, time has softened the critical position of Dara Birnbaum’s PM Magazine (1982), a remixing of early 1980s television from a feminist perspective, that today appears charmingly nostalgic. Birnbaum’s more recent work Arabesque (2011) abandons such anachronistic technology to apply a feminist critique to the history of classical music, invoking the story of Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, a 19th-century composer couple whose artistic talents were more equally matched than their relative levels of renown would suggest. These works are historicized through their presentation at the Hammer as elsewhere, but the pressures of parenthood (including scarce time and insufficient support structures) that Mary Kelly documents, and the unequal treatment of men and women in creative professions that Dara Birnbaum confronts, remain very present concerns for a majority of viewers.These realities were articulated at the panel discussion yet go unremarked within the exhibition itself.
Because the Hammer exhibition is framed as a historical survey, it does not represent institutional critique as a living discipline but rather as a contained movement. The downside of this approach is that it can perpetuate the impression that institutional critique is either no longer achievable or no longer necessary. On the contrary, the form is being revived by a younger generation that includes Occupy Museums and GULF (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction). Like the Art Workers’ Coalition—a movement that profoundly influenced the generation of artists represented at the Hammer—these contemporary collectives are concerned with fair labor practices at art museums that increasingly operate like multinational corporations. These groups, rooted in a political theater of the streets, are staging interventions in museums to protest precarious employment at home and exploitative conditions abroad. On March 29, GULF staged an intervention at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in protest of the conditions of extreme indenture faced by thousands of mostly Bangladeshi temporary workers being imported into Abu Dhabi to build the Guggenheim and Louvre complexes on Saadiyat Island. On a crowded Saturday evening, the group dropped onto patrons thousands of printed “dollar bills” bearing slogans criticizing the museum’s complicity with abusive labor practices. As museums become more invested in global branding and more embedded in global markets, the future of institutional critique must include a push for greater transparency and attention to the money trail that drives the human impact of the global business of art.
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology is on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum through May 18, 2014.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.