New Museum of Contemporary Art
Through September 21, 2003
Above the stairwell in the current survey of the work of Venezuelan artist José Antonio Hernández-Diez at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, is a large color photograph of a four track shoes balanced atop one another against a bamboo wall, their logos spelling out the four letter word “Hume.” At first “Hume” (2000), like “Marx” (2000), which one encounters around the corner, seems like a boring one-liner. In New York as much as Caracas, expensive, name brand sneakers are a luxury item of urban street youth, symbols of restless pack identity, and symptoms of the ways in which commodity fetishism has supplanted the self and proliferated across lines of race, culture, and class. And David Hume is not only a canonical figure in European enlightenment philosophy, an enlightenment that coincided with colonization and repression in South America, but he was also a close friend of Adam Smith. Despite its obviousness, however, “Hume” gradually gets under the skin because of its ambiguity and an impudence that is outwardly playful but which might conceal a more mocking, threatening tone. The more I thought about “Hume” and “Marx” (“Jung” (2000) is also in the show), the more I was struck by the idea of the great European thinkers being wantonly reduced to logos of nothing by swift, anarchic street kids, then turned as obscenities back on educated art viewers.
Much of the strongest contemporary art coming out of Latin America is full of dark ironies and mocking, irreverent laughter targeted at the hypocrisy and elitism of the culture industry and the impact of globalization, which has created a strange, abstract kind of meta-colonialism: Miguel Calderon’s stunning Employee of the Month series, for instance, in which the janitorial staff of the National Museum of Art in Mexico City poses for tableaux of schlocky Baroque paintings on the roof of the museum, or Santiago Sierra’s piece in which he installed a massive replica of the American flag on a slum wall on the outskirts of Mexico City and documented its condition as neighborhood residents angrily and gleefully savaged it. Venezuela is perhaps peculiar because of its combination of substantial oil wealth (it was called “Venezuela Saudita” in the heady days of the 1970s), staggering class divisions, chronic street violence, and political instability that verges on the tragicomic: current President Hugo Chavez, a former leftist parachutist with ties to 1960s guerrilla leaders, spearheaded a failed military coup, served a prison term, was democratically elected, was briefly driven from office by the military, and then was reinstated. Born in Caracas in 1964 and currently dividing his time between Caracas and Barcelona, José Antonio Hernández-Diez is almost of necessity political, but rather than reproducing platitudes about the injustices perpetrated by the ruling elite, Hernández-Diez is at his best when he focuses on the smoldering anarchy—alienated, ecstatic, unaligned—of urban youth culture. In a piece, “Indy” (1995), not included in the current show, four video monitors each show a hand rolling a pair of skateboard wheels over asphalt, the wheels attached to the tops of the monitors. The metaphors in “Indy” are related to those in “Hume” and “Marx” in a way, for it remains close to street level, and the strained, gripping hands and blurred city street suggest aggressive, determined, yet directionless motion.
After the opening photographs “Hume” and “Marx,” one encounters “The Grand Patriarch” (1993), in which a mechanical arm threads a pool stick through the fingers of a realistically cast hand, aligning a cue-ball and an eight-ball with a side pocket. Made the year after two grossly bungled coup attempts in Venezuela, the metaphors in “The Grand Patriarch” are at once crudely literal and sly. The arm of patriarchal authority is mechanical, prosthetic, and the guiding hand cut-off and dead: global capitalism’s “invisible hand” is visible and amputated. And while the piece appears fatalistic, this back room end game is not over, the trajectories still speculative; in fact, it has ground to a standstill, as though the motor were out of fuel.
The title of “San Guinefort” (1991) refers to the medieval French legend in which a greyhound sacrificed itself to a viper in order to save the life of the child of an aristocrat. But instead of a bone or tuft of hair placed in an ornate, jeweled reliquary, in Hernández-Diez’s imagining there is the cadaver of a skinny, auburn-haired dog carefully preserved by a taxidermist, stretched out inside a sterile glass vitrine that's open and capped on both sides with heavy, black rubber gloves. The vitrine is pumped full of hydrogen so that the gloves stick out, fully inflated and obscene. There are no instructions accompanying “San Guinefort,” so I ended up circling around it uneasily for a while before attempting to shove my hands shoulder-deep into the gloves to touch the dead dog. The compressed gas, however, exerts a steady outward resistance, as though a mysterious force were pushing me away from the dog, so I had to struggle at humiliating length, half bent over, straddling the glass case, just to get my arm fully into the glove. The meanings of “San Guinefort” rely on the complex historical relationship between the sacred and the abject as it is replayed in the relationship between the protected, secular affluent class and the impoverished people. The religious fervor of medieval peasants was always treated circumspectly and with great unease, for it represented a volatile, unpredictable force; similarly, the ruling classes have often looked upon the impoverished inhabitants of slums with a combination of pity, fascination, and profound fear. And of course the dog in Hernández-Diez’s piece is not a sleek, well-groomed greyhound hunting dog, but a tough, ratty mongrel of the kind one might find roaming the streets at night in a pack. By the time I managed to actually touch the dog, arm twisting in the rubber sleeves, I was far more aware of the embarrassing spectacle I was making of myself in the middle of the gallery than of the dog. “San Guinefort” is of course not about the dog, but about the fantasies and anxieties the dog provokes. In addition, it is hard not to think that the religious reference alludes to the fact that in Venezuelan political history, from Simon Bolivar’s early nineteenth-century war of liberation to the present, the Catholic Church has always been a reactionary force.
In what may be Hernández-Diez’s best-known work to date, “The Brotherhood” (1994), gnarled fragments of skateboards made from fried pork fat dangle from a metal construction. On a shelf in front are three monitors which show the making, use, and partial destruction of the skateboards: the freshly molded skateboards upended and sizzling in a vat of boiling oil, a sequence shot from the point of view of the artist riding one of those wonderfully nasty looking boards down the street, and finally stray dogs happily devouring them. The use of fat in a work of art inevitably evokes Joseph Beuys’s fat chairs and sculptures. But while Beuys fat is a solid white mass that allegorizes both insulation against cold and mortal decay, fried pork fat is a common, low-brow street snack in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America, and Hernandez-Diez’s use of it keeps the life-cycle of desire and violence greasily close to street level: the glamor and freedom of skateboarders is counterpoised by the wild hungry dogs. The dog in “San Guinefort” evokes the despised, superstitious, and dangerous poor, but the dogs in “The Brotherhood” are full of irreverent, amoral pleasure; the “brotherhood” is among those who wander the streets, presumably mocking the purveyors of the ideologies of Hume and Marx. Unfortunately, the presentation of “The Brotherhood” in the New Museum is too clean. The skateboards are so shiny and odorless, one does not encounter them as sticky, filthy, edible, and strange. Unlike “San Guinefort,” “The Brotherhood” remains at a physical and emotional distance.
Walking into the separate padded room at the back of the New Museum that houses “Untitled (Rice With Mango)” (1997), visitors confront a long, dinged-up aluminum counter on which sit four short aluminum T-ball bats. A simple drum and bass line plays on the sound system. Most viewers will not need to be told that it is alright to pick up one of those bats and start whacking the counter top, but nonetheless the effect of the piece partially depends upon the low-level anxiety produced by the lack of instructions: those T-ball bats create an almost Pavlovian response, the juvenile need to take one in hand and start hitting something, which is counteracted by the vague doubt as to whether one is allowed to touch much less batter anything in an art museum. Once blows do begin to fall, various sound loops are activated—a news fragment on Latin America, a classic rock station, a hip-hop track that sounds like Public Enemy, a passage of eerie ambient guitar, and of course the drum and bass track. The point presumably is that pop culture, politics, and indeed history cannot be accessed from an aesthetic distance, but only through liberated violence; you have to leave the museum and join the skateboarders and dogs. That is a sentiment I am sympathetic with, but the impact of “Untitled (Rice With Mango)” is neither visceral nor alarming. Once one gets the idea, the piece loses all of its edge and becomes an amusing diversion.
Hernández-Diez’s work is at its strongest when it attempts to engage the viewer’s more uneasy, ambivalent emotions. Much of the work in this survey is, however, relatively indifferent, in large part due to the limitations of the artist’s formal sensibility. In “Have a Productive Day” (1995), for instance, white desktops are mounted or leaned up against the wall, each bearing an embossed design that is in fact a carefully fabricated bite mark. The ironical allusion to Robert Morris’s work of the 1960s is obvious enough, and the association of design, work, and being monstrously devoured may be apt, but the piece itself is remarkably inert. Similarly, the constellation of battery covers leaned up against the wall may well point toward the conspicuous consumption and waste of electronic commodities, but as they exist in the gallery, clean and self-consciously arranged, they remain derivative minimalist forms with little energy or impetus of their own. Labor, globalism, consumption, and waste are surely all crucial subjects to think about, but it remains unclear what is at stake for Hernández-Diez in wedding his reflections to a send-up of minimalism, especially when he shows so little talent for mimicking that rigorous idiom. The video installation “You Go to Heaven and You Go Crying” (1992) is somewhat more effective. In a darkened room, a video is projected onto a wall at the base of which is a pile of dirt. The video image, which bends down onto the dirt, consists of sliding purple, green, and blue lines, and the blurry, hovering logos “Pioneer” and “DVD Video.” The dirt is the diminutive representative of the land, and of grave dirt as well; and the blank image suggest that the impact of communications technologies is largely self-referential—empty signifiers, advertisements for themselves. As is often the case with Hernandez-Diez, there may also be a buried political reference as well. After all, one of the numerous blunders in Hugo Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt was the failure to deliver the communications equipment with which he supposed to address the people of Venezuela.
As with many younger artists, Hernández-Diez’s work does not yet really warrant a “survey,” and indeed the survey format severely limits the kind of exhibit that was curated. Rather than disparate pieces from the past decade or so, several of which seem random (the huge yellow acrylic spoon with its handle folded back on itself, for instance), a more compelling show would have thematically focused on Hernandez-Diez’s engagement with street youth culture. “Indy” might have been included in such a show. The skateboards on which he airbrushed portraits of student radicals at the University in Caracas, their faces concealed by bandanas, would have been a welcome addition, as well as his 1990 video installation “In God We Trust,” which samples images of the pivotal Caracazo riots and looting of 1989. In our information-saturated, endlessly networked, globalized world, concepts like ideology, class, nationhood, and identity have become irreducibly complex and fluid. In this context, art is only potent when it embodies ideas and gives rise to experiences that are unpredictable and uncontrolled, rather than making statements. Think of Wim Delvoye’s floor mosaics made of lunch meats, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s absurd, claustrophobic tribute to George’s Bataille, or the Santiago Sierra event in which he transported unwitting Guatemala City museum-goers in a masked-off van out to a shanty town on the periphery of the city, or Teresa Margolis’s installation in which a machine floats bubbles made from the water used to wash the corpses of Mexico City murder victims: all of these pieces in one way or another get under the skin, and crucially insist upon confusion, disorientation, and discomfort as a precondition for critical thought. Hernández-Diez’s work occasionally moves in this direction, but all too often it pulls back to the safety of ordinary objecthood, art-historical allusion, and clever statement. And why, with an artist so evidently concerned with the politics of street culture, is the exhibit’s installation so clean, uncluttered, and polite?