American Fine Arts
For over twenty years, Andrea Fraser has drawn on psychoanalysis, postmodern sociology, and feminist theory to create work based on incisive critique and analysis of the art world. This summer, her spurious practice finds its platform on 22nd Street where two concurrent shows elucidate counter positions to manifest an active dialogue about cultural production in the twenty-first century.
"Untitled" (2003) is on view at Friedrich Petzel. Under Fraser’s direction, the gallery found a collector to commission a film in which he has sex with the artist on camera. The one hour, $20,000 documentation became "the work;" an edition, the first copy went to the collector, himself, memorialized by the project. The piece was shot in a generic upscale hotel and Fraser set the camera as if it were a high-definition security lens. The single camera, immobile in the corner, captured a tilted, diagonal shot that makes the room appear to be sliding forward towards the viewer—an unusual and awkward frame. This cinematic decision translates well in the gallery where the work is screened on a small, boxy television in the corner of a stark-white, empty room. Its construction feels more accidental than voyeuristic, and as if to discourage a complete viewing, Fraser provides no comfortable chairs.
These formal decisions are exemplar; likewise, the impossible sameness of the shot, without the pans, zooms, and fade-outs of most love scenes, creates a self-conscious frisson. Nevertheless, the gaping, supine, frequently male visitors who are forced to the floor in the center of the room lend a seedy and pornographic air to the space, as they watch in anticipation for scenes that never come.
In film and gallery, the acute silence amplifies the range of raw emotion displayed by both Fraser and collector—awkwardness, tenderness, humor, theatricality, boredom—and by the gallery visitors—fascination, frustration, intrigue, disgust, boredom. These physical reactions are a compelling outcome of "Untitled," and the elimination of sound signals the only really vulnerable position that Fraser takes throughout. An artist who views art as a social field with set rules and regulations, she has consistently used language as a means to create a space for critical investigation.
Now, in "Untitled," she addresses the age-old discomfort between patron and artist in a highly psychoanalytic, yet physical, way. By fucking her collector, she’s attempting to confront her fear—of selling out—and fantasy, of selling lots—head on. This is not a new idea, yet in a climate of exceptional commercial hedonism worldwide with the sales fetish assuming a renewed force, there’s a certain poignancy to Fraser’s reintroduction of tension around buying art, and the way she tries to address the impact money has on power dynamics and meaning is admirable. Similarly, the project puts an interesting spin on the traditional portrait commission.
However, there is something terribly base about her film. In choosing sold sex, Fraser takes the simplistic metaphor of artist/prostitute to its literal extreme and in so doing, reduces each player—artist, collector, gallerist—to her or his most rudimentary role. So rather than illuminating these dynamics, the work brings everybody down to the lowest common denominator. Fraser looks bored and seems to take no pleasure in the absurd situation she has created; there is often the sense that she, ever acting, is aware of moving the scene forward. The collector, unidentified, is placed in the perverse situation of being hero and fool, explicitly manifesting his own vaguely self-destructive—or self-aggrandizing—fetish fantasies of being part of an artwork.
Perhaps as people become functionaries, their truest character emerges. But when art, instead of questioning, is offered with a predetermined outcome, the result is despair and desolation. This, of course, is the reality for the viewer, and the logical extension of the metaphor (which is why it has never been explicitly acted out before). For Fraser, I am sure it was a process of extraordinary self-exploration, and in the denial of her voice, it is professionally daring. But the piece is unquestionably more interesting when it is brought back out to the level of discursive language. Reading Fraser’s own thoughts on the process and project, which deal largely with the corporatization of the museum and the service nature that commissioned art making has assumed, are far more illuminating.
Fortunately, Fraser’s own voice can be heard across the street at American Fine Arts where "Official Welcome" (2001) offers a wickedly funny play on the self-congratulatory, aren’t-we-all-fabulous nature of introductory remarks. Displayed in the back gallery, the room is dark with a cozy bench that invites extended viewing. As she moves from character to character in a game of institutional charades, Fraser assumes the intonation, language, and bodily characteristics of different art-world types. The script is a masterful weave of text pulled from actual presentations, and her appropriation of art luminaries is merciless and daring. Ranging from the deeply sober to the wildly raucous (with a bit of nudity in between) Fraser demonstrates stringent discipline, strong will, and a deeply competitive spirit as she mocks her peers, and positions herself in a place of legitimate professional contradiction and possible crisis.
If "Official Welcome" can be read in part as an exploration of how people perceive Fraser’s own theatrical traces, it is reinforced by the decadent, luxurious sculpture in the front room "Un Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas (A Monument to Discarded Fanstasies)" (2003). Made from abandoned Carnival costumes that littered the streets of Rio de Janeiro, the triumphant mount is a volcanic explosion of bright colors, feathers, masks, shoes, sequins, and glitter. It is exuberant and alive despite its state of decay, and exploits Fraser’s artistic power of transubstantiation and explores her ability to blur cultural boundaries within the gallery. To reinforce the point, there are photographs of actual heaps in the streets of Rio after the parades.
In Portuguese, fantasia means both fantasy and costume, and un monumento, brought back like a souvenir, serves as memory, hope, and desire of the more physical life that Fraser knows in Brazil. It is a material addendum to an intellectual practice, and it seems to suggest that Fraser’s explorations are moving towards an increasingly corporal place.