November 7 - December 22, 2007
Curated by Sarah Lookofsky and Lillian Fellman, Land Grab at Apex Art looks at how contemporary artists are responding to issues of land use as it becomes more scarce and expensive. It’s a broad concept that spawns a justifiably diverse cast of participants, filling Apex Art with everything from wall-size graphs to miniature landscapes to sleeves with informational leaflets. Indeed the common thread of this show isn’t the formal relationships among the works, but an approach to art making that looks back to the activists and interventionists from the 1960’s who first took art into the street. Unfortunately, since street art was at first used as a socio-political tool, it has been treated like a runaway stepchild by the larger, financially solvent art world ever since.
With globalism rampantly metastasizing, a looming real-estate crisis, and an overfed art world on the brink of a purging, Land Grab comes at a crucial juncture. I’ve made more than a few comments in these pages about the impotence of “politicized” art; however, good political art is a necessity while politicized art panders to preconceptions and works with the same reptilian allure as popular advertising. Political art offers new perspectives; politicized art recycles old ones.
Thanks to John Hawke’s “Benchmark,” a piece of guerrilla public art documented here through color photos, bus commuters in Bed Stuy will never think about waiting for the B66 the same way again. From the frame of a discarded reclining sofa, Hawke has constructed an orthopedic bench surrounded by other amenities designed to “serve the public and to encourage congregation.” The communal waiting area is accompanied by three official-looking signs mocking developers and architects. One reads, “Need an aggressive architect? One who will FIGHT to get what is not rightfully yours?...” The number provided is for the offices of Frank Gehry in Los Angeles. You have to laugh when you imagine an office switchboard in L.A. jammed with calls from confused Brooklyn commuters.
They say that all comedy is rooted in irony, so the tendency of interventionists to play with semiotic and geographic redesignation makes much of this show as funny as it is politically charged. Artist Lars Vilks relates the accidental political comedy “Nimis,” which began in 1980 when he started assembling a tower out of found driftwood in the Kullaberg nature preserve in Sweden. The mammoth sculpture was eventually purchased in 1984 by Joseph Beuys who subsequently sold it to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Loopholes in the Swedish laws of ownership have continued to thwart the state’s attempts to dispose of the sculpture—and so the saga continues as “Nimis” remains intact deep in a national forest 27 years later, its title of ownership sitting in one of Christo’s filing cabinets, and Swedish legal experts continuing to scratch their heads.
The pieces by Hawke and Vilks are typical of much of the rest of the work in Land Grab and, while engrossing, also testify to its downside. Hawke was at the opening with a clipboard and a stack of maps to direct people to Gates and Bedford Avenues to see the actual work. I don’t know if Vilks was there, but his “Nimis” was represented by several sheets of text generated by an inkjet printer. I hesitate to make a blanket statement, but reading in a gallery is not the same as stumbling upon the work at a bus stop. This aspect of Land Grab shouldn’t discourage you from going to Apex Art but rather encourage you to support interventionist projects outside the gallery through events such as the Conflux festival or those listed in the Art in Odd Places publication.
Evidently mindful of the preponderance of documentation and visual aids, Lookofsy and Fellman have taken care to balance them with works like Katrin Sigurdardóttir’s landscapes, which are created inside valises that also function as their traveling crates. The seventeen memory-based dioramas that comprise her “The Green Grass of Home” are reflective and alluring enough, but also feel a little slight in the company of socially motivated projects like Albert Heta’s installation of an Albanian flag on the former Serbian embassy in Montenegro. Likewise, Leyla Cárdenas’s “Witholding,” taken from a disintegrating wall in Bogota, Columbia, has more presence as an elegant arrangement of fragile objects than as a social artifact. However, both of these formally intriguing efforts are instrumental in providing the show with a physical grounding in the presence of the more esoteric and dispersed projects.
Although it’s far-fetched to think that interventionist art could mount a serious counterattack against the leviathan of the commercial art world, we should root for it anyway. Art and commerce are fair-weather friends, quick to part company when times get tough. As uncertainty looms, raising rents and squeezing space, Land Grab reminds us of the potential of art to do more than merely preach and posture. It may not be advisable to advocate revolution, as Guy Debord did in the days leading up the student uprisings of 1968, but an unexpected encounter with a communal bus stop won’t cause any harm as it challenges our thinking while taking us on a dérive away from the commercial art world.