Brooklyn Museum | June 8 – September 22, 2013
Entering into the first room of Ode to Joy, the Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF) retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, one immediately confronts a circus-like multitude of action, images, and sound. What strikes one, progressing through the show, is not a sense of chaos, however, but rather an organization that purposefully defies easy classification.
Positioned in the center of the room, a large inflatable rat (like the ones erected by union leaders) heaves up and down, perpetually deflating into a sunken pose and then re-inflating, its red eyes aglow, to stand like a creature in a Japanese monster movie (“Apology,” 2011). Behind it is a triptych titled “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (2012), in which the position of the Father is occupied by an image of Bruce High Quality, the fictional social sculpture for whom the Foundation is named. To the right, there is a copy machine with an old TV messily installed in it, so that its screen projects through the copier’s glass. Over a loud speaker a voice rattles off various, seemingly disconnected statements and quotations (“The Life and Times of Bruce High Quality,” 2005).
Such discontinuity is characteristic of the Bruce High Quality Foundation, a group of New York-based artists who collaborate in performance, sculpture, video, and painting. Their unique blend of humor, political engagement, and philosophical depth can at times be bewildering: When confronting individual works by the group, questions such as, “Are these guys serious?” or, “Is there anything at all coherent about this?” can seem unanswerable. With the works collected at the Brooklyn Museum retrospective, however, the obsessions and methods of the group take a definite shape, and through their mutual illumination a consistently powerful, delightful voice—if not even a thesis—emerges in their art.
The Bruce High Quality Foundation first came into the public eye with a performance piece titled “The Gate: Not the Idea of the Thing But the Thing Itself.” Like many of BHQF’s works, the title is an adaptation of a previous artwork (in this case a Wallace Stevens poem) and the piece incorporates a variety of other artworks. “The Bruces,” as they are known in the press, have remarked that they understand art history not as a static narrative to respond to but rather as raw material, like wood or metal, to be worked with and shaped in their own art. In “The Gate,” the primary material was Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island,” a miniature public park that was to be pulled by a tugboat around Manhattan. When, in 2005, the “Floating Island” was posthumously realized with help from the Whitney Museum, the Bruces reacted by chasing the island in a skiff, carrying a replica of one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s famous “Gates,” which had been installed as public art in Central Park that same year.
The self-reflexivity and multiplicities of meaning implied in this action rise to a near Deleuzian, rhizomatic level: public art using public art to be about public art. Yet, there are also perhaps two simple points that can be drawn from the performance: the absolute need for art, and the need for the democratization of art.
If Smithson aimed to bring landscape to corners of New York where no open spaces exist, thus highlighting the imperative for a relationship to the natural world, the Bruces argued that art, and public art, were just as essential. Additionally, they sought to juxtapose a massive undertaking by the art world establishment with a bit of public art that was virtually free to produce.
The necessity of art, and the problem of its being co-opted by an elite market, are themes that run steadily through the work of BHQF. If this message has not been immediately recognizable, it is for two reasons. First, the work is “high concept.” It can sometimes seem intentionally self-obfuscating (which perhaps it is, though not for nothing). Second, BHQF’s use of humor has the danger of reducing their works to appear to the general public as nothing more than pranksterism.
Both of these points, however, are consistent with BHQF’s overall political and cultural commentary. Consider, for example, the copy machine with the television in it, titled “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (2009), after Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay. On the television, the faces of a series of celebrities, political figures, and infamous characters appear obscured by a yellow mask of Bruce High Quality, the fictional social sculptor. Attached to this piece is a pair of headphones, over which a voice speaks a collection of bizarre, aphoristic jointures of popular phrases. For example: “The first rule of Fight Club is shut up and kiss me”; “Justice is blind from too much masturbating”; “I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over, let’s end our lives right now in this very hotel room.”
BHQF does not offer, properly speaking, a critique of culture, or art, or politics. If anything, BHQF presents the problem of critique itself. By collaging their many references and subjects together they instead demonstrate the way disparate entities, such as the university system, celebrity culture, 9/11, corporate America, and the art world, form a connected, troubled whole. All wear the mask of a fictional social sculpture; all our words can be chopped up and redistributed into cacophonous, senseless noise.
The work, however, does not negatively judge this culture. It rather advocates from within it for a new form of democratic discourse. The erosion of the philosophical “subject” and the emptying of classical ideals can be responded to with a multiplicitous, obscured identity (hence the rigorous personal anonymity of the group), and the seriousness of the ideal can be replaced with the playfulness of the dialogical.
The humor of BHQF is attuned to the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, as well as Joseph Beuys and Jeff Koons. But it also reflects a recent interest in the comic as a political weapon, as deployed by anarchist groups like Ya Basta!, Anonymous, or Rebel Clown Army, and discussed by writers such as David Graeber and Simon Critchley. An anarchistic or new democratic strain of thought is also clear in the Bruces’ more recent activities. For the last two years, they have run a free art school called the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (or BHQFU), at which curricula are determined by students, and everyone is welcome.
It’s true of course that BHQF benefits from the same elite art world it takes to task. The problematic character of this relationship, however, is embraced by BHQF as a natural condition. The Bruces have claimed they are “more interested in maintaining a presence in parallel contexts than in committing to either alternative or enfranchised ones.” The variety of orders created by BHQF allows them to engage culture at many levels, and the tension that arises from this is included as part of their art.
BHQF has proven itself to be a canny occupant of many contexts, and in this it has navigated a unique and steady course through the hazards of contemporary American culture. As the Bruces state in the audio of “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “what happens in the art world, stays in the art world.” But their democratic ethos and multivalent approach point in a direction one can hope other institutions, artistic or otherwise, might someday follow.
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