On ViewNew Museum
January 13 – April 17, 2016
If nothing else, Pia Camil’s work makes people smile. Or at least that’s the thought that struck me the other day as my companions and I exited the New Museum carrying a one-and-a-half-foot-tall green letter D and a wooden spoon large enough to serve peas to the Jolly Green Giant, to the amused stares of the people we passed on the Bowery. These were the literal takeaways from our visit to Camil’s first solo show, A Pot for a Latch, a“participatory sculptural installment.” As delighted as we were by our recent acquisitions—all of which now adorn our apartment—we nonetheless left A Pot for a Latch feeling in the dark about their origins or about the meaning of our role in the exchange. Were we participants, test subjects, spectators, or unpaid labor, working to build Camil’s sculpture?
The installation is situated in the back of the New Museum lobby, and features a series of modular, tomato red, freestanding wire grids from which hang sundry items: wigs, x-ray photographs, a plastic Mickey Mouse mask, an Amish cookbook for kids. All these items, apart from a selection of objects that Camil herself installed, have been donated by museum patrons during a series of designated “exchange days”—you give an item, you get an item. The exhibition space itself is walled off by glass partitions, creating a sort of large-scale vitrine into which museum visitors can peer, watching participants browse the racks for an item to take home. We had come on one such exchange day and we were prepared.
After waiting in line for about twenty minutes, my companions—my ten-year-old son and his friend—and I were asked to present the items we had brought with us to two museum workers sitting behind a desk in the lobby. Each of us had brought, in keeping with the instructions posted on the museum’s website, an item “that has both a personal value and a history.” The workers quizzed the boys on their item’s significance, accepting my son’s donation (a mosaic tile he had made) but rejecting his friend’s (his first comic book) because it was mass-produced. After filling out a form in which we described our object’s significance and agreeing to sign over our items to the artist, we were invited to join a second line, this one to enter—one by one—the installation proper and claim our prize. When it was my turn to enter, I was greeted with still more instructions, this time about which items were not available, such as the one “limited-edition” sweatshirt left hanging. (All the others had been claimed at a previous exchange; it was unclear why this one was off-limits.) After I selected my item, a museum employee—wearing one of said sweatshirts—escorted me to the exit.
Camil cites numerous sources of inspiration for the project, such as the La Merced street markets located near her studio in Mexico City. Fascinated by the grid patterns such displays created and their resemblance to the grids of Minimalists like Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, she sought to create a work that would build on their formal concerns but that would also speak to the relationship between commerce and the contemporary art world. This in turn led her to investigate systems of exchange that existed prior to capitalism. She was particularly struck by French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s description of the potlatch, a ritual in which a wealthy kin group would host a ceremonial feast to which they invited other members of the tribe. At the feast the host would display their power and wealth, and engender a debt of obligation from other members of the tribe by giving away many of their possessions. In an interview in Artspace, she explains how she then began to ask how such a system of exchange might fit within the contemporary art world: “How could you reestablish contracts with people that weren’t just purely based on economic value?”
As Mauss observed, in the potlatch ceremony the act of giving was not an economic exchange among equals; it was a symbolic act, meant to reinforce the elite clan’s higher social status. In this sense, A Pot for a Latch unintentionally captures one aspect of the spirit of the potlatch ceremony. The experience of the installation—standing in line, filling out forms, submitting to interviews, following instructions—is so heavily mediated by the artist and by the museum that its vague critique of consumerism ends up emphasizing the institution’s authority. Moreover, the installation doesn’t create opportunities for strangers to forge bonds based on something outside of it. Participants did not even have access to the stories linked to the objects that they acquired in the exchange.
The exhibit is similar to Camil’s previous projects in that the gap between her formal and theoretical preoccupations and her actual work is rather wide. Her commissioned piece for Frieze New York, Watching-Wearing (2015), for which she created beautiful ponchos from hand-dyed fabrics that fairgoers could wear during their visit, reduced Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés (1964 – 1979)—a genuinely subversive work that sought to inspire political revolution—to a fashion statement. Instead of offering a “perverse” (her word) take on the commercial and social aspects of the fair, it merely created an additional opportunity for visitors to distinguish themselves and underline their status as cultural elites and insiders.
The enclosed “market” at the New Museum is an apt metaphor for Camil’s work and for much of what passes for radicalism in the art world today. Like the highly controlled environment of the museum, art fair, and gallery, Camil’s installation contains and makes safe any potential threat her work might possibly present. Instead of challenging capitalism and the contemporary art world, pieces like A Pot for a Latch and Watching-Wearing facilitate its growth and stability by limiting radicalism to an aesthetic gesture or superficial reference to “mass commodification” and “dysfunctional commercial culture” (the New Museum’s words). It draws on the language and aesthetics of previous, truly subversive movements but sands down the radical edges to such smoothness that the spirit of their origins is nearly unrecognizable, like advertising slogans that reference revolution in the name of moving product.
While Camil’s work does not offer a rigorous critique of late capitalism and the contemporary art world, its merit might lie elsewhere. My son’s friend summed it up nicely. “It’s cool,” he observed later over overpriced hot chocolates in a nearby café, “that something special you have could end up being special to someone that you never met. It’s like you share a memory with a stranger.” It’s a sweet sentiment, suggestive of the best of what Camil’s show might have to offer, an expression of artistic whimsy, an imagined connection with a stranger, or simply a gigantic wooden spoon that used to belong to someone else to hang on your wall.