Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: Nigeria, 2014. Written protocol signed by the artist, iconographic documents, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Jérôme Poggi. Photo © Aurélien Mole.
On ViewHammer Museum
January 28 – May 6, 2018
Legibility varies greatly in the work of over thirty international artists exhibited in Stories of Almost Everyone at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Curator Aram Moshayedi and curatorial assistant Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi decipher signs and symbols to reveal a lifetime’s worth of stories, some obviously contingent upon their corresponding objects and others crudely adhered to them by way of language, history, and contextualization.
Excluding the museum audioguide in Andrea Fraser’s Little Frank and His Carp (2001)—wherein the artist roams the atrium of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao, theatrically reacting to the museum’s explanation of the site—this ubiquitously employed educational device has rarely been repurposed as an artistic medium. Kanishk Tharoor’s audioguide, commissioned by the Hammer for this exhibition, breaks with didactic conventions in order to illuminate, in the words of the wall text, “the inherent muteness of objects” and the malleability of their reception.
Tharoor’s narrative weaves the art-objects on view into a short story about a young boy and his single mother. The domestic and familial associations ascribed to each item bare no resemblance to their significance as outlined in the wall texts. For example: the “black suitcase with the hideous snap” is no longer the work of Lara Favaretto, but rather an emotionally charged object reminding the boy of the day his father abandoned the family. Tino Sehgal’s museum guard striptease, Selling Out (2002), is reframed as the “drunken fumbling” of the mother’s suitor; and Luis Barragán’s ashes compressed into a diamond by Jill Magid plays the role of a treasured family heirloom that the mother pawns in desperation, while reminding herself, with a nod to Sartre, that “we give objects meaning, not the other way around.”
This truth strikes at the heart of the exhibition, reinforcing the legitimacy of interpretation and undermining the dominance of the curatorial narrative. While didactic materials routinely translate the objective presence of carefully chosen and/or partially manipulated objects into the subjective significance of lines and liturgy of contemporary museological discourse, Stories of Almost Everyone provides a sampling of the infinite explanations that can be applied to any isolated object.
Petrified wood from the studio of Carol Bove, 27 x 12 x 10 inches. Courtesy of Carol Bove. Photo: Adam Reich
The visual literacy of viewers varies greatly and potentially impedes their reception of the art-object as intended by the artist. Some will recognize a John McCracken and see the humor in creating a ‘fake’ one. Some will see the petrified wood emblematic of Carol Bove’s work and understand this piece as a remnant of her practice; and some will see Jason Dodge’s yellow pillow, read a historical anecdote, and begin to question the parameters of truth—others may not.
As such, while art’s opacity supposedly thickens, curatorial didacticism increases in direct proportion: trying to compensate for some sort of failure on the part of the object? The artist? Or, perhaps, a culture unable or unwilling to confront the unknown. In response, Moshayedi’s wall texts provide a detailed account of each art-object’s contextual significance, purposefully prioritizing the idea of the object, and its conceptual value, over its physical manifestation.
This prioritization of concept may be best exemplified by the exhibition catalogue, wherein numerous essays reflect on the personal and contextual significances of seemingly banal objects, and explain their value in a manner comparable to Moshayedi’s didactics. For example, Chris Kraus writes of a blue plaid blanket left with her by an ex-boyfriend, whose mother gave it to him. She outlines its provenance and sentimental value, and draws a comparison between comparable art-objects. Mayer Rus similarly describes a glass paperweight, which he believes holds great cultural value. He then tells of the object’s history during his ownership—its appearance as ornament, at parties, in memory—wherein it attained a kind or personal value that only Rus would appreciate.
Neither Kraus nor Rus still possess their respective objects, but the idea of their existence is told and retold, if only for the reason that someone keeps reading. The communicative ability of these stories is not predicated on a visual supplement, such as an art-object or image. This proves, by extension, that the stories (of almost everyone) on view do not speak through their respective objects but rather through the language surrounding the objects—whether wall text, catalogue essay, or narrative audioguide.
The combination of these textual supplements, including discursive exercises by a host of art historians, critics, and artists—from Hannah Black to Helmut Draxler—within the exhibition catalogue inadvertently render the physical manifestation and phenomenological experience of the art-objects unnecessary. Stories of Almost Everyone is thus a contemporary survey of potentially non-physical, ideational art, wherein the forms of mediation take precedence, determining not only the lasting impression of the exhibit in one’s mind, but also its conceptual conceit.