Performance Anxiety

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through July 6

By Fred Camper

When the State of Illinois Building–now the James R. Thompson Center–first opened, a friend of mine complained that it was modeled on the circus tent. The outer skin lacked any consistent connection to what was inside; it was treated as a mere container. And the interior was a chaotic mix of civic offices and private businesses that wouldn’t make it past the rental agents of most suburban shopping malls.

Alas, the idea of mixing high art with kitsch with the place where you get your driver’s license renewed now typifies much of our culture. The images in a music video or lyrics of a rock song needn’t cohere anymore, as long as they deliver some kind of punch. Many Hollywood movies are mindless collections of special effects that lack any inner consistency or intelligent connection with their stories; instead they’re designed to produce thrills and chills, stimulate the viewer’s pleasure centers like a drug, and make each viewer want to return for more.

This phenomenon best explains the mindlessness of much of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibit of interactive art, “Performance Anxiety.” Not only do the nine different artists’ works have little to do with each other, but often the elements of individual works don’t fit together very well. To counter the older and now unfashionable ideal of the art museum as a temple, the MCA gives us the art museum as a children’s museum, as a collection of sideshows, as a funhouse. Too bad most of the exhibits aren’t much fun. Taken as a whole, the exhibit insults the viewer’s intelligence and promulgates a misleading, oversimplified view of past art to make the works on display seem unique. Pathetically derivative is more like it.

Nowadays, when art museums construct new buildings or additions, only about half of the space is devoted to galleries; the rest is used for nonart areas such as a grand entrance, a central atrium, a hypertrophied gift-and-book shop (emphasis on “gift”), a theater, one or more cafes. The MCA’s new building, while not as bad as some, does feature all of the above. “Performance Anxiety,” as if mirroring the building’s ethos, includes a vending machine for herbal potions, a stage that anyone can reserve to perform music, and surveillance cameras trained on different parts of the museum. For many visitors, actually looking at art is only one of many reasons to visit an art museum, so perhaps the next logical step is an exhibit in which the museum’s nonart functions are symbolized in the artworks themselves.

Our century has a venerable tradition of artworks designed to break down the barriers between art and life. Artists as different as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, George Maciunas, and Gordon Matta-Clark all tried to realize this goal with precision and intelligence, making specific, articulate statements while redirecting and heightening viewers’ perceptions. But most of the works in “Performance Anxiety” rip off formal ideas from earlier artists; they also dumb these ideas down, just as our major daily newspapers seem to lose a full grade level of reading “difficulty” every couple of years.

To start with the less than awful, I rather liked Willie Cole’s installation of revolving doors, The Elegba Principle. Eighteen pedestals, each supporting a group of four doors arranged in a cross, are arrayed in a grid; printed on each door are abstract words such as “luxury” and “deception,” but also words like “chicken.” The viewer can rotate the doors, changing the word groupings visible from different perspectives as he walks through the grid. Elegba is a Yoruba deity that not only governs choices but also serves as a trickster, and the befuddling word combinations confuse as much as they clarify. One can arrange two of the doors so that the words complement each other, but usually the same set of doors can be rearranged so that the paired words seem random. It is, at the very least, interesting.

Julia Scher’s Wonderland provides a better example of the exhibit at its best–and worst. The work includes three video-surveillance monitors and enlarged pictures of children as security guards, suggesting a role reversal in which the children are the guards. The monitors display successive views of various areas in the museum, but we also see occasional nude figures. Several descend an institutional staircase; one wonders if a live orgy is about to begin in some hidden part of the museum. Unfortunately not, and Scher’s intercutting functions more as a junior high school prank than as an actual statement.

The Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang’s A cure when ill, a supplement when healthy also offers something worthwhile: part of it consists of a long rectangle of stones placed on the floor and separated into three different sizes. One is supposed to remove one’s shoes and walk on the sharp stones, putting pressure on different areas of the feet; as one walks, a large wall drawing identifies the allegedly positive effects of such pressure on the whole body. One needn’t accept traditional Chinese medicine to be invigorated by this tricky walk, but if one looks ahead rather than to the side, one sees the stones leading to a conventional American-made vending machine. Where is the Food and Drug Administration when we need it? The potions available for three dollars a bottle are advertised on the machine; one is said to be “effective in treating excessive palpitations of the heart, diurnal pollution, constipation, and premature ejaculation.” But no mention is made of the kind of controlled, double-blind studies one would need to make such claims.

The exhibition’s catalog, written mostly by curator Amada Cruz, tells us that when the artist showed a similar work in Italy “the machines were appropriately Italian-made,” but the vending machine undercuts the stones’ elegance by seeming to climax the walk with this very inelegant plastic-and-metal grid. The arrangement also reminded me of the blockbuster museum show that funnels everyone into the gift shop.

Defining art has always been tricky, particularly in this century, but after all the attacks of serious artists upon “high art” and the art-life divide, there remains a core principle that differentiates art from life, that unites a monumental altarpiece with Yoko Ono’s one-line suggestions for conceptual performances while separating both from, say, a casual conversation: form. The artist applies some measure of intellect to the raw materials of the world, choosing some part of it to draw a frame around, producing an aesthetic effect and deepening our understanding by articulating an idea, a relationship, a nexus of thought or emotion. The possibility of some controlled human intervention illuminating the rest of life is what continues to make galleries and museums worthwhile. Confronted with works that lack any such control, one is inclined not to call them “bad art”–we have quite enough of that, from Ivan Albright to Norman Rockwell–but to question whether they even belong in an art museum.

This is what I thought while listening to Jim Shaw’s cassette tape. Under the fiction of being an “exhibition guide,” it consists of Shaw recounting his dreams, many of which are disturbingly cluttered with art-world figures, scenes of his own exhibits, and so on–but that’s a matter for Shaw and his therapist. Doubtless a cassette of one’s dreams could be art, but one would have to exercise some control over the words and the way they’re spoken. Shaw sounds as if he’s reading a text: he stumbles, and his voice has the deadpan quality of a poor reader, an awkward schoolboy. However much time he did or did not put into it, the result sounds rather lazy.

What’s most outrageous about this cassette and the installations of Renee Green, Charles Long, and Paul McCarthy is the way Cruz justifies them in the catalog’s lead essay. She begins by quoting Dan Graham’s apologia for his own installations. Graham wants to make the spectator “socially and psychologically more self-conscious… of himself or herself as a body, as a perceiving subject, and of himself or herself in relation to a group.” He goes on to argue, “This is the reverse of the ‘loss of self’ when a spectator looks at a conventional artwork.” Earlier art, Cruz implies, behaves “more politely” than “anxiety-provoking” pieces such as Cai Guo Qiang’s pebble path. She refers to the “passive, escapist rituals in which most viewers indulge in museums”; she argues that “the works in ‘Performance Anxiety’ jolt us out of our current, all-too-normal state of passive consumption into active producers of meaning.”

I don’t know about Cruz, but I hardly feel “passive” and “escapist”–jolted would be more like it–when I view GrŸnewald’s grisly crucifixion or El Greco’s monumental Laocoon in Washington’s National Gallery. More to the point, one could argue most 20th-century art is about creating perceptual “jolts” that engender self-consciousness. Does one really experience a “loss of self” when viewing Cezanne, Kandinsky, Arp, or Pollock? Robert Morris’s sculptures must be experienced actively, in space and time, without necessarily being touched or rearranged. The most troubling aspect of Cruz’s rhetoric is that it assumes the viewer to be stupid–that a modern viewer cannot, for example, take a nuanced and critical view of an Eastern Orthodox icon but instead will become passively “lost” in it.

The real difference, then, is that the show’s worst works oversimplify and literalize the complexly interactive intellectual and emotional process that any aware viewer goes through in an aesthetic encounter. We know enough to view a painting or sculpture from different positions, to look away and back again, to compare it to other works, to think about it in different contexts, to love it and argue with it at once. But these mental processes are most profound when initiated by the viewer. Many of these pieces seek to reify our interaction completely, leading us by the hand through the art experience. Under the pretense of making the viewer more aware, this art actually makes her less aware, assuming her to be a passive dolt who “needs” a real jolt rather than a creative entity who can “interact” all by herself.

Nor does it help matters that the interactivity the works literalize is itself as mindless as the assumed viewer. Perhaps I missed something in Renee Green’s installation, which conflates the 1970 killing of four Kent State students with Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed with a stack of books by James Michener–I admit I didn’t watch every video or listen to every pop LP she provides. As far as I could tell, though, the exhibit is historically myopic: there are plenty of references to the four kids killed in a demonstration, but none to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia (and the many thousands killed as a result), which was the demonstration’s proximate cause. Instead we get a room filled with monitors and a record player, a room whose decor seems to meld the hippie pad and the yuppie apartment–there’s a hanging rug as well as a hanging plant. Videos on such subjects as the Weathermen are often drowned out by loud rock. The parts never come together in any meaningful way I could discern. Meanwhile a label on the wall advises us how to participate: “Feel free to sit and watch the videos and read the materials provided.” This seems less like something one might do in an art museum than in a library, where one might also get a more balanced view of history.

In several lightweight pieces by Angela Bulloch and Charles Long, viewers make sounds by stepping on a large disk or sculpt pink bubble-gum-like material while listening to rock music. Both connect sight and sound in ways that seem designed less to inspire the viewer’s creative and active participation than to engage several senses at once, reducing the viewer to passive actor. Perhaps in the MTV age the notion of conjuring one’s own mental images while listening to music seems hopelessly retro.

The worst-in-show prize has to go to Paul McCarthy’s Santa’s Theater. To experience this piece, one is instructed to dress up, in one of the costumes provided, as Santa, an elf, or a reindeer, and then to enter a wooden house in which two video monitors, facing each other diagonally, play videos of actors in identical suits dripping chocolate syrup on each other’s bodies, cutting out the backsides, and simulating sex. “By making viewers stand-ins for the video characters,” Cruz tells us in the catalog, “McCarthy implicates them into the action.” Huh?

During my visits, the MCA guards were not enforcing the suit-up rule. Thus I had the experience of sitting on a bench dressed as a reindeer, watching my fellow reindeer on video as they crawled around on the floor, one’s head pressed near the other’s ass, while two ladies in their street clothes came in and giggled at me. I didn’t feel implicated in the action so much as alienated from the artwork–and from myself.

More seriously, one wonders about the IQ level of a viewer who has to put on a reindeer outfit in order to feel “implicated” when another reindeer toddles about on-screen with his ass-cover missing. One needn’t dress up as Norman Bates or Scottie Ferguson to feel profoundly “implicated” in Hitchcock’s audience-identification masterpieces Psycho and Vertigo; in these twisted tales of psychological obsession, Hitchcock uses camera point of view to ensnare the viewer’s mind rather than his body. Or has The Rocky Horror Picture Show become our primary model for the art experience?

When Cruz writes, “The voyeuristic excitement of watching ourselves and others on camera is also exploited by Paul McCarthy,” her very words–“voyeuristic,” “watching ourselves,” “exploited”–betray much of the show’s intent. McCarthy’s piece, like most of the others, seems to be aimed at viewers with narcissistic personality disorders, who have trouble distinguishing between themselves and the world, who can distinguish thoughts only when they’re embodied in physical objects, who require constant sensory stimulation, who are incapable of critical thinking or even the simplest imaginative leaps. I’m enough of an optimist to think that we all deserve better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Bubble Gum Station” by Charles Long.