This is my toothbrush. I bought it maybe 5 months ago, so it was used approximately 423 times and is now impregnated with the plaque and bacteria of my mouth, with which I have had many conversations with artists, curators, and gallerists in order to do my work—to do it better—and often until late at night. It is deeply imbued with experience and meaning and it is the proof of human sacrifice to make other people’s lives intellectually richer and emotionally happier. Therefore, it can be considered an “object of art” and it belongs in a Museum.
The first “object of art” that I encounter in the gallery spaces of the HAMMER Museum, in Los Angeles, is a random mailbox from Germany, installed on the wall at eye level. The wall label, pretty extensive and with a bad grammatical error in the title of the work, tells me that the because-of-passing-time-colored sticker carries a blatant announcement next to another little label with the name of the mailbox’s owner.
The description of this “object of art” also says that “the label has taken shelter, tucked away in a recess. Signs such as these exude traces of a physical body or in the individuals who entrust the safekeeping of their belongings to an object designed to occupy public space. A mailbox like this is an extension of one’s self, a surrogate that claims ownership over the deliverables that it temporarily houses for a person named Olesen.”
I am confused. This sounds almost awkward, but, Hey!, I am at the HAMMER Museum in LA, this must be something good! As I walk through the huge space, passing by other random daily objects, such as newspapers, a broom, glass pearls, and wooden beams, the gallery guard gently informs me to not touch or move any of the “objects” (of art) that I “might” (?!?) encounter, even if I thought that “someone forgot his socks on the floor.” Uhm … socks? Why the hell would I want to pick up a pair of used socks in a Museum?
I don’t have time to find an answer to that question, as my thoughts are rapidly carried away by a purple trash can, mounted on the wall as well. Just a tiny bit lower than eye level. Not being able to identify anything artistic in this “object of art,” I am obviously drawn to the descriptive element on the wall, which—I excitedly predict—will illuminate me on the importance of trash containers in the intricate context of international social and urban relationships.
I start reading: “The trash can is an ubiquitous feature of an international city … [The] design reflects the preoccupations of a given society … and its relationship to waste … [It] can act as a record of time and … indications of wear and tear, signs of a personal, bodily presence … [These] accumulations give shape to a public body that scrawls its name as a means of overcoming the relative anonymity of city life. The act of stealing a trash can (my heartbeat is now accelerating) is not unlike these forms of civic obedience that intervene with the systemic logic of the built environment and behavioral codes it produces.”
Duuh!.… Now I am really confused. And almost amused. And while my neurons start playing ping-pong in order to find a common link between the trinity of “Museum,” “art objects,” and “curated exhibition,” I am interrupted by the slamming of a piano lid that I actually embrace with joy, as I know that piece of art as an actual art piece, made by Martin Creed. “At least one I don’t need to read a long wall text about,” I think. “Work No. 569” is a white piano with a lid that opens and bangs down with a loud crash precisely every 15 minutes. For the viewer, or rather the listener, it is not choice that matters but an aural effect of driving pace and fractured sound. I would not be able to explain to my parents why this is now a work of art, but its sound effects definitely do a good job. Also, large, golden Koons-like helium balloons that are hanging under the ceiling conferring to the exhibition the tone of a child’s birthday party, and say, “I Know Very Well But Nevertheless,” so my subconscious is mollified and I don’t worry too much.
At this point, I am definitely intellectually challenged. I pick up my ongoing internal conversation and questions about what art actually is nowadays and if the artists still know if, what, and how to produce, with the additional twist that I am now also questioning what the curators of today are doing. While I walk by other random objects such as a stack of notebooks, a door, a Duchampian postcard stand, and a collection of dry plants and flowers, I keep thinking. My head is deeper and deeper in the clouds with every step. The fact that a really hot male stripper is getting naked almost next to me, literally labelled as a performance piece, does not really distract me. The urge to read even the tiniest written text is now so strong that I totally forget about looking at the actual “objects of art.”
Now, I have a bachelor’s, a master’s, a doctorate in art history, a special degree in language translation. I’ve worked with galleries, museums, biennials, artists, curators, collectors, philosophers, and journalists. TV stations have interviewed me and my articles are published on a regular basis. I feel that I can say that I understand something about art. Not everything, but something. Now, what am I going to tell my nephew about this? How am I going to explain these “objects” as “works of art”? Since when is a stack of notepads as worthy as a Gustave Moreau oil painting from 1876, hanging next door (which, by the way, does not need any further explanation)? And why is a wall label now more important than what it actually describes?
My slowly growing feeling of unease and confusion is taking the form of an image of a tunnel, at the end of which a blinking neon sign says “professional crisis.” My inner bambino might want a therapist. Not to discuss myself, but my relationship with the concept of curating conceptual art exhibitions. I start thinking that I must have missed the point. Maybe this exhibition is conceptually so sophisticated that I didn’t get it? Maybe I know shit about art? Maybe there is a hidden and desperate message, a call for help, from the stakeholders themselves? That would actually be cool. That would make me want to become an art activist, not to make art against any social movements, but to save the art world from itself.
The Exit Through the Bookshop
Concerned, I walk out. I go to the bookstore and am tempted to buy the exhibition catalog. I have never been so drawn to wall texts as this time, so at least I get a take-away. As a writer, I have to admit that there is a certain geniusness in creating such well-done fictional, text-based content around objects you won’t ever look at again. These are not simple wall labels. These are ready-mades of ready-mades. Their father Duchamp would certainly be very excited in knowing to what extent his then-unacceptable ideas have developed.
The catalog starts with “Now more than ever it is clear that embedded within the desire for meaning in art is a latent desire for narrative, for some semblance of stories to give shape to an otherwise indeterminate experience.” It sounds really complex, somehow deviating, and the words “latent,” “some,” and “otherwise” in this context unsettle me. While visiting the exhibition, though, I can recall the anxiety-laden need of finding a verbose explanation—or story, or reason—to justify the existence of these objects as works of art. Susan Sontag would be yelling and Marshall McLuhan crying. “The Medium is the Message” has just been buried because, according to HAMMER curators Aram Moshayedi and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, the premise of “Stories of Almost Everyone” is that we have a “tendency to project stories onto inanimate objects, including works of contemporary art we encounter in museums,” which is also new to me: I never see my coffee mug as a pool of filtered and forgotten images from my grandmother’s kitchen, nor do I fantasize in front of Picasso’s Dora Maar about the importance of hyper-realistic makeup in order to show my multiple identities. But … I could start doing so. Maybe McKenzie Wark was right when he wrote, “Can we have done with contemporary art? … Actual art in our time is organizational or not at all. It proposes organizations of resources that partially de-commodify while working within real constraints.”
Because in this case, the curators re-organized the objects, stole their aura, and constrained their function in favor of commodifying and re-organizing their own intellectual property, shifting the focus of exhibition making to themselves. Little is left of the art. I will think about this. Again. And again. Or maybe I should just brush my teeth more often. In 50 years or so, those brushes might “convey social, political, and economic histories,” world problems will start to change, and my nephew will be proud of having finally understood the concept of non-understandable conceptual art and art exhibitions and become a better human being.
With my honest respect for the hard work of the artists and the curators, I know what it takes to put a show of such dimension together, and you elevated the wall label to a new genre of art, but, next time, maybe better in the library.
The title of the article is a reference to the Western They Called Him Trinity, a cruel and comic parody of the traditional Italian Spaghetti Western.
The Musuem’s press release refers to the exhibited artworks as “objects of art.”
Cit. Conversation between the gallery guard and Sarah Crown.
“Stories of Almost Everyone.” (2018). New York: Prestel Publishing [Exhibition catalog].
In her book Against Interpretation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US, 1966), Susan Sontag argues that, in the new approach to aesthetics, the spiritual importance of art is being replaced by the emphasis on the intellect.
"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.
“Stories of Almost Everyone.” (2018). New York: Prestel Publishing [Exhibition catalog].
McKenzie Wark, Accelerationism, The Public Seminar, 2013, November 18.
Cit. Stories of Almost Everyone.” (2018) Press release, Hammer Museum Los Angeles