The ‘cabinet of curiosity’, is integral to understanding

The housing of art within museums and galleries, and its social function have always been a concern of modern art.

However, “institutional critique” – the artistic practice of reflecting critically on such matters, really took off toward the end of the 20th century, heightened by the social upheaval of the 1960’s and enabled by the tools and techniques of conceptual art. The Art Show (1963-1977) is exemplary of the collaborations between Edward Kienholz and his fifth wife Nancy Reddin, an ex-photojournalist. Swedish museum director Pontus Hultén summarizes the work effectively as ‘a rather bitter reflection on one of the important elements of the structure of the world of contemporary art: the phenomenon of the vernissage’.

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The installation satirizes the role of the critic and the inaccessible nature of art discourse, as well as the lack of individuality in contemporary works. By contrast, American conceptual artist Mark Dion seeks to ‘reveal art and science as the dynamic processes that they are.’ . His critique of the institution is fundamentally that ‘a museum should provoke questions, not spoon-feed answers and experiences’. Dion identifies ‘the situation of “endgameness” in which many conceptualist critiques of the gallery found themselves’ – those criticising the institution, were themselves institutionalised. Therefore, Dion turned his attention from the art museum, to natural history and university establishments, claiming ‘I have no more questions for white walls!’.

The sixteenth and seventeenth century ‘cabinet of curiosity’, is integral to understanding Dion’s approach, as these extraordinary collections of juxtaposing objects made by the wealthy epitomise the intrigue and wonder Dion seeks to create. Besides increasing social stature as symbols of influence and power, these bizarre collections acted as almost miniature universes, allowing for the viewers to engage in questioning the world around them. They preceded the categorization system, ‘System Naturae’ of Carl Linneas, which transformed the chaotic yet curious, intriguing collection, to an ordered, comprehensible one which explained the world.

This rationalization resulted in the museum as we now know it, and the creation of academic departments and specialism. However, Dion would argue it also gave rise to the ‘passive’ viewer; ‘the museum now simplifies the questions and gives you reductive answers for them’. Nevertheless, Dion opposes the idea that museums are ‘un-correctable sites of ideology’ (Dion, Dezeuze, Kelly and Lomas), instead he sought to cooperate with the institution to engage in reform, aiming to ‘make it a more interesting and effective cultural institution’. (Dion) In doing so, he  “manages to undermine the binary logic earlier forms of institutional critique got entrapped in” (Marion Endt).This ‘openness, ambiguity and doubt are the agents preventing the visitor from dully ruminating on predigested information’ (Marion Endt)In his installation Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, DionMarion Endt describes the piece as appearing somewhere between an ‘old curator’s office, a storage room and a sixteenth century cabinet of curiosities.

‘ (Marion Endt)  The Art Show resides within a normal gallery, undistinguished from the rest of the gallery so the viewer is shocked by the realisation that many of their fellow gallery visitors are in fact models. The large-scale installation involves 19 varnished plaster cast figures: artists, art critics, museum directors, even the artists three children and a dog are here placed comfortably within the setting of a private gallery opening. At first glance it is difficult to distinguish between real visitors and those created, who wear clothes given by their real life counterparts, but on closer inspection it is evident there is no attempt to make them realistic human figures beyond these features. Except for this first reaction, the Kienholzes are not aiming for the kind of disconcerting, intrusive effect achieved by hyper-realistic sculptors such as Duane Hanson, but instead incorporate visual symbolism and metaphor.A clear plastic box is placed on each figure’s chest inside which a jumble of wires and electrical components prompt us to question the autonomy and individuality of the art world. By turning each figure into a machine, the Kienholzes have thrown into question the value of art discourse by implying it is a robotic process. The figures have been stripped of their humanity, and therefore any chance of creativity, leading to the connotation that they are all the same on the inside – corroborated by the uniformity of their wires – with a homogeneous opinion of what is ‘good art’ within current tastes. Through the use of these symbols the Kienholzes clearly criticise the art world as mechanistic, when it is supposed to be the furthest removed from this of perhaps all disciplines.

On top of each container is a button which, when pressed by the viewer, triggers the figure to begin a long, complicated and almost inaudible commentary about art. The recordings add a performance element to the installation, which animates this otherwise eerily static scene and engages the viewer in participation. They are recordings of the real individuals reciting nonsensical opinions in their native tongue; a number of languages including French, German, English and Swedish can be heard, yet none satisfactorily understood. This works to convey just how rarefied and incomprehensible the art world can be, so far removed from the vernacular is the artistic babble that these leading figures are unintelligible even to each other. Additionally, each figure has a car exhaust on their face in the place of a nose and mouth creating a very distinctive and unique look which resides somewhere between humorous and disturbing. Sourced from junk yards, the obvious past function of these vents allows for another satirical comment on the art world. The vents are in reference to the common turn of phrase ‘blowing hot air’, meaning talking a lot of vacuous nonsense and making directionless arguments. The Kienholzes use these vents and the audio clips to skewer artistic and critical pretension, in accordance with the idea that such subjects are useless, and reading too much into the given work, an opinion foreshadowing the contemporary Stuckist movement of artists such as Billy Childish.

These surreal additions to the figures compound the biting satire suggested in the work’s title.Adorning the walls of the space are 14 assemblage and collage based pieces depicting the creation of the plaster figures populating the space, supposedly by an ‘invented artist by the name of Christian Carry’ . Carry’s collages symbolise the art world’s self-reflexiveness – the critics’ reputations are built on the works which they review – when they observe a piece they are looking at the objects which ‘made’ them, career wise and in the case of The Art Show, quite literally.  It is here that the Kienholzes’ Dada connection is evident. Art criticism held a ‘suspect status’ for them and they ‘maintained a general distrust of theory’ – The Art Show ‘possesses little of the pathos’ found in their earlier work.

This scepticism fuelled the creation of the work’s metanarrative, in some respects it ‘breaks the fourth wall’ but long before this became a cinematic trope. The art is about art, and certainly not in a favourable or enamoured sense, and can therefore be described as an institutional critique. Yet one unlike Dion’s more celebratory, optimistic approach. Here, the assemblages themselves are relatively nondescript, built of majoritively muted and brown tones.

They do not seek to stand alone or draw focus from the figures, just to enhance the scene in a supporting role. Their unassuming nature may be a comment on the lack of individuality of such contemporary works. It is almost as if the Kienholzes are making pieces that could have been cobbled together by anyone – they are as mousy and unremarkable as the name of their fictional and profoundly faceless creator.

In this way Christian Carry is both a comment on the contemporary artist as well as the contemporary art critic.A contemporary equivalent of the Kienholzes’ satire is Cornelia Parker’s comment on the art world in her piece Stolen Thunder (red spot), whereby the artist took a photograph of one of the most successful prints in the 2012 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and digitally removed the print itself, leaving only the many red stickers which mark the sales. In this way Parker mocks the art buyer – suggesting they will chase any trend or famous name no matter the piece – even a blank sheet. Furthermore she’s highlighting the commercial favouritism toward representational images – her own contemporary abstract works would never achieve such sales.

The piece is updated with red spots every year – Parker’s critique has become a running joke of the buyers’ Pavlovian response.Ideologically, The Art Show falls within the series of works by the Kienholzes called ‘Concept Tableaux’ begun in 1961 ‘claiming inspiration from the narrative tableaux performed in church when Edward was a boy’. As well as being informed by reproductions of religious scenes such as the nativity, the artists also drew from the early 20th century German concept of Epic Theatre – as proponed by practitioners such as Erwin Piscator and most famously Bertolt Brecht. The Epic Theatre movement was concerned with themes of ‘contemporary existence’ and using effects and interactions to cultivate a response from the audience – and tableaux (also known as freeze frames) were used to unnerve the audience and divert their focus to a particular moment. The Kienholzes used tableaux in this same manner – visiting The Art Show is certainly disquieting and in the act of freezing the scene they open it to critical scrutiny. The commentary ‘spoken’ by the figures further participates with the audience, again reinforcing these theatrical principles. What differs between the practitioners’ and the Kienholzes’ use of tableaux is their presentation.

Clearly a practitioner such a Brecht uses tableaux within the context of a play, whereas the Kienholzes use is described by celebrated critic Harold Rosenberg as ‘a development to the extreme’ of Action Painting, a popular term coined by Rosenberg himself. By Action Painting he means ‘the idea that…

it is the event of the doing, not the thing done, that is the work’ . The term was originally used in reference to Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, whose work is spontaneous, gestural and ‘considered a record of the artist’s creative processes’ more than anything else. The Art Show fits this definition just a snugly as Kline’s work, but while in Kline’s case there is unequivocally a final piece of sorts, for the Kienholzes this is more of a grey area. While clearly the installation side of The Art Show could fill this role, the ‘Concept Tableau’ itself takes the form of a plaque and set of instructions which predate the installation by over half a decade. The instructions read like a statement of intent in the future tense; for example the Kienholzes specify the work will be set in 1966 ‘to be able to use mini-skirts’ and that they ‘plan a desiccated punch bowl’ . Rosenberg questions which of these pieces is the essential work by calling the tableau instruction sheet a ‘more rarefied gesture’ than ‘delivering finished products to an art gallery’, and one that can be seen as a ‘self-sufficient work of art’. It is somewhat ironic that Rosenberg’s comments can be seen to echo the incomprehensible artistic spiel of Kienholzes models in The Art Show. Despite their unfavorable critique of the art world, the Kienholz’s have too been subject to the same commentary that they satirized.

In my opinion the fact that Kienholzes intend for the tableau sheet to be a realised piece makes it so, elevating it beyond the level or a mere snippet of thought scrawled in a sketchbook. However, the engagement and performative qualities of the installation piece, in line with its ties to Epic Theatre, make it essential to The Art Show – the work is incomplete without its physical manifestation. It is an all encompassing piece of art, blurring boundaries between 2D, 3D, installation, text-based, conceptual and performative art. The satire and artistic commentary created by this heady blend is as effective today as it was 40 years ago, and perhaps this shows another layer of critique of the art world –  that it has barely changed.


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