The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
Two Lithuanians and a Palestinian Walk into a Room Full of Mexicans. 7 Observations
Would the generalization, sometimes exhibitions work like a cartoon, sound more like phlegm or like a decorous distinction, like comparing a man with a dog? Is your inclination to think that cartoons and exhibitions share conventions: the involvement of known set ups, the stock characters, the punchlines dependent on an audiences familiarity with the popularized ailments of those ‘stock characters’, and that audiences willingness to prolong some easy ethnographic arithmetic and the safety we take in generalizations, or are you inclined to see this analogy as a way to draw out the distinction that cartoons and exhibitions can be an escape from prediction?
In April, Raimundas Malašauskas, Gintaras Didžiapetris, and Rosalind Nashashibi curated Into the Belly of a Dove (ITBOAD) as part of the Museo Rufino Tamayo’s new series Activating The Collection. The premise was to shrink a closed wing of the museum to 1/20th the scale, and insert the shrunken reconstruction full of art into another wing of the Museum.
Unlike a lot of museum exhibitions, ITBOAD was not anchored around the normal banners that we disputatious trust to establish meaning-The Isms. Generation. Geography. Historical imperative. Cultural context. Critical response, etc. While the show was full of doors and hallways, it did not exist in a place of logical expectation: this is where I’ll go, this is what I will see, this is the conversation we will have. It had the looser physics of a cartoon: the same non-sense rule that can walk a horse into the bar of a joke, seemed to bring the artists to the walls of ITBOAD. From obscure Mexican artists and name brand modernist’s Helen Frankenthaler, David Smith, Jean Dubuffet, Lynn Russell Chadwick and some outliers like Saul Steinberg.
Over the phone once, Saul Steinberg, said, “I realized today: the umbrella and the bicycle are the two perfect things that we cannot make for ourselves. We know how they work, we follow their operation, but we cannot make them, even with effort. Very simple, but we are stumped. So now I realize why the umbrella and the bicycle are so common in modern art. Picasso. Duchamp’s wheel. Leger’s umbrellas. Magritte. It is because this is the only honest review we can give the modern artist. Very simple, but we are stumped.”
It was meta-post-something, but not with the narcissistic malignancy these things-about-their own thing-ness usually have. The addiction to rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something, gets old fast, but fortunately the curators of ITBOAD, though indebted to Finnegan’s Wake, Borges’ bent forks and Bertolt Brecht’s LOOK! LOOK!, didn’t seem all that concerned with the cleverness of their own lilliputious set up, but instead more fixated on “making a form strange in order to resist both one's own preconceptions and the weight of others opinions.”(to paraphrase Italo Calvino). Slight difference perhaps. Point is: what was made strange was not so much the work, but the experience of being in a museum. This is the Brecht part, the part about feeling hyper aware of the set-up which in a museum is as interesting as it is redundant. It’s redundant because museums- and their crest-clean walls, fluorescent hum, and alien digs-never let you forget you are in a museum. In them, I’m hyper-aware that I’m in an emotionally exempt space that feels like a shopping mall or an airport or a shopping mall in an airport. It’s like being in a big set of parenthesis. The academic-blowhard term for this architecture of nowhere is ‘non-space’. The awareness of being in ‘non-space’ is amplified in the Tamayo because the museum is highly contrastable with the rest of Mexico City. Mexico City is everything the museum isn’t. It’s chaotically organized and congested and dirty, and when your inside the museum you feel as much in Mexico City as you do say in Geneva or the Container Store in midtown Manhattan.
I mentioned above, some funnels that critics and viewers use to give work meaning. It’s inviting for viewers to seek these family resemblances, and I’m not sure we’re in the wrong to do so, but funneling it this way can spur a dependence on the funnel as a first line of defense, but ITBOAD, for me (a stuttering first time art-critic) is hard to talk about because it seems to resist all the things we critics use to give our words traction.
It is sometimes possible to define the depth of an experience by means of how radically it ties your tongue or hastens your verbal motor skills. In The Power of Myth, a taped conversation with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell discusses the first, second, and third best talking pts.,“The first best things we can’t talk about because we don’t have words for them. The second best things we talk about are our attempts to talk about the first best things, and the third best thing to talk about is all the other stuff to talk about.”
We log most of our larynx time in this third tier, not because we are putatively inarticulate or braindead, but because of the alluring convenience, all you need is a tongue and a wall. The third tier is the folksy byway where we fill space.
The second tier, the hiccoughs, “the second best things we talk about are our attempts to talk about the first best things” is where it seems most people who try to articulate the less haptic do most of their living. Perhaps, better said by a friend, “Dude, explaining why art is good is like explaining why a joke is funny.” For me, like ITBOAD, the better kind of art, the stuff that hangs around in my gut, is such a close call with nonsense that it almost precludes the kind of sorting that language facilitates. I’ve heard that these shows about museum collections say more about the person who selects the work than the work itself. If I was hogtied into making a confession, I’d blurb that whatever decisions Malašauskas/Didžiapetris/Nashashibi made followed the principals of dream construction, which means decisions occurred in the absence of reason, in the pre-verbal and thoroughly flawed bar of a cartoon.