Smart spectacles and masterful manipulations: a look at the 3D Juror’s picks
by Tori Pelz
ArtPrize goers are not unfamiliar, to say the least, with the role of spectacle in art. This year, we have been entertained by a shoddy sculpture of a lynched Sadam Hussein that was “censored,” prompting the artist to burn the work in a ridiculous gesture of martyrdom. We’ve been charmed by giant bears made out of pine needles, a welded dragon (check out its epic youtube trailer), and anemic Butterfield-esque horses splashing in water. Compared to last year’s dazzlers, this year’s doozies are decidedly less spectacular—perhaps a sign that the competition is moving in a positive direction.
Aristotle rightly names spectacle as the “least artistic” element of tragedy because it exploits emotion. Yet, when this kind of seduction is used to satirize the very nature of spectacle, the result can be subversive and pretty damn delightful. Among this year’s juror picks are a handful of pieces that celebrate their spectacle-ness while smartly acknowledging their manipulation. As a result, these pieces offer viewers complicated layers of wonderment, surrealism, and irony.
This past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of discovering these pieces with 3D Juror, Lisa Freiman. Freiman is chief curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and most recently she won the bid to commission the American pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale– an anomaly for a Midwest curator. For the IMA and the Biennale, she has commissioned works that are absurd, surreal, and self-deprecating. For example, in “Track and Field” at the Biennale, an Olympic runner jogs on a treadmill atop an overturned tank. The work pokes fun at American nationalism while by engaging the viewer in a spectator sport.
Given Freiman’s penchant for work that seduces viewers with grandeur only to draw attention to the absurdity of this gesture, most of her top picks came as no surprise. Four of her top five, namely ABCD 83’s “More or Less“, Alois Kronschlager’s “Habitat,” Martijn van Wagtendonk’s “Song of Lift,” and Mike Simi’s “Mr. Weekend,” deftly tackle the tricky nature of spectacle and participatory viewing that is at the heart of ArtPrize. As we scoured downtown Grand Rapids for stand-out artwork, Lisa’s capacity for being delighted by art was contagious. While others carefully read labels, Lisa would burst out laughing and exclaim, “This is fantastic!” A readiness to find humor proved essential in uncovering more nuanced layers in the work.
As we approached ABCD 83’s “More or Less,” under a dark stairwell at UICA, Freiman assured a trepidatious child, “It’s not scary at all! It’s magical. I think you’ll love it!” In this piece that combines assemblage with video, the artists invite you into a surreal dreamscape. Found objects form billboards and buildings, creating a miniature city-scape that becomes the stage for a virtual landscape. Projected onto the sculptural installation are video projections of urban landscapes layered with cartoonish drawings. In a clever use of space, UICA’s exit door is transformed into a portal to this other world. Melodic music and impeccably timed animated movements are part of this seduction. However, vintage price tags that hang from various parts of the installation and a scrappy use of materials move beyond hypnotizing allure to an unabashed acknowledgement of artifice and commodification.
Kronschlaeger’s “Habitat” at SiteLab perhaps flips the relationship of spectacle and spectator on its head in the most dramatic way. Appropriating vitrines in the natural history museum, he reanimates the spaces with sculptural interventions. In one particularly successful piece he penetrates the display with a sleek neon plexiglass plank that entices viewers to walk into the constructed landscape. Not a hard sell, as this is any curious person’s fantasy. Once inside, the fantasy falls apart as you notice peeling paint on the ceiling, the walkway’s abrupt dead end, and most importantly, the viewer’s eyes on you. Spectator becomes spectacle in this clever response to audience demand for an experience.
In Martijn von Wagtendonk’s “Song of Lift,” the manipulation takes place on various levels. First, the dramatic symphonic music magnetizes you to the piece before you even see it. As you mount the stairs to the top floor of the UICA, the music mounts. The piece swallows up your senses as your vision is consumed by a sea of birdlike forms suspended from a churning carousel, and you feel the breeze of their flapping wings. When I first saw the piece, I was with my class of college students. When they exclaimed that this was their favorite piece, I felt protective—I knew they were being manipulated without realizing it. We stood amidst an audience craning their necks toward the sky to watch the mechanical birds flutter through dancing spotlights — it was too easy. I wanted my students to work for that understanding, that appreciation. However, when I came back with Frieman, I was able to see the piece without that protective instinct. Of all her picks, she went back and forth on this one the most.
“The longer you look,” Frieman commented, “the more complicated it gets. It’s a wicked little piece.” Part of this wickedness is due to the fact that the piece is activated once a viewer puts a quarter in a coin machine. Like “Habitat,” one has to desire the work enough to enter in. “Song of Lift,” however, seems to force the acknowledgement of that desire by requiring people to fish in their pockets and purses for a token of their longing. Frieman immediately recognized the music as Gorecki’s Symphony Number 3, a post-holocaust piece referred to as the “Song of Sorrowful Songs.” This reference to loss, Freiman astutely pointed out, is mirrored in the viewers’ experience once the piece comes to an end and viewers are left standing together in silence. Until someone breaks out clapping. As magical as the experience is, it makes no bones about its crude machinations. Simple motors thin plastic sheets comprise the birds’ forms, while the animating force is laid bare in strewn power cords and the carousels’ exposed, even lit motor.
Mike Simi’s “Mr. Weekend” on view at Kendall College, offers a completely different take on spectacle. Instead of inviting the viewer to enter in to an experience, he keeps the viewer in a constant state of confusion. Mr. Weekend, a 16 foot robotic sock puppet, inflates and subverts a child’s play thing for a sad and hilarious commentary on a grown-up dilemma. The puppet’s armature, a robotic arm salvaged from a Chrysler plant assembly line, references a once productive, now obsolete existence. Mr. Weekend says in his monotone robot voice things like, “I am a piece of contemporary art. I do not know what that means…Jesus. Nobody cares that I welded passenger doors together for over 26,413 hours.” Yet, his narrative does not complete a loop like one might expect from a robot. Mr. Weekend is the everyday worker resigned to doing what it takes to pay the bills. In a hilarious turn of events, that means becoming a stationary piece of art with a hefty dose of self-deprecating wit. This piece is genius. Especially in the context of an event that celebrates making, public commentary, and let’s face it, that good ol’ Midwestern work ethic.
That’s what I found so delightful about Freiman’s top choices– they embrace the absurdity and spectacle that much of ArtPrize work embodies. By acknowledging their trickery, they provide a critical commentary on the nature of spectacle and possess a potency that the giant dragon never will.