By now, a critical consensus has congealed around the Walker Art Center’s latest exhibit, The Quick and the Dead , a show that purports to “reach beyond itself and the limits of our knowledge and experience” to ask “what is alive and dead within the legacy of conceptual art?” Almost everyone who has written about it thus far is in agreement that the show, curated by Peter Eleey, the WAC’s new visual arts curator, is the best exhibit the Walker has pulled off in years—an “intelligent and elusive” show (as ArtForum’s David Velasco described it) that puts the Walker back on the cutting-edge of contemporary art after veering so dangerously close to populism with such pandering people-pleasers as Picasso and American Art , Frida Kahlo , and currently, Live Forever: Elizabeth Payton . Finally, it seems, the WAC has gotten back to what it does best—confounding people with that special brand of weird that can only be found in the world’s finest museums.
The Quick and the Dead is my favorite kind of Walker show: gleefully, unapologetically strange, in some cases going well beyond the point of absurdity into a kind of post-conscious nether-region where contradiction and paradox happily co-exist and things mean nothing/something in a pulsing brain-melt of art/pretension sanity/insanity. When confronted with such a show, it is pure folly to try to get one’s mind around the whole thing, so I prefer to focus on what I call “WTF moments”—moments during the exhibit when my brain exclaims “WTF!” At the Walker, the more WTF moments there are, the better the show is—and trust me, The Quick and the Dead has plenty of them. Following are a few of my favorites:
Let’s start with Robert Barry’s “Electromagnetic Energy Field,” (left) which, since it was first built in 1968, amounts to a classic in the field of conceptual art. It consists of a small aluminum box, a switch, and a few wires that aren’t attached to anything. There’s nothing remarkable about it—you could find dozens of switches like it at Ax-Man for ten cents apiece. The joke is that the switch may or may not do anything by interacting with a magnetic field that may or may not be there—in Barry’s own words, the field “exists at the very edge of non-existence.” I’m pretty sure this is where the writers of Lost got the idea for the button in the hatch that has to be pressed every 108 minutes or the world blows up. (Season 1, Episode 11, for Lost illiterates.) The question of whether to keep pushing the button boils down to a matter of faith, or belief, that the button actually does something—and fear that there may be painful consequences for not pushing it, if in fact it is functional. Barry’s switch doesn’t do a damn thing except invite you to ponder the nature of switches and switchiness, and the awesome but invisible power of electricity in the hands of someone who knows how to read the “+” and “-“ signs on a battery. At AxMan, granted, this would not generate a WTF moment—but at the Walker, it’s guaranteed. (Incidentally, the Lost episode in which the hatch is first discovered is called “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues,” and the title of this show— The Quick and the Dead —is a reference to a quote from the New Testament—"who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead"—as well as various spaghetti-Western novels, TV shows, and movies by the same name that invariably involve gunslingers shooting it out. Extra pop-reference points go to curator Peter Eleey if he has even the faintest clue what I’m talking about.)
Next up is Jason Dodge’s “Four Carat Black Tourmaline and Half-carat Ruby Inside an Owl,” (left) which looks deceptively like a dead bird on the floor. It doesn’t even look like an owl—more like a baby hawk. Anyway, the bird comes with an explanation that during the embalming process, various “precious gems have been placed inside the owl.” There is no way to verify whether the jewels are inside the owl (my guess is they aren’t, because as artistic materials go, bullshit is so much cheaper), but it doesn’t matter, because the mere idea that there might be gems inside the thing raises the question of value: If the jewels are stuffed inside the bird, can they really be said to be “precious,” since no one can see them? Do they retain their value? Their beauty? Or are the gems rendered worthless by being “contextualized” inside an animal carcass? Truly, the only way to test this hypothesis would be to auction the bird off and see how much money some idiot was willing to pay for it, then open up the bird to see if said idiot was really a genius. Conveniently, there is no x-ray machine trained on the bird to prove the existence of the jewels—it’s just lying there on the floor, waiting to see how gullible you are.
Similarly, Maurezio Cattelan’s Taxidermied Dog lies creepily in corner (left, in a more chair-like context), looking for all the world like a sleeping dog. The weird thing about it is that you know the thing is dead, but it looks so life-like that you expect it to jump up at any moment and start begging you for a treat. My advice: it’s dead—quick, move on . . .
. . . to possibly the grossest, most tasteless work of art I’ve ever encountered. Adrian Piper’s “What Will Become of Me” (above, right) is a row of honey jars filled with the artist’s hair, fingernail clippings, and bits of skin collected over a period of several years. It is, in a word, disgusting. As I pondered the artistic imperative behind this collection of biological detritus, I silently thanked Adrian for not attempting to collect all the other waste products her body has produced over the years. I recall reading once that most of the dust in the average household is little flakes of dead skin, and if nothing else, Piper’s dedication to her craft filled me with a powerful urge to vacuum.
Kudos to Piper for knowing when to stop, though—a measure of restraint not shown by the appropriationist Sturdevant, who evidently felt that Joseph Beuys “Fat Chair”—a chair covered in vegetable fat that Beuys made in 1963—should be one step closer to a dinner set. So she copied it (left). Which is what she does, building her work on a theoretical foundation of mumbo-jumbo from Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietschze, and several other philosophers whose first language was not English. According to the helpful curator recordings that accompany the exhibit, “Sturdevant replays the process by which artworks first come into being, and in so doing returns the replica to a state of originality.” In journalism we call this plagiarism, but then again, most journalists can’t defend themselves by quoting Foucault. Appropriation is for artists only, apparently; everyone else has to come up with their own ideas.
Back to Jason Dodge, who is a conceptualist of the highest order—meaning that he can be relied upon to fill your day with WTF moments. Another work of his on display is a series of pieces of photographic paper that Dodge supposedly exposed to light at various remote places all over the globe. The joke (or con, I can’t tell which) is that they all look exactly the same—like a frame of film that has been fogged by exposure to too much light: brown, formless, blah. Personally, I found these pieces hilarious, because the supposed locations around the world don’t matter a whit—Dodge could have exposed them all in his backyard. It’s like stapling a sheaf of blank paper together and calling it Travel magazine (a million-dollar conceptual-art idea I hereby copyright.)
There are too many other minor WTF moments to mention (call them “wtf” moments). For instance, Trisha Donnelly took a couple of sphinxes—the kind you see in front of the mansions on Summit Ave—and strapped a pillow and a searchlight to each of their faces. I don’t know what happens to the pillows when it rains, but personally, I think gluing nerf balls to their ears would have made a stronger artistic statement. But that’s just me. And then there’s the woman lying on the floor who looks like she’s alive, but after seeing the dead bird and dog you’re not quite sure, until you can see her breathing—so it comes as a relief to know she's not another sick taxidermy project.
Whatever you end up thinking about The Quick and the Dead , it helps to remember that one does not necessarily need to take all art seriously, and in some cases it’s not meant to be taken seriously. Many artists amuse themselves by straddling irony and paradox in various ways, and I’m sure many of them would like their audiences to be amused as well. In that regard, The Quick and the Dead does not disappoint—it’s a gallery full of fun for the whole family. Just don't let your kids touch the dog, or the bird, or that lady lying on the floor.
The Quick and the Dead continues at the Walker Art Center through Sept. 27.