featured gallery for March 2018

Institution Critical

On December 1, 1989, the first Day Without Art, organized by Visual AIDS, launched in over 700 institutions across the United States, including museums, galleries and independent art spaces. Many closed for the day, producing a literal day without art. Others responded to the imperative more metaphorically. New York’s Metropolitan Museum, to take one striking example, switched out its iconic Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein for panels of information about AIDS. Closure, whether rhetorical gesture or actual event, is a type of negation, a way of saying no to the current state of affairs. Closing the museum, or replacing famous paintings with content related to AIDS, is to refuse the status quo, an affirmation that art cannot—under the conditions of crisis—remain a bourgeois leisure activity but must instead confront and actively engage in the exigent politics of the moment.

Like the recent J20 art strike, Day Without Art relates historically to the 1969 Art Worker’s Coalition Art Strike, in which the group asked museums to close in protest of the Vietnam War. Beginning in the 1960s, artists like Michael Asher, Hans Haacke, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and the members of the Art Worker’s Coalition questioned the way art institutions frame and construct the meaning of the work, and pointed to their often submerged or invisible politics. This approach became known as institutional critique. Museums, institutional critique suggests, are not ideal, transcendent spaces outside of history. Rather, they actively shape the meaning of what they present, which always has a politics. Day Without Art, in its original inception and through to today, builds on this insight, seeing art institutions as active, interested spaces whose energies and power can be directed toward political goals.

In a 1989 conversation with Douglas Crimp on AIDS and visual art, the activist artist Gregg Bordowitz commented that institutional critique had ceased to be the main focus of his practice. Perhaps it had come to seem a quasi-formalist iteration of self-reflexivity with little to offer in that precarious moment. But, Bordowitz suggested, despite its more activist orientation, his work nevertheless continued to draw upon institutional critique in its focus on the artwork’s context. Bordowitz’s writings stress the ways artists can respond to and intervene in a range of contexts, and how they can use this sensitivity to particular contexts to build coalitions, groups of makers and bodies cutting across demographics to demand real change.

The ideas Bordowitz raised remain pressing. This set of issues was the subject of an exhibition James Meyer curated in 1993, called (directly quoting Bordowitz’s 1989 comment) “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” a show not explicitly or exclusively about AIDS but very much emerging out of Meyer’s time in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and including work by activists such as Zoe Leonard, Bordowitz, and others. More recently, LA’s Hammer Museum took up a similar set of questions in “Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology,” curated by Anne Ellegood and Johana Burton. Instead of ending in self-reflexive exhaustion, these exhibitions suggest, institutional critique metamorphosed, taking on questions of identity, and often of queerness in particular. It became possible, necessary, to make work about identity or directed towards activism that also took account, in institution-critical style, of the conditions of its production and reception, as Meyer argued art must. At least three directions, possible futures, emerged. Institutional critique could expand its focus beyond art spaces to others, like scientific and medical institutions (as in Leonard’s photographs of terrifyingly metallic antique gynecological instruments). Or, it could be harnessed toward the project of building a coalition, as in Bordowitz’s videos (many of which were produced in collaboration with Jean Carlomusto), which at turns were aimed at a general audience of all people living with HIV or at specific affected constituencies including teenagers, black men, lesbians, and others. A third avenue focused on the meaning of site specificity in art and on the politics of public space, understanding the institution not so much as a physical zone but as a set of discourses or ideas that manifest in, and shape, public space.

Day Without Art emerged from and participates in this larger context of questions about how institution critical approaches could be fused with activism with the goal of ending the epidemic and gaining recognition for HIV+ artists. Day Without Art is, then, in some ways, a form of institutional critique. At the same time, its debut generated an immense swell of press coverage, generating enormous visibility, and it can be compared to ACT UP actions that similarly pushed AIDS into the forefront of the public sphere, such as the famous 1988 Seize Control of the FDA action.

Some of the strategies of institutional critique at play in the 1989 iteration of Day Without Art include direct address to the spectator in the form of information, and recognition of the gallery space as not neutral. The subsequent, 1990 edition included Electric Blanket, an extraordinary slideshow of hundreds of images by many artists that was projected in public space.

Institutional critique shouldn’t be frozen in amber as a movement or a style of art. It is a continually evolving practice that always addresses itself to a new context, and tries to effect a change within the circumstances particular to that institutional context. For this reason, it is better to speak, as theorist and art historian Rosalyn Deutsche does, not just of institutional critique—a term which suggests a codified genre—but of institution critical practices, which implies an approach, a way of engaging with institutions.

Day Without Art has played a central role in the history of Visual AIDS. And today, the Artist+ Registry is an excellent place to look to answer the question of how makers of different generations are continuing to question the boundaries of institutions, both art and non-art.

Delving into the Artist+ Registry, I find work that shows how artists are still resisting institutional authority, dismantling institutional hierarchies, tracing the operations of institutions in public space, and more, effecting changes sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic.

Charles Long’s zine pages consider the mode of their distribution: the zine is an underground, viral form, a history the work is also in dialogue with visually (from John Heartfield to Martha Rosler). They remind us of the scandalous, deathly toll the Reagan administration’s silence in the early years of the AIDS epidemic took, refusing any falsification of history that would cast Nancy and Ronald Reagan as instigating a national conversation over AIDS. His DDF3, a print on handmade paper rather than a zine, directly addresses the viewer. Here, the acronym “DDF,” used on hookup and dating apps to indicate “Drug and Disease Free” status, is given a different meaning, “Dying Diseased Faggot,” asking those who use such acronyms to consider the impact of their language.

Rafael Sánchez’s paintings made of sugar delicately refer to his Cuban heritage; sugar has been the island’s main export crop. But the works also pressure the standard white cube gallery, since Sánchez presented them in a dentist’s office, a sanitary space which, as he points out, is another kind of white cube. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to Sánchez insertion of sugar into a dentist’s office, but his installation also expands notions of what qualifies as a proper display space, playfully questioning what counts as “site specificity.”

In Daphne Von Rey’s self-portraits, the artist has herself photographed outdoors in urban settings, often amidst dilapidated structures redolent of old Hollywood or Times Square of the 70s. Emphasizing the importance of trans presence in public space, her images think of the street as an institution, and she juxtaposes her body with (sometimes crumbling, perhaps soon to be gentrified) sites like the adult theater.

horea's 2 bag reproduces a paper bag produced by the artist Christian Boltanski as part of a 1995 public art project in which the artist placed a massive pile of clothing in a Harlem church; for two dollars, visitors could purchase one of these bags and fill it with clothes. Perhaps horea offers a subtle critique of the relation between artist and audience in Boltanski’s piece. In any case, the work raises the question of experience, and how our experiences of artworks affect us.

In Jessica Whitbread’s performances, the artist and a collaborator don space suits, navigating public space in these cumbersome costumes. This particular image suggests on the one hand that the gallery-goers are literally (and perhaps by necessity) insulated from the radiation or hazardous atmosphere of the institution, but on the other a kind of solidarity or community found in the experience of art, as the two put their arms around one another and gaze at framed images.

Roberto Ekholm’s bitter sweet (holding felix) inserts the artist’s body into an iconic and visually pleasing Felix Gonzales-Torres candy spill work. In recent years, the centrality of AIDS to the earlier artist’s work has been papered over. Ekholm makes it impossible to ignore.

Chloe Dzubilo’s drawings feel intimate, handmade, and very personal, an aesthetic which is sometimes seen as the antithesis of institution critical approaches, as expressive, not analytical. And yet her drawings record and meditate on interpellation: the way someone addresses another on the street and thus shapes them—or tries to shape them—as a subject, often in harmful ways. In the drawings, she shows herself speaking back, resisting the violence of these speech acts. Dzubilo’s works on paper don’t rest with this indexing of such moments of public utterance; they also envision the artist as activist, as politician, directly shaping governmental affairs.

Shan Kelley’s work often intervenes in language. With Curators Like These, Who Needs A Cure is constructed through the most traditional means of art production: oil paint. But here the purity of that most salable medium has been contaminated with semen, and the text- “MY AIDS WON’T FIT IN YOUR MUSEUM”—indicates the incommensurable and unassimilable quality of the transgressive object. Kelley points to institutional blind spots, perhaps to the inability of museums to adequately collect or represent HIV+ artists. His series of aluminum signs, displayed outdoors, mimic official modes of communication, but instead of, say, directing traffic, the messages they bear reflect on the artist’s personal experiences, of testing HIV positive and discussing this diagnosis with doctors, friends and lovers.

Nancer Lemoins' works have the feeling of posters that could be wheat pasted on city streets, directly addressing the viewer, à la Barbara Kruger, emphasizing the politics that undergird public space and implicating the spectator in a range of often overlooked questions including what it means to be a sexually active older woman.

Finally, Hervé Guibert’s photo, in which a young girl mimics the balletic poses of the sculptures around her, suggests the psychic impact the museum can have, its role in subject formation. The snapshot is an evocative reminder of the many ways in which institutions make meaning.