Inman Annex, Houston
Through January 8, 2011
by Michael Bise
Weasel (exhibition view)
Weasel, an exhibition curated by Kurt Mueller and Chelsea Beck at Inman Gallery’s Annex Space, purports to once again lift the wool from the viewer’s eyes. Beck and Mueller create an analytical framework around an exhibition that includes Joe Zane, Eva and Franco Mattes (aka 0100101110101101.ORG), Jim Nolan and Brina Thurston by commissioning not one, not two, but four different press releases authored by the Austin writer S.E. Smith.
Each press release is designed to highlight and reaffirm aspects of the curators’ theoretical intentions behind Weasel. Judging from these essays, the impetus behind the exhibition is to first implicate the viewer and then make them aware of their participation in the deceptive yet consensual act of making and viewing art. The most revealing and convoluted of the four essays opens with the famous snatch of dialogue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet between the main character and the duplicitous spy Polonius. In the exchange, Hamlet points out a cloud and proceeds to expose Polonius’s spinelessness and dishonesty by claiming its resemblance first to a camel, then a weasel, and finally a bear. In a servile effort to maintain Hamlet’s trust, Polonius agrees, like a true politician, with each radically different assertion.
It is in this dialogue, and the author’s possibly conscious misinterpretation of it, that we are able to recognize the curators’ understanding of the viewer in relation to the works on display. In the essay, Smith writes: “Hamlet conduct[s] Polonius through a meditative trance of representational receptivity in which the cloud both see above them transforms at Hamlet’s will.” A more accurate interpretation of the dialogue is that Hamlet is fucking with Polonius to reveal him for the corrupt idiot he knows him to be. Much of the work in the exhibition functions in this way as well. While curators Beck and Mueller and essayist Smith claim that the exhibition’s “intention...is not to frustrate but to tease–doubly, to play upon art-going conceptions and to tease out the inherent hopes with which one approaches a gallery wall,” an encounter with the works themselves made me feel like I was simply being fucked with.
The problem with much of the work is that it is too easy to see the cracks and fissures in the facades that are meant, if only for a moment, to jolt the viewer out of their “idealized aesthetic experience.” While Joe Zane’s fake neon sign depicting his last name, complete with electrical outlet, and his blown glass vase of flowers are the most flagrantly fraudulent, Brina Thurston’s video is the most obviously manipulative. In the three-minute video Harm (2007) we see what appears to be a miniature poodle on a pink blanket looking happy, innocent and dumb. What we hear, on the other hand, is a woman’s voice hurling a slew of obscenities and degradations at the hapless pup. The intended effect is shock and repulsion, hopefully activating that part of our brains that causes us to cry when we see that Sarah McLachlan-scored ASPCA commercial. The ASPCA commercial, however, is much more sophisticated and successful because the animals’ reactions and facial expressions are perfectly in synch with the syrupy music. But anyone knows that when a dog is being yelled at, as it is in Thurston’s video, it will run, snarl, cower, or do something other than calmly and placidly endure the harangue. Though the manipulation technique is exactly the same (a decontextualized image is overlaid with a soundtrack carefully designed to elicit a specific emotional response), the ASPCA commercial accomplishes the not insignificant task of crashing the viewer’s limbic system even as their cerebral cortex’s bullshit detector is on full alert. Unfortunately, Harm’s spell is broken before the incantation can even leave Thurston’s lips.
Eva and Franco Mattes’ single channel online performance titled No Fun, recorded on the social networking site Chatroulette, depicts a split screen where one side displays a real time image of a man, presumably having committed suicide by hanging, in an apartment made to look like a dingy hovel. The other side of the screen shows the reactions of people who have happened upon the scene via the website, which allows participants to randomly pair up and have web-based conversations and interactions. Either through selection and editing or because of human nature, the young people who happen upon the hanged man invariably behave in the predictably vulgar manner Larry Clark has trained us to believe is the essential nature of anyone under the age of thirty. Conceived as an online experiment, the work does not survive its move from the Internet to a flatscreen monitor at Isabella Court. While the deception is plausible in the relatively unpoliced Wild West of the World Wide Web, the performance loses its power when it becomes a $10,000 editioned video in the polite space of the commercial gallery.
I’m not afraid to admit that, through a kind of willful obliqueness, Jim Nolan’s formalist assemblages of plastic sheeting, folding stools and socks effectively prevented me from interpreting them as either weasels, whales, or bears. Enigmatic but oddly specific titles like P.S.F.U. and 12 apostles/market fluctuations (both 2005) seem to indicate some concrete interpretation that never quite materializes. In this way, Nolan’s sculptures seemed closest in spirit to Hamlet’s manipulation of Polonius. So, taking my cue from the exhibition’s organizers, I decided to view Nolan’s objects as Hamlet might: lighter than air with meanings and titles infinitely but meaninglessly malleable.
In light of the recent furor surrounding Wikileaks, which I skeptically support, I continued to ask myself when viewing the exhibition, to what end are we being deceived? The art-viewing audience is certainly one of the most intellectually sophisticated publics in our society. The often unacknowledged reality is that anyone who has read this article, viewed Weasel or read Hamlet with any curiosity has already had the scales lifted from their eyes over and over again. I’m conflicted by Weasel because I am skeptical of the organizers’ and the artists’ motivations. At what point does a genuine desire to reveal hidden truths become a cynical manipulation? When the truths revealed become trivial, or worse, nonexistent, the viewer becomes little more than a mark used to bring a sophisticated con game to its predetermined conclusion. I don’t believe Weasel is quite so cynical, but like many contemporary works and exhibitions, it comes dangerously close to intellectual nihilism. As I left the exhibition, I felt a little more hopeless than when I walked in.
Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.