Artscape Magazine’s Issue #01, which celebrated its launch at Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward on June 19th 2009, chose to focus on the consequences of the current economic climate. Editor in Chief of Artscape, Juanli Carrión, wrote that the publication hoped to highlight the effects of the economy on artistic creation and production without losing an optimistic tone. Still, he admits that the issue is a portrayal of reality and, if alarming, it’s at least not falsely upbeat.
The article “Art After (The End Of) The Banquets” by Domingo Mestre is of interest, both insightful and disturbing in its investigation of art’s position in the economic conditions. Mestre introduces his piece with threads of optimism, writing, “from the perspective of Milton Friedman and his followers, disasters and catastrophes of all kinds now are not a problem; rather, they are considered to be true opportunities.” He then asks us to consider the concept that art is a zeitgeist of its time. I have always been fond of this concept: it suggests that our creative voices are totems of our age, time capsules constructed from contemporaneous aesthetic. However, Mestre illuminates the negative consequences of this phenomenon by investigating what today’s art is implying about this epoch. His concern? Damien Hirst, the British artist behind infamous pieces like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a shark in a formaldehyde-filled vitrine) and For the Love of God (a platinum, diamond-studded model of an 18th century skull, still featuring the original teeth). In addition to the unconventional nature of his work, Hirst utilizes a factory setup – much like Warhol – to produce the desired volume of pieces. This concept of mass-production, paired with the incredible selling prices of his pieces, has led some to consider him as commercial brand rather than artist. Mestre writes, “I think that there is no better way of representing death in our time, in this case the death of art itself as a product differentiated from the rest of commodities. Doubts emerge at the time of asking oneself if other ways of thinking still fit. If there is still a place for thinking about art itself and for itself, after its postindustrial fall into pure financial speculation and the worldwide crisis of that speculation. Said in another way: Does anything else exist, in the business of Art, apart from money?” I had not considered the monetary impact of work, such as Hirst’s, to this extent. While I have been admittedly disturbed by his pieces, I took for granted that he was a natural progression of the avant-garde; he is extreme to breach previous traditions and strive for the ultramodern. But what do these pieces – dissected marine life and diamond-encrusted skulls - reflect about our society? Perhaps we are fearless when stepping over creative boundaries; perhaps we have gone too far to achieve novelty and lost our regard for the sanctity of life in the wake of this endeavor. But with fiscal issues becoming increasingly prevalent, Mestre’s article considers that perhaps contemporary art reflects merely our consumerism. Not only does he entreat us to consider how art will struggle through this economy, but also compels us to wonder if it can be separated from its monetary value, or if it is now merely another commodity.
The FLAG Art Foundation’s current exhibition, Re-Accession: For Sale by Owner, curated by Philae Knight and Amanda Steck, addresses the economy by showcasing work of both established and emerging New York artists who either do not have New York gallery representation or whose representation has been affected by the economic climate. For this particular exhibit, FLAG functions as threshold for the artists, making pieces available for sale directly without receiving the traditional commission a gallery would take. Re-Accession fashions a sense of unity, bringing together artists of different mediums, styles, and degrees of renown to address their common struggle. Upon entering this exhibition, I immediately encountered Devon Dikeou’s What’s Love Got To Do With It? The piece is an arrangement of nineteen lobby directory boards. This series mimics the manual directory boards used by galleries over a decade ago and contain information (title, location, dates, artists) for group shows Dikeou had participated in over the course of her career. The set that appear at FLAG are from exhibitions that occurred during the last economic slump in the early ‘90s. In addition to this set, she created a new announcement board for Re-Accession, marking another group of artists in similar circumstances. Other artists in the exhibition chose to address the economic climate more explicitly: Conrad Bakker painted a panel for the exhibition that reads: “LIQUIDATION SALE / GOING OUT OF BUSINESS / EVERYTHING MUST GO.” Laura Gilbert’s The Zero Dollar was also featured. Fake “zero” dollar bills, which Gilbert handed out in front of the New York Stock Exchange in 2008, suggest the depleting value of our currency. Also included was a haunting photo drawn over with ink by Sebastiaan Bremer, a red white and blue banner reading “We Finance Lottery Tickets” by Matt Tackett, layered painting by Jay Davis, and photographs from Bill Durgin’s Nudes and Still Lifes series, in which an untraditional nude is paired with a photograph of a simultaneously grotesque and elegant still life. While many of these pieces function as commentary on the current economic climate, they also serve as totems that commemorate the resiliency of the artists who continue to produce art in spite of the rugged conditions.
X-Initiative’s NO SOUL FOR SALE – A Festival Of Independents, which closed on June 28, used the former Dia building to bring together innovative and esteemed “not-for-profit centers, alternative institutions, artists’ collectives and independent enterprises” from around the world. These participants were invited to use the space to showcase work of their choosing, turning the site into a vast collection of art, video, performance, and publication. The festival functioned without partitions, walls, or entry fees, only tape-marked boundaries on the floor. These factors allowed the participants to function in close proximity, without the experience of their work being a commodity. This intimacy removed all sense of hierarchy and allowed viewers to experience the exhibition as a collection of work sans price tag. I was particularly moved by the work of Tel Aviv street artist Know Hope. The nameless character featured in his cardboard world of metaphor, images, and text serves as a representation of both the universal vulnerability and strength of humanity. His combination of illustration, poetry, and iconography lend his work a multi-layered narrative quality - a delicate epic of humanity's struggle. Swiss Institute displayed a dolly bearing a hefty stack of fanzines entitled “Avant Guard,” which – through images and writing - venerates the work of artists who formerly worked as guards at the Dia Arts Center (where X-Initiative is now located). Though the zines were being sold for the price of $1, the dolly was intentionally left unguarded and the viewers, confronted by a Marlo Pascual magenta-tinted husky featured on the cover, were given carte blanche to take themselves a personal copy if so compelled. Many of the contributors displayed interactive pieces, such as Kaffe Matthews’ Sonic Bed_Marfa. The charming yellow mattress invited visitors to climb in, get comfy, and experience their own perception of sound – specifically, a Kaffe Matthew’s composition resounding through a 12-channel system hidden inside the bed. In addition to being an audio-experience, the nature of potentially reclining on a mattress next to a stranger allowed this piece to function as a social experiment and unifying activity. W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy) also encouraged viewer-engagement, setting up a floor space with stencils and spray paint. zingmagazine Managing Editor Brandon Johnson, who entered the exhibition in a white t-shirt, left sporting a still-sticky customized garment reading “WAGE RAGE” in gold lettering - earning him kudos from a belabored man outside a 23rd St Irish pub who vocally identified with that statement. Also featured was INABA’s rooftop installation, a group of pool-noodle structures serving as seating for film viewings; Kling & Bang’s audio-visual presentation of 44 DVDs shown on three projectors, five or so small DVD players, and two flat screens; Galerie im Regierungsviertel’s installation entitled “Elevator to the Gallows,” occupied the former freight elevator and allowed 20 people at a time to experience an imaginary elevator ride surrounded by the work of the featured artists; and performance/installation piece “Impulsive Chorus” by Martin Soto Climent, in which the public assisted the artist by downing cans of beer to be crushed and arranged into a structure. This performance-sculpture, which took place during the opening of NO SOUL FOR SALE, was an ideal embodiment of the synthesis of art and community: it transformed a common social activity into tangible art.
Regardless of your impression of his sentiments involving the pieces and process of Damien Hirst, Domingo Mestre does raise the valid question of art’s proximity (and submission) to commerce and consumption. Like an answer to his clarion call, the committed individuals of projects such as Re-Accession and NO SOUL FOR SALE have chosen to evaluate the situation and find a new angle by which resilient innovators can maintain their livelihood and make art intended to illuminate current issues and create community: a testament to the belief that art has not become merely a commodity.