My Awareness post is actually inspired by my Experience post: I thought back to another time when an installation artwork left me with a complex and thought-provoking sensation after viewing it. On last year’s DC Field Trip, I remembered seeing a massive piece called The Dangerous Logic of Wooing, an incredible installation that completely filled one of the Hirshhorn’s large third-floor rooms. The piece, by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, consists of massive lycra and nylon bags suspended from the ceiling, filled with styrofoam and rice. Each form is supposed to represent a different body, some being, and they are trying to court each other, inexplicably intertwined to the point of not being able to tell which body a given bag belongs to. The lowest bags are hanging nearly all the way to the floor, and many more you have to duck your head to avoid. Walking around the room really makes you feel like you are inside the piece, that you can see its inner workings, as opposed to a painting on a wall which you are always outside of. The sense of space and the connection the viewer feels while experiencing Neto’s piece is unlike anything else I have ever seen, yet it does share some similarities with other installation art, such as the Laib Wax Room, in that it creates a multidimensional experience with the viewer, and this ability of installation art to interact is definitely something I would love to create in my own art.
One weekend this January, I was in Washington with my dad for an appointment and after we ate lunch near DuPont Circle we decided to go to the Phillips Collection. I had been there before but not in a while, and I remembered really liking it. It proved being better than I remembered; the collection contains a comprehensive journey of some of the most famous and influential modern art from around the world, from Courbet to Cezanne to Miró. But something that left a lasting and interesting impression on me was not a painting, but rather 440 melted pounds of beeswax lined in a 6x7x10 foot room, illuminated by one single lightbulb suspended from the ceiling. The Laib Wax Room, installed by German artist Wolfgang Laib, is a permanent installation at the Phillips, and is really a cool experience. The room is strangely calming yet unnerving: the warm golden hue combined with the physical warmth from the slightly heated wax that surrounds you is almost therapeutic until you realize that you’re in a room smaller than a jail cell with an underground sense of space in every direction. It was at this point that I quickly strode out of the room, but I was still amazed and impressed at the work’s ability to impose such a sensation on me.
Nearly a century apart, the 1913 Armory Show and Charles Saatchi’s 1999 “Neurotic Realism” curation share a desire to push the envelope of what people are willing to accept. The Armory Show sought to align American art with the new rebellious, avant-garde styles and movements that were taking place in Europe at the time—or, more realistically, to see if American art consumers would allow American art to take this rebellious stance towards the academic art that had been the status quo for many centuries. Saatchi’s “Neurotic Realism” tried to see if people would develop connections between random pieces of art when grouped together under the umbrella of an “-ism.”
The New York Armory Show took place in the early years of modern art, when the average person would most likely classify art solely as a purposefully realistic objective depiction of something in the physical world. Thus it isn’t surprising that such a backlash occurred when people were told that something purposefully unrealistic or nonobjective was art, and just as much so as a Baroque portrait. Now, or in 1999 when the “Neurotic Realism” show was held, people are more willing to accept something as art when they are told it is so, even if that acceptance is reluctant or even ignorant. What people will challenge, however, is the title that art is given. People have expectations about what they will be seeing when they go to a photorealist show, for example: if they see anything that isn’t so technically immaculate that it could pass for a photograph, they will say that the piece is not part of the photorealist umbrella. It is art, but it isn’t the kind of art they were told it would be.
“America’s First Art War” states (in reference to Duchamp’s multilateral and multidimensional Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)) that “what is really frustrating to a viewer is a false start, not a foregone conclusion.” What is pleasing to a viewer is when their expectations are confirmed by what they’re seeing. When their expectations are not realized, it irritates the viewer’s mind. This happened at the Armory Show in 1913, but it also happened in 1999 with “Neurotic Realism,” for different reasons. In “The Ism That Isn’t,” the author states that “painting, according to the dictates of an ism, means imposing an agenda, a slogan, on the supposedly free eye.” What connects pieces of the same ism is that that agenda is uniform between them, even if it is applied in different ways.
This is where the two articles connect. A viewer going to see the “Neurotic Realism” show has the expectation of seeing pieces connected under the same doctrine of how they stimulate the free eye. When the pieces are not creating this effect uniformly, the viewer becomes frustrated at the apparent “false start.” They were told the agenda would be the same, and it isn’t.
However, “Neurotic Realism” defeats the purpose of an ism. An ism is meant to further art into the future by organizing general trends and techniques, but “isms that aren’t” hinder the progression of art by destroying the meaning attached to the medium of progression: the ism.