The Irish invasion has come to the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (CCS Bard). Curator, writer, artist, educator and Dubliner, Paul O’Neill, has been named new director of the graduate program for its two-year Master of Arts program in Curatorial Studies. O’Neill is widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars in the history of exhibitions and curatorial practice. But first came the advance troops in the form of artists Gerard Byrne and Sarah Pierce. Byrne and Pierce were invited to teach at CCS Bard in 2011 during which time the concept for the exhibition entitled “Monogamy,” currently on show at CCS galleries, was conceived. “Monogamy” is curated by Tirdad Zolghadr, a LUMA Fellow and Senior Academic Advisor at CCS, a novelist, and a curator. Byrne, a graduate of Ireland’s National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin has recently exhibited at Documenta 13, the 54th Venice Biennale – he represented Ireland in the 52nd Biennale in 2007. His most recent solo show was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London 2013. Pierce, who is American-born, has shown at numerous international exhibitions and also represented Ireland in Venice in 2003; her most recent solo show was at NCAD Gallery in Dublin.
The title of the exhibition with its allusion to marriage and dependency, references a variety of couplings. The venue itself is a gallery within an educational institution, a “teaching gallery” in the same sense as a teaching hospital; other couplings include the partnership between the artist and the curator; the relationship between the artist and his/her practice; the fact that the two artists are, in fact, husband and wife. Half of the pieces in the show have previously been shown in these galleries, some in the exact location as before, albeit in another context. In this exhibition the artworks reference each other and beg the question: how much does this re-installation of the pieces, now in juxtaposition with those of the artists’ spouse — a detail we can’t ignore — alter their meaning? The exhibition essay, written by Zolghadr, makes the point that the exhibition isn’t a collaboration but does take advantage of long-term familiarities. Many of the pieces do feel like they belong in the same family and they are carefully choreographed so that they can cohabit harmoniously with each other. There are six installations in six connecting rooms that alternate the work of both artists. Some pieces include sound tracks and the sound is designed so that one piece doesn’t “talk over” another and drown it out. The lighting, a tour-de-force in itself, is cued to the sound, encouraging the visitor to attend to each piece at a time.
The signature piece for the exhibition is Sarah Pierce’s The Artist Talks (2012), in that it addresses recurring motifs in the works that follow it. The space is occupied by a video screen suspended from the ceiling, a stage, some felt curtains, and various props. The space is designed to include live performances that have already occurred, and might occur again at some future time. The performances consist of prepared speeches given by three members of the art cognoscenti or, in the Bard version, faculty members, on works of art that are not named. This creates two simultaneous situations: firstly, since the artworks are not present or identified, we have to rely on the reliability of the speaker to describe the works accurately; secondly, the speech illustrates the absurdity of taking something that is absolutely visual into a purely verbal context. The video, which is playing throughout the exhibition run, is of a number of art students haltingly describing, or “mediating,” a work of art of their own that isn’t yet completed – they are attempting to articulate what the work looks like at the current stage of incompletion and what direction they might take it in from there. The difficulty of that task, even with the artwork in front of them, underscores the absurdity of the exercise and raises that age-old question, shouldn’t art speak for itself?
The common thread in the works consists of looking back at art and attitudes from the beginning of postmodernism in the 1960s in the context of the present. One of the major changes that occurred in postmodernism in the arena of visual art was that, for the first time in art history, art began to require articulation. One artist from the period, Mike Helzer, as documented in It’s Time Man. It Feels Imminent, said “Artists have been misled into thinking that you have to create something in order to contribute to art…Art is only memory anyway.” But nothing exists in a vacuum and the investigation with which these artists are concerned is set against the desire for political and social change including how we behave sexually, the latter in what became known as The Sexual Revolution.
In the exhibition essay Zolghadr writes, “Monogamy is something you endure. It marks a sustained condition, rather than a natural impulse.” The first piece one encounters on entering the gallery is an ironic introduction to an exhibition entitled “Monogamy,” as it documents the phenomenon that grew out of the 1960s: an unwillingness to endure monogamy. New Sexual Lifestyles (2003) by Gerard Byrne is a three-monitor video installation that dramatizes a symposium printed in Playboy Magazine in 1973 when that magazine, along with so much else, was either banned in Ireland or censored beyond recognition (there is a whole generation of Irish people who think the Ken Russell film “Women In Love” is an exercise in Impressionist film-making). The symposium, restaged with actors, takes place in a glass and steel building of the period located in woods a few miles south of Dublin and is shot from three different angles – hence the three monitors. The participants discuss such questions as “Do affairs help a marriage?” And “Do swinging couples, when they get back together, denigrate their lover’s prowess to make their partner feel more secure?” One participant mentions positive experiences with strangers in sex clubs in America, England and France. Heretofore taboo topics such as homosexuality, group sex, and bestiality are discussed in casual, even academic, tones not dissimilar to the tones employed in the audio tracks we encounter in the other installations that discuss art issues. The mores of the discourse represent a brief moment between the surviving Victorian morality of the post-war period and the advent of HIV and AIDS. For people who came of age with the specter of AIDS hanging over them, as had to be the case with Gerard Byrne, who was born in 1969, such a document/discussion must seem like something out of science fiction.
The other two pieces by Byrne include A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not (2010) and In Repertory (2004 – ongoing). The latter installation is based on various theatrical productions, primarily by Samuel Beckett. It includes archetypal trees, shoes, hats of various descriptions, albeit no bowlers, and a couple of battered suitcases that put one in mind of Waiting for Godot and Endgame. They are arrayed in a black space similar to a black box theater – the opposite of the white cube we associate with the gallery. This installation has three parts so far – perhaps more as yet unspecified. During the first part of the exhibition period, the set pieces and props, theatrically lit, are arranged in the space like conventional sculptures around which visitors can move. Halfway through the exhibition the objects are pushed into a corner and viewers are invited to watch a video of the installation as it was, including the previous visitors wandering in and around the space; those visitors have been transformed into performers. According to the exhibition literature, Byrne intends to videotape visitors’ responses to this situation as a means of producing a new work, and so on – each stage or generation of the piece begetting the next one.
The title of A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not is what Robert Smithson described as Carl Andre’s motto and relates to the realization that sculpture could be an absence as well as a presence. For example: a hole in the ground is as valid as an arrangement of dirt on top of the ground. Byrne’s piece is a visual re-enactment of the objections put forward about Minimalism by Michael Fried in his text, “Art and Objecthood,” printed in Artforum in 1967 but which inadvertently established a theoretical basis by which the movement would be understood. Fried particularly objected to what he saw as a kind of literalism or theatricality in Minimalism. The piece consists of five videos projected onto enormous sculptural slabs, each of which revisits a moment in the history of the movement. One is of Robert Morris’s sculpture Column (1961) in which a column is, with theatrical ceremony, pulled over by a string – Morris, along with Donald Judd, was one of the most prominent theorists of Minimalism. Another video features Judd and other artists associated with the movement, Frank Stella and Dan Flavin, in conversation. Here the camera slowly traces, caresses even, mundane objects in the room such as the lamp, the place where the wall meets the ceiling, and cigarette smoke, distracting the viewer from following the conversation. This piece is most unambiguously “speaking” to Sarah Pierce’s work and particularly to the piece Future Exhibitions whose components reference the work of Judd, Morris, Andre, and Jo Baer, among others. Byrne’s piece is a documentation of an art historical moment and this is also true of Pierce’s It’s Time Man. It Feels Imminent.
Since 2003 Sarah Pierce’s work has operated under the umbrella term The Metropolitan Complex which, according to her papers, is “a Dublin-based project and uses archives, exhibitions and papers – often opening these structures to the personal and the incidental.” Her activity considers forms of gathering, both historical and those she initiates herself that include self-publishing.
It’s Time Man. It Feels Imminent documents the degradation, you could say, of an ideal. The piece is based on the reinstallation of an exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form (WABF), curated by Charles Harrison in London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The exhibition, a seminal gathering of new art was originally curated by Harald Szeemann in Berne, Switzerland in 1969. The exhibition list is a virtual who’s who of artists who came to prominence in the 60s. John Russell of the London Sunday Times, in an article on WABF at the ICA, discusses the ethos of the exhibition as being “against the capitalist system by which a work of art is perceived as a precious object destined to change hands at higher and higher prices…against the closed circle of studio/collector/museum.” And yet, when the exhibition was packed up and moved from Berne to London, the relocation was sponsored by Philip Morris, the Multinational Diversified Tobacco Company – a slippery slope. Pierce’s installation includes a cabinet with news items, including John Russell’s article mentioned above, letters, documents relating to budget, and general nitty-gritty of the business of bringing the exhibition to London. Like her other artworks, there are a number of components including display plinths stacked up as if waiting to be deployed in a new exhibition or that are left over from a past exhibition, and some potted plants. There is an audio track of a conversation between artist/educators Liam Gillick, Dave Beech, and Adrian Rifkin, and an interview with artist Mary Kelly conducted by Pierce – Kelly relates how she was one of the few women included in the ICA show at the time and how that felt. In the Berne show, out of 68 participants, there were only two women, Eva Hesse and Jo Ann Kaplan. The installation also includes video of people reenacting gestures and protest chants from anti-war demonstrations in the late 60s – one of these chants became the title of this piece. But the gestures and chants are rendered meaningless by being taken out of their original context, and are further belied by the artificiality of the choreography and lack of emotional engagement of the reenactment. This underscores the impossibility of recreating a zeitgeist, as Nick Carraway says to Jay Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past.” Yet, that is the stock in trade for many art institutions and perhaps is an object lesson for students of curatorial practices: exhibitions cannot be repeated, they must be reinvented within the context of the present and the new situation.
Exhibition runs March 24, 2013 — May 26, 2013
Thursday – Sunday, 11a.m. – 6 p.m. Free and open to the public.
See Exhibitions & Events for specific event dates.
CCS Bard Galleries, Bard College Annandale-on-Hudson NY 12504 –5000
Featured image, Sarah Pierce, The Artist Talks, 2012;
photo by Donna Calcavecchio
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. In June 2013 she will direct her first production for the company: Rex & Rex by Carey Harrison. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe Art Journal