Sabine Breitwieser, Museum der Moderne Salzburg’s director, and L.A.-based Andrea Fraser (b. 1965) impressively executed the artist’s packed solo show of some 100 items spanning the past 30 years. It featured photographs, collages, charts and documentary material as well as Fraser’s writing.
Countless looped videos showing the artist giving mock gallery talks, tours and welcoming addresses that often expose and lampoon pompous art lingo formed the backbone of the loosely chronological midcareer survey. The videos tied Fraser’s name inextricably to the second-wave institutional critique of the late 1980s and early 1990s. She even helped coin the term in an essay on Louise Lawler first published in these pages in 1985.
Displaying works of institutional critique in a museum retrospective is tricky: the critical bite might lose its sting when the works are ensconced in an institution. Breitwieser and Fraser discuss this issue in the show’s catalogue, concluding that some pieces might very well be affected. Showing the works in these solemn halls suggests their definite institutionalization and historization. Stripped of their original context, they may be ineffective.
Little Frank and His Carp (2001) greeted visitors at the bottom of a steep staircase leading to the upper galleries. Put to the test, this artwork made it abundantly clear that, whatever the pitfalls of exhibiting institutional critique, Fraser’s way of analyzing the art world with surgical precision doesn’t get old. In the work, Fraser plays the role of a visitor on an audio tour at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Heeding the instructions of her guide obsequiously, she is seen marveling at the architecture when instructed to. Hilariously overplaying the role, she rubs her body pruriently against one of the limestone pillars when asked to touch the curving walls of Gehry’s building.
The first thing one noticed once upstairs was the artist’s voice, which poured from several built-in video booths, numerous TV sets and various speakers accompanying wall projections. Lured in by this general chatter, I found myself in front of a life-size Fraser giving a speech at an exhibition opening. The video was a recording of her 2004 performance in Hamburg of her 2001 work Official Welcome. The monologue she delivers in this preformance is compiled from critical essays, newspaper articles and artists’ speeches. Standing behind a lectern, she slips into different personae—a cursing artist, for example—as she simultaneously disrobes. The half-naked Fraser ends her talk almost incomprehensibly, portraying a woman who sobs as she thanks her mother for traveling to attend her show. Further drowning out her words was a slurring Fraser projected in an adjacent, open booth. Here, she reenacts (in German!) a drunken monologue that Martin Kippenberger delivered at a friend’s show. Titled Kunst muss hängen (Art must hang, 2001), this work, like Official Welcome, perfectly exemplifies the ritualized behavioral patterns at play in the art world. Fraser parades frequently employed rhetorics, roles and relationships before viewers in an attempt to unveil the positions that institutions, market forces, galleries, collectors, the audience, critics and, of course, the artist occupy in this network. Taking a cue from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s analyses, she does not set out to establish a counter-discourse but to dismantle the existing ones from within. This is probably why none of the constantly lecturing voices ever got the edge over the others in this exhibition. They inseparably existed in parallel.
Works from various periods also addressed issues outside of the art world. Among them, White People in West Africa (1989/1991/1993) consists of 82 photographs taken in nine African countries documenting the behavior of white tourists, along with a checklist detailing the pictures’ contents. More recently, in the video Not just a few of us (2014), Fraser plays 19 people debating segregation at a 1991 city council hearing in New Orleans. She impersonates four men discussing the feminist movement in Men on the Line (2012/2014), a video performance based on an audio recording of a live radio broadcast from 1972. With such works, the show made it clear that explicitly political topics like globalization, economic inequalities, race, class and gender were always part of the artist’s critical endeavor, and that her approach to critique not only applies to art institutions but also can be productive in a wider sociopolitical context.