At the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, chief curator Anthony Huberman has organized the institution’s most ambitious group exhibition to date, “For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there,” which, according to press materials, sets out to explore “the speculative nature of knowledge and proposes that curiosity matters more than understanding.” The title comes from a quote sometimes attributed to Charles Darwin, referring to the guesswork practiced by mathematicians; conceptually, the show also draws on Socrates’s famous pronouncement, “I know that I know nothing,” as well as a slew of sources (including Marcel Duchamp, Georges Bataille, ‘pataphysics, contemporary theorist Sarat Maharaj, etc.) on productive non-knowledge, not to mention post-structuralist claims for the indeterminacy of meaning.
For those who believe that contemporary art trades in willful obscurity, “For the blind man . . .” may serve as a case in point. The cryptic-looking works Huberman has assembled ultimately subvert the very notion that art contains a message, that it can be “figured out,” or that it provides us with answers about anything at all. Among the most winsome of these demonstrations is Marcel Broodthaers’s 1970 audio recording Interview with a Cat, in which the artist discusses esthetic dilemmas with his obligingly talkative pet. (“Is this one a good painting?” he asks. “Meow,” replies the cat.) Taken from Broodthaers’s watershed conceptual project Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968-71), the cat interview nicely sets the stage for the entire exhibition, its disembodied, mock-serious voices establishing the theme of esthetics while offering nothing to look at.
An eccentric, antiquated sensibility courses through this show, a reminder that the exhibition’s theoretical basis has deep historical roots. That quality is present in Sarah Crowner’s reprint of two 1917 issues of The Blind Man (a journal edited by Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, and featuring some of Duchamp’s works)-made available to visitors at the original small-change cover price of 10 or 15 cents-as well as the inclusion of a 17th-century image of a Wunderkammer and two 1950s still lifes by Giorgio Morandi, who strove to capture the nature of seeing in his paintings.
Some of the technology on display is likewise archaic. Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer’s Flash in the Metropolitan (2006) is a dreamlike 16mm film sequence of strobe-lit masterpieces at the New York museum, accompanied by the insistent clack of the projector, while Bruno Munari’s Seeking comfort in an uncomfortable armchair (ca. 1950) is a series of projected 35mm slides of the seated artist, variously positioned. In both these works, the equipment is forever breaking down-the film jumps its sprockets, a bulb is blown-which all somehow feels right in this context.
Breakdowns of logic and rationality also feature prominently here. Hundreds of prints and drawings by Matt Mullican reflect an obsessive and ultimately futile effort to create a private cosmology, while Patrick van Caeckenbergh’s Chapeau! (Hats Off!), 1988-89, attempts to contain a “memory archive” in a 4-foot-tall top hat split open to reveal dozens of drawers containing personal ephemera. The show even sports a satirical edge now and again, as in Fischli and Weiss’s 1983 video The Right Way, which has the artists, dressed as a rat and a bear, stumbling through a pristine Alpine landscape, wrestling-sometimes literally-over esthetics and morality and skewering romantic ruminations on the sublime.
While “For the blind man . . .” includes a handful of technologically slicker pieces (a multimedia installation by Jimmy Raskin and an elegiac video projection by Falke Pisano among them), it’s the older works, or those with vintage sensibilities, that best take up the exhibition’s theme, perhaps because Huberman has conceived the show in distinctly retrospective terms. Even the catalogue, a sprawling intellectual history of being philosophically at sea, comprises a pastiche of bygone graphics. It’s an effective approach, one that acknowledges the historic genealogy of the show’s expansive, engrossing subject.
Photos: (Left) Patrick van Caeckenbergh: Chapeau! (Hats Off!), 1988-89, mixed mediums, dimensions variable. (Right) Jimmy Raskin: The Annunciation, 2009, mixed-medium sculpture with video. Both photos at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis.