“How do you fix the art world?” Certain gutsy artists have responded, “By examining and altering it through my practice.”
In the 1970s, Hans Haacke presented documentation about the business dealings of the wealthy and conducted polls at art institutions, and Michael Asher made subtle architectural alterations to highlight and undermine museums’ claims to being neutral aesthetic spaces. Meanwhile, Marcel Broodthaers was inventing elaborate fictive institutional structures, playfully poking at the grandiose claims made by the art industry.
But as both writers also argued, there were reasons for optimism. Meyer noted that another wave of artists was taking up the cause and making vital work. Fraser (herself a key second-generation figure in institutional critique) suggested that even while failing to dismantle art institutions, such work had defended a role for art as a tool of critique. Institutional critique was dead. Long live institutional critique.
The refrain merits repeating today. Even as one very visible portion of the art world becomes ever more soaked in money, artists like Steiner are picking up the ideas of first- and second-generation institutional critique and adapting them to the needs of the present. With what feels like increasing frequency, they are investigating, tweaking, and even striking out against the operation of museums, galleries, and the very market itself as an integral part of their larger practices. Like Haacke, Asher, Broodthaers, Fraser, Robert Barry, Louise Lawler, and others, they effect change in ways that are both political and poetic, while responding to a diverse range of contemporary issues, from the rise of a speculative art market to cutbacks in public services.
Many of the early practitioners of institutional critique met serious resistance to their work, the classic example being the Guggenheim Museum canceling a Haacke show in 1971, claiming it feared a libel suit as a result of a work investigating an alleged slumlord. But today, at what is (at least, superficially) a more permissive moment, artists are being welcomed in and afforded some impressive leeway to rework how institutions operate—if only for a limited time, and, for the most part, at smaller venues.
This past April, German artist Maria Eichhorn (another bridge figure between many of the historical and emerging artists discussed here) asked the nonprofit London gallery Chisenhale to host a one-day symposium and then close for the duration of her show, which she titled “5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours”—three different measurements of the paid vacation she was giving to the gallery’s employees. During that time, Eichhorn instructed the staff, they were to do anything but work—even their incoming email was deleted, with the exception of one account that could be checked once a week, on Wednesday. A sign in front of the gallery explained that it was closed, and that the closure was the exhibition.
Eichhorn’s piece—and Steiner’s curtailing of Koenig & Clinon’s hours—recall Asher’s proposal for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, to keep the museum open around the clock for a week (the Whitney agreed to three days, citing “budgetary and human resources limitations”), in reverse: rather than expand hours to promote inclusiveness, to welcome new people in to the institution, these works freed time for (mostly) modestly paid workers while slowing down an art calendar that overflows with action. (Eichhorn’s also harks back to Barry’s 1969 Closed Gallery piece, though it is essential to note that he shuttered only commercial spaces, and for shorter durations.)
Rather than negotiate with institutions to alter their operation, over the past few years, the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo, who is based in Mexico City, has engineered some of his artworks as Trojan horses, sneaking others’ artworks into them. This was most vividly on display in “I M U U R 2,” his Hugo Boss Prize–winning show in 2013 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he presented a copious collection of tchotchkes assembled by the late Chinese-American artist Martin Wong, together with a handful of Wong’s paintings.
Vo’s was a remarkable show, earning rave reviews and attention for the under-appreciated Wong, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1999 at the age of 53. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis subsequently acquired the entire installation, adding works by Wong to its collection at the same time that it was acquiring a prized Vo. This is only a partial victory, though: a search of the Walker’s collection database still turns up no works by Wong.
Rather than tweak the way an art space operates, some artists temporarily redirect its infrastructure toward different ends. Kate Levant hosted a blood drive as part of her show at Zach Feuer in Chelsea in 2011. Simone Leigh has used her agency as an artist to turn her exhibitions at various art institutions into platforms for everything from yoga classes to natural healing centers; at the New Museum this past summer, Leigh staged a protest and celebration by 100 artists assembled under the name Black Women Artists for Black Lives. In 2011 Swiss artist Christoph Büchel turned Hauser & Wirth gallery in London into a community center; last year, for his representation of Iceland at the Venice Biennale, he transformed a deconsecrated church into a mosque. And in his 2012 show at MoMA PS1, Darren Bader presented live cats as sculptures (one titled Cat Made Out of Crab Meat) that were available for adoption through the SaveKitty Foundation. Trojan kittens!
Three years ago, American artist Park McArthur turned New York’s Essex Street gallery into an impromptu Goodwill by hanging clothing outside that was free for the taking. It was midsummer, when many galleries are ordinarily closed. In a press release McArthur explained, “I’ve changed the address of the gallery to 1918 1st Ave…a building I came across on the way to the Frieze Art Fair, en route to crossing the 103rd Street Footbridge to Randall’s Island. This building opened in 1962 as the Nurses’ Residence and Training School of the Metropolitan Hospital system. The building is now closed and abandoned. I recommend you go and look at it.”
Finnish artist Pilvi Takala works at the nexus of two dominant cultural forms—the art fair and the art prize. Takala was the recipient of the 2013 Emdash Award. With her £7,000 winnings, which are meant to go toward the creation of a new work for the London edition of the Frieze Art Fair, she recruited, from a youth center in the Bow neighborhood of London, a band of 11 children between the ages of 8 and 12 and told them that they could decide what to do with the money.
In videotaped interviews, the children tell Takala about the debate they are having among themselves, one that contains all the same tensions that dominate adult politics—public versus private goods, collective versus individual benefits, majority versus minority rights. The children eventually decide to commission a “bouncy castle” that they can rent out to other people to fund their youth center. On the one hand, this is ingenious: rather than burn the money on a good time, they’ve created a viable business. On the other, it is unsettling to witness how thoroughly the children have absorbed the pervasive notion of charity through entrepreneurship, that those in need should be responsible for fund-raising their own assistance.
The video ends with the children bouncing around happily in their castle, which can’t help but call to mind another place of amusement, the Frieze fair tent in Regent’s Park, where adults are drinking champagne and snapping up artworks.
Short-Circuit the Market
During this period of breathtaking economic speculation in art, it has been heartening to watch artists throw wrenches into the gears. Cameron Rowland, for example, alters the operation of the market by renting out his art rather than selling it. His sculptures themselves take on aspects of capitalism’s inequities; they tend to be found or purchased objects, such as desks made by prisoners who are paid slave wages by state governments. Collectors sign renewable contracts to take temporary ownership of the pieces.
Rowland’s contracts hark back to Haacke, who has long required that collectors sign paperwork stipulating that he receive a cut of resales of his work, and the Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement forged by the late dealer Seth Siegelaub in the 1970s, which makes similar stipulations. But Rowland goes beyond this, reversing the standard power dynamic between collector and artist.
Rather than sidestep the overheated art market, the mysterious Henry Codax has placed himself squarely within it as a kind of ticking time bomb. A nom de plume adopted from a character in the 2005 novel Reena Spaulings penned by the dozens of collaborators aligned with the obscurantist Bernadette Corporation, Codax started a rumor a few years back that monochrome paintings bearing his name, which appeared in a few hip galleries, were in fact, the work of the veteran Swiss provocateur Olivier Mosset and the young New Yorker Jacob Kassay, whose work was actively trading on the secondary market. In 2012, moments before bidding began on a year-old Codax piece at Christie’s, a statement from Kassay landed on the podium stating that, contrary to a listing in the catalogue, he had not actually authored the work. The lot failed to sell.
Bader has also made mischief with the value of his artworks. For a 2014 show at Andrew Kreps Gallery in Chelsea, he priced many of his sculptures (found objects like a pair of Nike running shoes, a Memphis desk, a single ski) at $10,000, regardless of their size or apparent intrinsic worth. A document accompanying some of the pieces suggested that collectors study the readymade they had purchased and add similar objects over time. It was a one-two punch. The uniform price poked at the illusion that there is a coherent relationship between price and actual worth—it suggested the price was more a payment for the artist’s time than a fee for an object—and the opportunity to enlarge the artwork through acquisition jumbled what it was the collector was actually buying.
This past fall the Brazilian-born, New York–based artist Karin Schneider baked a related conceptual gambit into the black, Ad Reinhardt–esque paintings that she showed at Dominique Lévy gallery, stating that collectors who acquired her work have to be willing to let another artist revisit them at some point in the future and add to it. Schneider undermined the idea of the artwork as a fixed aesthetic object, and also as a fungible commodity. Jasper Johns has written that “artists are the elite of the servant class,” but in Schneider’s formulation the artist becomes a more equal player, and the relationship between artist and collector, a collaboration based on trust.
Build a New Institution
My aim here has been to avoid explicit activism and social practice, focusing instead on artworks that function as critiques of existing art institutions, while being in direct contact with those institutions. But it should be said that the monied New York art world feels, astonishingly, more genuinely political now than at any point in the last decade, and the lines between art and activism are blurrier than ever.
In his 1993 essay, Meyer identified pedagogy as an area that artists were engaging with in the 1990s, and one sees it again today in efforts like the Public School, a free learning initiative operating in many cities, and the Bruce High Quality Foundation and its ambitious free art school, BHQFU, along with others that have started in recent years around the world. As this issue of ARTnews went to press, the Pioneer Works space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, was preparing an “Alternative Art School Fair,” a kind of job fair for these types of schools.
Artists have even co-opted the art fair itself as a way of critiquing the market. In 2011 and 2012, concurrent with the Armory Show in New York, artist Rose Marcus staged a one-night hotel fair in Manhattan called the Dependent (a lighthearted play on the tony, exclusive Independent fair), in which rooms, doubling as booths, were taken by participating galleries at cost, meaning no profit for the fair organizer. It brought together a diverse band of scrappy galleries, actually allowed a few to sell some art—putting money in the pockets of artists and dealers instead of fair backers—and engendered camaraderie, no small feat in this hypercompetitive field.
And then there are groups like Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), Gulf Labor, and Hank Willis Thomas’s Super PAC, For Freedoms, artist-formed institutions that behave as both committed lobbying groups and art projects. As in the case of Act Up, or even artist-initiated museums of the past, their deep research is promoted and dispersed through the funds, design, and tactics of artists.
What if, following Steiner’s lead, all artists refused to show at any gallery that does not cut its workweek to 20 hours? What if, rather than use award money to facilitate children’s social enterprise, all artists demanded that art fairs give at least a cut of their profits to local communities? (Frieze’s New York edition, it should be noted, sits right across the water from some of the city’s most impoverished communities.) What if every artist demanded that the dealers and museums they work with contribute to the social initiatives they care about?
As radical as some of the projects discussed in this article appear at first glance, they do what vanguard art has always done: propose alternatives, highlight inequalities and injustices, and point toward a better future. They propose new models for how artists, artworks, and institutions can and should operate.
My hope is that many other artists, curators, and the like will follow their lead and push the art sector to improve both its working conditions and its involvement in broader society.
At the same time, these works articulate the limits of art’s power to protest and critique. We cannot reasonably ask all artists to donate their prize money or exhibition budgets toward charitable causes. We cannot expect galleries regularly to serve as community centers or health clinics. Nor should we want them to. Artists are clearing paths that administrators, bureaucrats, and most important, politicians must now follow.
Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 102 under the title “Inside Job.”