The subway advertisements for this show promised, in punky cyan-magenta-yellow letters, iconic Eighties artists – Basquiat, Sherman, Mapplethorpe, Koons, Goldin – while the title suggested anticipation of our backward gaze. The show, as it turned out, did not revolve around the stars, and the innocent historical documentary embedded in the materials, their past-ness, is more compelling than any of the high concepts claimed in the show briefs.
Tucked beside the entrance is Charlie Ahearn‘s Wild Style, a documentary of graffiti, rap and breakdance, fresh as a cookie from a time capsule and crisp as a musical comedy routine (check minute 25). How was it not obvious to everyone that hiphop was going to be enormous and remold a vast range of performance forms? Other films record conversations with early AIDS sufferers, the burlesque of high fashion and the protean practice of Cindy Sherman, robotically changing her look with every conversational turn. The mercenary skirmishes that held the place of war are invoked when Alfredo Jaar counterpoints an ad for Fortune featuring an infant and the slogan “We’re All Created Equal. After That, Baby, You’re On Your Own,” with a blurry news image of soldiers. Even without the war angle, the Fortune text was a more direct indictment of the class-money-power nexus than anything else in the show. But then a museum supervised by mysterious millionaires is unlikely to threaten the military-industrial complex to its face.
Also in Vietnam style but more oblique is Hans Haacke’s placement of a photomural of a nuclear protest march passing Grand Central Station opposite a dictator-style portrait of Ronald Reagan looking off to the side. In a more personal exploration of power, Sophie Calle hired a private detective to stalk her for a day and made art of her diary, rich with interior commentary and status references, alongside his photos and surveillance report. Most of the almost a hundred artists were new to me, and most had just one work on display, leaving a hunger for context. Glimpses of original reception were occasionally available, as when Keith Haring’s work appeared in situ through another artist’s photographs. How Ya Like Me Now?, David Hammons’ whiteface portrait of Jesse Jackson, was displayed together with sledgehammers that were used to attack it as racist, or ones like them.
No single piece climaxed or summarized the show – or surprised very much. It’s hard to say whether this blandness is down to curatorial style, intermediate historical distance, or rapid co-optation of nominally anti-commmercial styles by commercial interests. The widely spaced repeated logotype, artified here by Rosemarie Trockel, is now a standard background for entertainment news interviews, albeit usually in black and white for televisuality. Norway’s Telenor, the former phone monopoly that now controls mobile networks as far away as Malaysia, crowned its 2002 headquarters with a Jenny Holzer ribbon, surely completing some kind of circle.
The security theater bears mention. The second I started taking notes, a guard rushed up and told me I could not use a pen in the galleries, because “it’s really difficult to get off things” and handed me a blunt lottery-ticket pencil. This occurred just steps from the Guerrilla Girls manifesto. The friend I went with was barked at for overstepping the boundary lines near a piece, something that rarely happens at the MFA where the art is actually ancient and fragile and unique.
At the same time, the guards seemed eager to function as live guides, wearing “Ask Me” badges and offering interpretations like, “It’s about who’s looking at whom” to those who engaged them. I didn’t take advantage of the service as it seemed exhausting to converse with a different interpreter in each room. Nor did I trust hired monitors to be in tune with works questioning power and status, surveillance and mediation, divisions between approved culture and the people. Unless it was all a performance piece to remind us how little we have learned.