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Emptiness is the New Absolute: theanyspacewhatever and Ann Hamilton at the Guggenheim

“A giant wave,” is how Frank Lloyd Wright described the Guggenheim, its spiral sweeping away all corners and walls for an unobstucted vision. In 1959, sheer opticality was the Modernist Absolute and painting was its model. In 1971 Daniel Buren's Peinture/Sculpture sliced clear through the center of this unobstructed vision, but was removed before the public could see its perceived violence to the space of exhibition. However, by the late ‘80s a critique of the hegemony of vision made many an academic career.

The recent exhibition "theanyspacewhatever" was a good attempt to consider what it means to hold an exhibition at the Guggenheim in our time. I can only imagine Pierre Huyghe’s Opening from the photograph: Donning my battery-powered miner’s hat in the darkened space of the museum; gradually adjusting to the disconnect betwen the eyes in my head and the orb of light emitted from the lamp above them; losing this orb in a mass of others bobbing across the distance and chasing across the walls and floor; viewing an object in the light of a gathering upon it. This awareness of one's own vision cut away from the self and in play with others is visible to me in the photograph. Viewers'orbs of light echo the moonless and star-filled sky above - Angela Bulloch's Firmamental Night Sky: Oculus 12.

In the course of the exhibition as a whole, leisure took over as a pleasant meandering, a mood in which aesthetic criteria vanish with a casual yes to everything. The “objects” themselves were so slight and so variously and deliberately placed to the furthest edges of the space at the center that the exibition felt as well-designed as a movie soundtrack, barely noticeable but for the occasional shift in action or place, its parameters finely tuned. Here, Maurizio Cattelan's newstand tucked in a remote service corner and offering "The Wrong Times," loaded with interviews between contemporary artists.

The title of the exhibition , "theanyspacewhatever", carried with it a tone of idle disinterest and a lack of care for place and historicity. Much has been made of the globalizing tendencies of the '90s, and the title is a fine enough expression of this. But it is also a reference to the empty spaces that take the place of - serve the broken - narrative in contemporary film. Empty spaces characterized this exhibition to the extent that whatever objects there were between them - what in a conventional exhibition would have been the art - were felt more as forms of punctuation, discrete events that served to amplify the emptiness of space.

"Theanyspacewhatever" is in fact a Deleuzian term, meaning "a space of virtual conjunction, grasped as a pure locus of the possible."* The apparent opposition between a flippant expression, "any space whatever," and the more utopian dream of the possible, has the feel of a carelessness turning away from effort, without tension or traction. Elsewhere in this exhibition such an opposition feels more like duplicity. This sense is borne by the words ARE WE EVIL, a declarative interrogative emblazoned by Douglas Gordon on the floor of the rotunda, both a chilling statement for our time and the snide commentary of a prankster to those who are in on the joke.

Emptiness has different values - in a strictly Western sense it can mean that something is simply not there, or that it rings hollow. But in Asian philosophy there can be very different senses of emptiness, and different stakes set out in one's relation to it. Here is Rirkrit Tiravanija, interviewed by Mary Jane Jacobs in 2004 about his artistic practice and Buddhism. Jacobs asked if Tiravanija's work is about “trust, allowing a work to connect to people in their own way, suspending judgment?” To which he replied:

I think the idea of judgment is interesting in relation to Buddhistic practice. I always get asked, “What are your expectations?” And I say, “ I don’t have any,” because I don’t predetermine things. And, “Do you feel it’s succesful or not?” and I say, “I don’t measure things that way, in terms of good or bad, or success.” It changes how you look at what happens. And I think that is quite important in terms of living in a Buddhistic way: not to have preconceived structures or to close off possibilities; but it’s not even about being open or closed; it’s just about being blank. In a way, of course, you can receive more if you are empty.**

Tiravanija’s work does circumvent expectations and notions of success by being so out of place in its ordinariness that aesthetic criteria are no longer relevant. There is a politics to this, a critique of a productivist society that refuses to labor and seeks exoneration in the always mediated context of the the everyday. In terms of his own practice, formerly characterized by dishing out Thai curry to gallery and museum visitors around the world, Tiravanija upped the ante at the Guggenheim by having illy caffee do his work for him, a company already known for marketing its product in a gallery setting. From the Illy website:

Illy Gallery is an on-going timed event, a happening that’s adjourned in one venue in some place of the world, and then gets going again in another venue in some other place. These venues are places where visitors and patrons can get to know all the products, forms of expression, passions and people that go to make up the world of illy, places where they can experience and get a rare taste of things beautiful and rich in flavour, and discover art and culture at their best.

Strolling at our leisure through the Guggenheim we were asked to and we did suspend our judgment and seamlessly entered the “world of illy.” In fact Cinema Liberte/Bar Lounge (1996- ) is an ongoing collaboration with Douglas Gordon - on the other side of the partition were clips from censored films. The press release stated that "...this installation invokes concepts of political, social and artistic freedom, " and that "it has been made possible by the generous contribution of illy caffee." On one side of the partition, then, was an already long-playing liberation from censorship, and on the other the seamlessness of a life that is produced for us by a globalizing lifestyle culture of refinement and ease. Something like a contradiction is on display, but there is no real contradiction here, no traction at all. The space of opposition has been evacuated, is empty and blank.

In 1984 T.J. Clark wrote about Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) as an expression of the blase attitude, a recently emerged public demeanor that he describes as arriving upon the heels of public censorship in late nineteenth century France. Popular cultural expression in the cafe concert halls lost the resistant political inflections inside of double entendre, and scepticism about social relations took its place. Lifestyle as a commodity appeared in this moment, and Clark cites Georg Simmel, who described the blase attitude as a psychic mood reflecting the neutrality of money, how it "hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness in a way which is beyond repair." The blank look of Manet's barmaid and the skewed mirror reflection displacing the viewer leads Clark to write that "Doubts about looking accumulate...all reinforcing one another. What begins as a series of limited questions about relationships in space is likely to end as scepticism about relations in general."***

Tiravanija's work does not function as Manet's Bar to disturb our social relations into a quandary of doubt and scepticism as to appearances. Rather, there is a loose certainty projected upon us, and confidence that any questions about the status of illy caffee as art will be appeased, lulled by social relations. The extended psychic mood that has us drifting from marquis to magazine rack to headphones, etc., has the consistency of our pedestrian nods to others in an increasingly franchised world, and this includes the Guggenheim itself.

The strongest criticism of this kind of work so far has been that of Claire Bishop in her essay "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," published in 2004. Bishop's claim is that a well-functioning democracy relies upon critical antagonism and that Tiravanija's work in particular is lacking critical consciousness, offering instead a placating and false - produced, in fact - sense of community.**** Bishop is also worrying over the loss of contemplation as a valued experience in viewing a work of art, and that social production has taken it place.

Currently on view at the Guggenheim, and in an exhibition that is handed over entirely to contemplation, is Ann Hamilton's human carriage, 2009. The title is very much about how we carry ourselves in the world, and the work itself offers an alternate model of emptiness. As with Tiravanija's Bar Lounge there is in human carriage a visible laborer, tending to the balance of the machinery she operates. At the top of the spiral of the Guggenheim, she hangs from a carrier Buddhist texts that have been sliced apart and rebound as dangling packages of fragments. These are then lowered to a holding place just above the dry pond in the lobby. A small carriage on wheels is then sent off down the spiral of the Guggenheim, suspended from wheels that glide along a rail attached to the balustrade exterior. When it meets the holding place at the end of the spiraling rail the text fragments are released and fall into the dry pond below. All the way down, whenever there is a bit of extra traction, tilt, or movement of air a pair of bells suspended from the carriage will hit each other and ring.

In the week after September 11th, and just prior to her collaborative performance with Meredith Monk, mercy, I interviewed Ann Hamilton. At the time she was worrying over an installation conceived in previous months, involving papers that fell from the ceiling. I wrote in my review of the performance:

...with her worries of opportunism in mind, it is striking that somewhere between our conversation and the performance of mercy, Hamilton and Monk took the risk of concluding with a spellbinding performance of catastrophe as papers falling from above. Swooping, spiraling or floating, their shadows as tangible as the actual, different temporal layers filled the air. It may be that the success of mercy will be measured by how, or even if, the socially and embodied immersion in catastrophe has a power that both exceeds and informs the actual and political specifics of our present time.*****

It took months of standing atop a ladder to achieve the right float of paper on air, and this subsequently became the foundation of corpus at MassMOCA in 2004, where 7 million sheets of paper were dropped from the ceiling of a room the size of a football field. Joe Thompson the director of MassMOCA, described it as "haunting and, in the end, liturgical, but without liturgy."******

Removed by time from the catastrophe of the World Trade Centers and without the same sense of time adrift that one gets from a falling sheet of paper, human carriage is a different sort of utterance, addressing the space of the Guggenheim and the context of the show. It is nearly as though human carriage is passing through the works in the exhibition in acknowledgment and without attachment. These packages of text are an expression of the value of language and translation in Buddhist thought. The effort to balancing in human carriage is similar to the description offered by Dogen, a 13th century Zen master, of the fairness of the Chinese steelyard - here is an image from EBay:

Writes Dogen, "In emptiness [the steelyard] embodies equilibrium; fairness is the great principle of the steelyard. By virtue of this principle of fairness we weigh emptiness and things; whether it be emptiness or form [we weigh it to] meet fairness."******* Emptiness, then, is not an evacuation of the world and of judgment towards an ideal blank, but is in the effortless effort of calibration, with the sense of buoyancy that one feels in the steelyard above. Hanging in the balance, discernment in human action expounds freely as though from the open mouth of a bell. Hamilton's own work, so quickly leaving behind initial worries of opportunism in the political context of catastrophe, has been able to follow the path of its own weight in emptiness. When human carriage descends, the famous void of the Guggenheim is crowded by the faces at its edges, attentive to just this moment that the bells will ring.

By Catherine Spaeth

*Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I: The Movement Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001, pp. 107-10, as cited in Nancy Spector, "theanyspacewhatever: An Exhibition in Parts," exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation 2008, p. 16.
** in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, c.2009, p. 21.
***T.J. Clark,Painting in Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, Princeton, c.1984, p. 251.
****Calire Bishop, "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," in October 110, Fall 2004, pp. 51-79.
*****Catherine Spaeth, "mercy: An Interview With Ann Hamilton,: in Dialogue Magazine, November/December, 2001, pp. 49-51
******Annette Grant, "Art: Let 7 Million Sheets of Paper Fall, NYT Sunday April 11th, 2004. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D03EEDA1638F932A25757C0A9629C8B63
*******As translated by Hee-Jin Kim, in "Weighing Emptiness," Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, SUNY, c. 2007, p. 42.

Image Credits:Daniel Buren's Peinture/Sculpture before it was removed from the "Guggenheim International Exhibition" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971, photo Robert E. Mates and Paul Katz, c.SRGF, NY; Pierre Huyghe, OPENING, Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008,© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by Kristopher McKay; Angela Bulloch, Firmamental Night Sky: Oculus 12, 2008, LEDs (light-emitting diodes), neoprene, animated program, control gear, structural elements, power suppliers, and various cables, Courtesy Esther Schipper, Berlin and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by David Heald; The Wrong Gallery, The Wrong Times, 2004–06 (reprinted 2008), Newspaper, Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008, Photo: Kristopher McKay, © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; Douglas Gordon and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Cinèma Libertè/Bar Lounge, First realized 1996,Made possible by illy caffè,Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008,© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by David Heald; A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (detail), Édouard Manet, 1882, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London; Ann Hamilton, human carriage, 2009, Installation composed of cloth, wire, bells, books, string, pipe, pulleys, pages, cable, gravity, air, and sound, Courtesy the artist, photos by photographer David Heald, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

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