Spies in the House of Institutional Critique

Tim Davis, Cornelia Rutgers Livingston, (2003)

Paradoxically, exhibiting artists that rage against the institution within the institution is both non-ironic and particularly vogue. Unlike the institutional critique of the late 1960s and 70s, which had the exceedingly explicit dynamic of the artist versus institution, those roles today have become less clearly defined. Consider  Creative Time, the New York based public sculpture non-profit headed by Nato Thompson and Anne Pasternak, which has recently extended its brand to support the occupation of other institutions as an institution itself. Thompson and Pasternak called for the take-over of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Lent Space last December in an open letter posted on occupyartnyc.org, signed also by art world professionals, listing their institutional affiliations beside their names. And how could one forget the sophomoric hullabaloo surrounding Take Artists Space last October, in which artist Georgia Sagri botched an occupation of the Soho nonprofit Artists Space, all the while admitting that powerful commercial galleries such as Gagosian would be a better target for their concerns, though less sympathetic to their efforts than non-profits. Sagri is now included in the upcoming Whitney Biennial. How an artist negotiates contextualization as fuck-it-all raucous, while cosmopolitan and strategic enough for institutional recognition remains to be seen. 

Institutional critique dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s when both government and private support of American public institutions existed on a different plane than it does today. The NEA’s annual budget peaked in 1992 at $176 million, and thanks to the “culture wars” of that period, is about half of that today considering inflation. Offering both historical and contemporary perspectives coming from the lineage of institutional critique is Spies in the House of Art, recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum. (The exhibition’s press release erroneously states that the show begins with the dawn of artists working with the subject of the museum, which they locate in the 1980s, though that would likely make Belgian institutional critique pioneer Marcel Broodthaers roll in his grave. It also purports to study the “secret lives of museums,” which sounds better as a movie tagline than a curatorial thesis.) Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the more aggressive work of institutional critique greats such as Andrea Fraser with the less full-on work of younger artists such as the British filmmaking duo Nashashibi/Skaer illustrates how thoroughly conversations surrounding institutional critique have become neutralized, which is arguably due to the recent passing of art world power from museums to galleries acting as international chains such as the aforementioned Gagosian.

Thomas Struth, The Restorers at San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples, (1988)

For her 1989 video “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk,” Fraser dons the character of the upper-class museum docent Jane Castleton, who bears a striking semblance to Parker Posey’s yuppie, catalog-shopping, Starbucks-loving character Meg Swan in “Best in Show.” Castleton guides us around the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a running commentary on the obvious class differences of several works, suggesting, for example, that a nearby marble figure needs a manicure. She enthuses about the cleanliness and formal attributes of a drinking fountain, and asserts that for a mere $750,000, you could buy the titling privileges for the museum’s book shop. (Andrea is a lovely name, she suggests.) In a move that could be considered equally ham fisted as compelling, Fraser and the exhibition curator have decided to install the video in a nearby gallery featuring the French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel, as this is the sort of work that would appeal to Fraser’s character Castleton.

Other works are less charged, such as Thomas Strüth’s “The Restorers at San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples,” 1988, a sizable chromogenic print shot with a large format camera. In “Restorers,” the artist stages workers in a church refectory around paintings recently damaged by an earthquake. The paintings appear similar to the Tiepolos elsewhere in the Met, and echo the staged presence of the young workers composed by Strüth. Nearby, fellow Bernd and Hilla Becher pupil Candida Höfer presents a 1988 photograph of an airily light, empty Museo Civico in Venice, furthering her quest to study the psychology of social architecture. Barreling back into the museum’s storage room is American photographer Louise Lawler’s “Cabinet 2, Shelf 14,” 1997, which depicts the butt, legs, and torso of sculptures peeking out of a storage chest. Borrowing a bit of Fraser’s tempestuousness is a late work by Francesca Woodman. A monumental diazo collage, Woodman pieces together segments of variably in-focus photographic prints playing with scale and perspective. Images of toga-clad female figures act as columns in a gigantic Greek structure, the figures also appearing as goat hooves. The geometric detailing on the Greek building is actually an image of the embellishment on a tiled bathroom floor. The collage’s eerie quality is heightened by the knowledge that Woodman committed suicide soon after its completion.

Nashashibi / Skaer [Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer] Flash in the Metropolitan, film still (2006)

Most successful are two later works which both, curiously, use the photographic flash to either obscure or highlight objects in museum collections. Tim Davis’ “Cornelia Rutgers Livingston,” 2003, photographs an 1833 painting of the same name by Henry Inman. The painting, which features a young girl in a white dress holding a basket of flowers on her right arm, is obscured by Davis’ flash, washing out the subject’s face and the violet held by her outstretched left arm. Similarly playful and borderline antagonistic is Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer’s “Flash at the Metropolitan,” 2006. The 16mm film takes a strobe flash and camera through a track around the Metropolitan under nightfall, providing pulsating momentary illumination to the Met’s ancient artifacts. Here, the institutional supports and context of the museum fade away, its relics playfully enlivened. 

Francesca Woodman, The Temple, (1980)

Watching the slow march of institutional critique becoming less and less a critique, but more a consideration of the institutional context, prompts doubt whether it is possible to critique the institution while complicit within it walls. Yet, perhaps a better quandary to ponder is what the real “institution” to react against in 2012 actually is—are we to occupy museums? Critique institutions? Abandon Facebook? Sell sex to collectors to highlight the sexist confines of the art market? Whatever the answer, I have a feeling we’re not going to find it at the Met, or in a biennial.