After seeing the Shepard Fairey exhibition at the ICA and witnessing all the hype drummed up by Fairey’s ‘arrest,’ I’ve felt that the museum, as an institution, has this very tangible presence in what it puts on. When you go see the Titians, or whatever, at the MFA you don’t get a sense of the MFA as an institution with an agenda and a marketing strategy. But, the ICA’s arms and hands seem to be right out in the open. Maybe this is because Renaissance art, for example, sells itself with big name artists, loans from big name museums, and high-value works, while contemporary art doesn’t. To get people to pony up the $15 admission to the relatively small museum to see an artist they’ve probably never heard of before takes a marketing miracle every time an exhibition comes to town.
To me, the success of an ICA exhibition, now that most interested New Englanders have seen the place at least once, comes down to that one picture that saturates the local media in advertising and reviews, serving as a single frame trailer to the entire exhibition. With Fairey, we of course had the Obama OBEY poster, and now although Obama’s countenance is a tough act to follow, we have the dismantled VW Beetle Cosmic Thing.
Contemporary art is a really tough sell. It doesn’t benefit from a popular cannon of famous artists or pictures of inordinately high value. Instead, to most, it’s obscure, inaccessible, and well removed from any kind if popular aesthetic. It engenders reactions like, well, I could do that, and questions of its aesthetic worth, price tag, and place in a museum. When I visit the ICA, there’s always a crowd around the TV in the mediatheque, while the iMacs remain unoccupied except for tour groups and bored children, of people seeking meaning in the looped videos the ICA assembles and produces. I don’t think the ICA anticipated the popularity of that space, or they would have replaced the computers with benches facing a larger screen.
Most visitors require some sort of justification of the exhibition’s status as art and video provides that, as well as some level of meaning and analysis and it serves to authenticate, by showing on a screen, whatever is occupying the gallery space. It’s also simply something to do, a way to occupy a block of time, because if you’re not really that interested, you could probably see Damián Ortega: Do It Yourself in about 15 minutes. It’s only 19 works. Many patrons need to justify their $15 and trek down to Courthouse Station. A quick stroll around a relatively small gallery space doesn’t do that, at least for tourists and locals used to the MFA. Of course keeping people in isn’t really the ICA’s problem, it’s getting them there. A contemporary art somebody doesn’t bring in crowds. It takes an image powerful enough to, though media saturation and local ubiquity, become iconic. Is Ortega’s Elote clasificado (2005, right) eye-catching enough to hook Web browsers or Globe and Phoenix readers? I don’t think so. But Cosmic Thing (2002, below) certainly is.
Ortega's 'Cosmic Thing' (Melissa Ostrow for The Phoenix) and an example of the technical assembly diagrams it recalls
Curator Jessica Morgan speaks on ‘Cosmic Thing’
The Bug is iconic in America. We’re drawn to the cars even when fully assembled. When one’s strung up like this, I don’t think we can resist. Cosmic Thing doesn’t even seem foreign, it looks American and it’s as hip and aesthetically sensible as the Obama OBEY poster. The thing could be an advertisement for Volkswagen. In fact, similar stuff was. VW was years ahead of its time and famously off-beat in its advertising. Have a look at some of the old Beetle ads below and see Roy’s VW Ad Archive for more. See a resemblance? They remind me not only of Cosmic Thing itself, but also the press and advertisements for the exhibition.
Beetle ads from the 1960s
Now, the power Cosmic Thing‘s image in ICA marketing campaigns shouldn’t detract from its power as art. Plenty of canonical American art relies entirely on popular icons; Warhol, Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills. Cosmic Thing (and the Bug) are actually iconic for very different reasons in Mexico. First, the car is still widely in use, and second, as we hear from Jessica Morgan’s commentary, most Mexican Beetle’s are assembled from junk yard parts, very much in the DIY spirit. Cosmic Thing becomes a sculptural assembly manual, an illustrated diagram translated into a 3-dimensional gallery space, so that one may walk amongst the parts ‘pictured.’ Other than being visually arresting without any context and as cool to look at as a good VW ad, that’s what Cosmic Thing does for me. I’m sure IKEA would be interested in commissioning a few sculptures.
Do It Yourself is unfortunately weighed down by the metaphors we’re expected to see and the mealy-mouthed critical rhetoric used to describe them in the the audio commentary and wall-text. Authoritative talk of deconstructed systems, the dynamism of the everyday, and subversion through the ephemeral, doesn’t really ring as true as one would expect. The art isn’t as conceptual as it would like to be. References to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom seem superficially applied, and like the captions of New Yorker cartoons we just don’t get. As has been widely discussed, Orterga’s previous occupation was as a political cartoonist and I think it’s due to this that some of the work breaks the rule they teach you on the first day of art school: don’t make one-liner art. For example, Skin (2007, right). Here Ortega hired a saddle maker to emboss the blueprints of three modernist apartment complexes on leather. The plans hang fragmented from the ceiling in strips. OK, utopian modernist housing goes flop, I get it. Or, False Movement (Stability and Economic Growth) (1999) precariously stacks 3 rusty oil drums atop a spinning platform. If only we had only seen this one last September!
A highlight of the exhibition is 120 Days (2002, below). I think it’s best viewed sans the Marquis de Sade reference. Going off of the feminine form of the Coca-Cola bottle, he had Italian glass blowers distort the familiar basic bottle shape into all sorts of positions that are meant to resemble Marquis de Sade-esque sexual positions, while at the same time contrast artisan glass blowing with mass production and celebrate the diversity of the female figure. I was struck by some of the bottles’ resemblance to the reproductive organs of flowers. I thought of some of the more rudimentary glass flower models at The Harvard Museum of Natural History.
'120 Days' (2002) and a flower diagram
I would still recommend everyone go. You have until January 18th and it’s certainly better than seeing Harry Potter props at the Museum of Science. It is one of the few big exhibitions of the year, and that’s probably why so many, including myself, are hard on it. But, unless you’re an ICA member or college student that receives free admission, I might think about going on Target’s dime some Thursday evening. Because, when one visits a museum, he really shouldn’t feel obligated to get his money’s worth.