#Hashtags: The Politics of Rehearsal

#institutions #revision #making #access #nostalgia

The second Made in L.A. biennial at the UCLA Hammer Museum indicates both the scope and diversity of the city’s many emerging and early-mid-career artists, and the pull that the art academy continues to exert on artists long after the completion of their degrees. The biennial’s emergence in 2012 marked a milestone in the evolution of Los Angeles as an art capital, no longer content to wait for New York to eventually anoint its hottest up-and-comers. Working from, and against, the example of the Whitney Biennial, which launches many international careers each year (but really should be subtitled “Made (Mostly) in NYC”), Made in L.A. 2014 further develops its predecessor’s approach of surveying Los Angeles artists with an eye to the broad ethnic, gender, and medium diversity that is apparent throughout the city’s artistic landscape. Even so, there is a conceptual through line to much of the work on view, which seems to be in rapture to an absent past or an unknown future.

On initial viewing, it would appear that being present in the moment is difficult to achieve in Los Angeles, as artists’ works fluctuate between unarticulated malaise and utopian ambition. At times the v0ice of an influential senior artist comes across more strongly than that of the exhibiting artist. I perceived the euphoria of youth, but also the collective malaise of young people who have been disempowered to make change by being inundated with the revolutionary nostalgia of previous generations.

Emily Mast. B!RDBRA!N (Epilogue), 2012. Exhibition and performance as part of Public Fiction’s  Theatricality and Sets series. Photographer: Anitra Haendel.

Emily Mast. B!RDBRA!N (Epilogue), 2012; exhibition and performance as part of Public Fiction’s
Theatricality and Sets series. Photographer: Anitra Haendel.

From the start, I was struck with a sense of perpetual rehearsal for a performance that never comes. Installations by KCHUNG and Public Fiction were the first I encountered, and both were primed for potential action that had either already passed or not yet begun. KCHUNG, an indie radio station run by an artist collective, had set up a broadcast booth, but no information about programming was made available. Public Fiction had locked their space and labeled the outside, leading visitors to fumble in surprise when the normally accessible gallery space refused them entry. While such hiccups may be characteristic of large institutions’ difficulties in interpreting performative practices for audiences, this initial experience set an antagonistic tone.

Every two weeks during the run of the show, Public Fiction will install a different project in which an artist will be paired with a writer at the Hammer while a third artist performs at the collective’s downtown space for the same duration. They work with artists whose practices span installation and performance, such as Emily Mast, whose work is also on view in the museum. Mast’s crude sculptures made from quotidian materials double as props for absurdist performances. Her work is informed by the French–Californian artist Guy de Cointet, who pioneered the stage-prop approach on which her work relies. In the context of the Hammer, it is difficult to understand the full scope of her work, not least because her video and sculptural installation, shown on two different floors, are both crammed into interstitial passageways that severely compromise the work’s viewing. Whether this is due to overcrowding (the show occupies the whole museum, including the permanent-collection galleries), or by the artist’s design as a means of problematizing the work’s reception, is unclear.

Clarissa Tossin. Brasília, Cars, Pools and Other Modernities, 2009-13 (still). Volkswagen Brasilia,  cleaning pool equipment. Dimensions variable. Originally commissioned and produced by  Artpace San Antonio. Courtesy of the artist.

Clarissa Tossin. Brasília, Cars, Pools, and Other Modernities, 2009-13 (still); Volkswagen Brasilia,
pool-cleaning equipment. Dimensions variable. Originally commissioned and produced by
Artpace San Antonio. Courtesy of the Artist.

Clarissa Tossin addresses nostalgia and challenges stasis in her installation, in which she tiles the museum lobby’s staircase like a swimming pool and parks a Volkswagen Brasília at the center. Driving the car from its namesake city to Los Angeles, she sought to gain access to a private home in Santa Monica that is the only work that Brasília’s architect Oscar Niemeyer ever created in the United States. Brasília, the capital of Brazil, is strategically located at the center of the country’s large landmass, and was inaugurated in 1960 as a Socialist vision of Utopian governance. The Brasília car represented a similar achievement in the eyes of the people, as it was wholly designed and built in the country. These two forms represent the parallel evolution of Modernism in Brazil in the mid-20th century, which, like other non-Western Modernisms that emerged around the globe, is better understood as a complement to than as an outgrowth of Euro-American Modernism. The utilitarian car had the added benefit of disguising Tossin, who posed as a pool cleaner to access the Niemeyer-designed home when permission was impossible to gain. Tossin’s route highlights the interconnectedness of North and South America. Her intervention draws attention to the elitist tendencies that still plague the application of Marxist-derived political philosophies within artistic as well as postcolonial spheres, and to the unseen labor required to maintain the Utopian facades of Modernism.

Channing Hansen. Polytope Soap, 2013. Handspun and dyed Merino, Corriedale, Cheviot, holographic polymers, Romney, and Teeswater Locks, yak down, silk noils, commercial thread,  cotton, viscose, polyamide, and cedar. 58 x 56 in. (147.3 x 142.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Joshua White.

Channing Hansen. Polytope Soap, 2013; hand-spun and dyed Merino, Corriedale, Cheviot, holographic polymers, Romney, and Teeswater Locks, yak down, silk noils, commercial thread,
cotton, viscose, polyamide, and cedar; 58 x 56 in. (147.3 x 142.2 cm). Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Joshua White.

Channing Hansen’s Quantum Paintings are crocheted visualizations of the warps and wefts of space–time derived from mathematical models. These incredibly clever artworks are also formally intriguing. The use of different yarns allows for a variety of scales and textures to emerge. The variety of source models leads to gaps and protrusions evocative of Modernism’s blurred boundaries between painting/sculpture and figure/ground. Hansen makes compelling work that packs a conceptual punch. He’s also not the only artist in Los Angeles to use fiber as a means of physically describing intangible mathematical phenomena.

Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring have been conducting explorations of this kind and exhibiting them widely since at least 2005, initiated by mathematician Daina Taimina, who hit upon the idea of crochet as a means to describe hyperbolic space in 1997. This is not to say that Hansen’s work looks similar, or even that he takes a similar approach. Rather, the comparison is instructive because it demonstrates how two artists with established practices in Los Angeles are considered differently with respect to their locations within the city’s arts ecosystem. It’s difficult to discern whether Hansen’s presence and IFF’s absence result from Hansen’s work being “painting” rather than “sculpture,” from individual vs. collective authorship, from family connections, or from the preference for men with MFAs over women with varied backgrounds in anointing craft practices as art. That distinction has marked the craft revival that has swept contemporary art this past decade, but is absent from the larger maker culture that is rapidly displacing art as the public’s benchmark of aesthetic achievement.

In keeping with the repetition of ideas across history, the title of this text is taken from a work by Francis Alÿs that lent its name to the retrospective exhibition organized by the Hammer in 2007–08. That show explored the Sisyphean nature of 21st-century art, as gesture or process for its own sake, inevitably futile. Several years later, the processes have become more elaborate and the gestures more overt. Still, the emphasis on replay rankles in a biennial of current art.

Made in L.A. 2014 is on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through September 7, 2014.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.