Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps at Serpentine Gallery

It’s nearly impossible to talk about a show of Sturtevant’s work and have it understood. Like a book, you have to start at the beginning. The key to Sturtevant is context.

In 1964’s New York City, Elaine Sturtevant sent shock waves through the art world when she started making replicas of the work of her contemporaries. For this, she received a tremendous amount of crap. The entire art market (as well as some artists) weren’t having her curve-ball critique, and they certainly didn’t care for the reasons why a replica of an art object could create a powerful platform for thought. Or as she puts it, “It’s not the object in itself but rather what occurs—that radical leap from image to concept.” Throughout her career, she has stated that the work was never about appropriation or copying, and in turn, she has made Marcel Duchamps, Frank Stellas, Felix González-Torreses, Joseph Beuyses, most of the Pop guys, Paul McCarthy’s Painter, and even Anselm Kiefer’s enormous lead plane.

Sturtevant. Sex Dolls, 2011; installation view, Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps, 2013; Courtesy Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones

Over the years, she’s had a knack for making the work of important artists just as their work was becoming relevant to the critique. She made Andy Warhol’s Flowers series right after he did, with the same screen, which he lent to her. During a lecture, Warhol, having been asked too many times about how his pictures were made, responded with: “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.” Now, this tale is told by everyone who writes about Sturtevant’s work, but what is amazing isn’t that this statement plays nicely into Sturtevant’s early concerns about thought, authorship, and origin, but that it could be the very moment in the art world where simulacra becomes tangible. The “originator” no longer is the authority and defers to the “reproducer.” Years later, Gilles Deleuze writes, “The simulacrum is not a degraded copy. It harbors a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction. At least two divergent series are internalized in the simulacrum—neither can be assigned as the original, neither as the copy…” (Plato and the Simulacrum, 1990). Sturtevant started making her replicas well before the topics of authorship and simulacra were discussed in literature or philosophy. Essentially, she’s been ahead of the curve.

Sturtevant. Installation view, Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps, 2013; Courtesy Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones

Around the turn of the century, Sturtevant’s artistic concerns shifted. This switch in artistic output happened at just the time when the rest of the art world got its collective head around what she’s been up to all these years. In 2011, she was awarded the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and only her replicas were referenced in the introduction. Compared to the newer work, the older work that got her in so much trouble now seems much easier to talk about. The replicas engage the viewer with the premise of “concept over image.” Sturtevant has pushed that premise further with the newer work to what she calls “image over image”—a hollow place where images and objects are purely surface ideas that defy meaningful thought, a byproduct of a cybersociety where everything is a vehicle to sell you something and in the process informs you on how to think and how to desire.

So it is this newer work concerning her response to “image over image” that makes up her highly engaging show Leaps Jumps and Bumps, at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park. If you happen to walk up to the Serpentine Gallery from the northwest, you will be greeted, through the gallery’s French doors, by a line of sixteen plastic blowup dolls (Sex Dolls [2011]) peering out at you with a surprised look at your arrival. Inside the gallery, the dolls have their collective backs to the viewer. They appear to be all identical and male but are missing their genitalia. The only exaggerated orifice is the mouth. Literally and contextually, the only entry into the work is by the part of the body that consumes. They represent the possibility of sex but are so far removed from the original source that they can only be a vague symbol, an object with no meaning beyond its surface and no practical use.

Sturtevant. Sex Dolls, 2011; installation view, Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps, 2013; Courtesy Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones

There are many videos in the show that illustrate the same point. Take Rock & Rap Act 3 Simulacra, 2012. The piece is made up of short cuts of promotional stock footage of animals in their natural habitat, time-lapse photography of nature, and athletic bodies in motion sourced from the BBC Motion Gallery and iStockvideo. You can tell the source because of the constant watermark imprint that boldly announces the authoring institution from which the footage was taken. The watermark, which was to protect intellectual property, has now become the top layer of the simulacrum. There is a rhythm to the quick, MTV-style edits, and the soundtrack matches the video with a repetitious drum track that occasionally pauses, creating a sense that something different is about to happen—but then only continues and repeats. How far removed are these images from their original sources and how many times has the context changed? Taking a quick stab at it, I’d say at least five big leaps. From Sturtevant’s gesture taken from an online gallery via a corporate marketing team taken from a post production company taken from a videographer taken from a brief moment in time that ceased to have its original context the moment it was filmed. At each stage, the image appears to be the same but what each shift represents is very different, to the point where its context of origin can no longer be considered.

There is a whole lot more to the show than the heavy hand of simulacra. Aside from looking good as a whole installation, it is also her most successful museum-style solo show to date. (I’ve seen four). Partly because it’s less compartmentalized than the previous incarnations, but mostly because you can feel the fun she had with installing it. Sex dolls looking out the window of the Serpentine Gallery is just plain funny (a year ago in Stockholm, they were hung on the wall facing the viewer). The spinning projection and accompanying beats of Dillinger Running Series (2000) create the feel of an art disco, and the looping quality of Finite Infinite (2010) with the visual and sound of a dog running in a field along the length of the gallery is beautiful and moving. Having spent a bit of time in the galleries, many young children would engage with the work by running along with the projections, attempting to keep up. The level of playfulness is tangible to everyone.

Sturtevant. Finite Infinite, 2010; installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Photograph: Asa Lundén

There are three Replicas in the show; a Warhol Marilyn, a González-Torres Untitled (America) and six identical Duchamp Fresh Windows. But these versions are not the originals—yes, I said it—as they all date post 2000. So this is the question I am now left pondering: What shifts in the work when Sturtevant has made replicas of her own work? That action pushes the context of the earlier work into a much different place. Once more, everything looks the same but the meaning has again changed. I suspect a clue is to be found in a recent comment from Peter Eleey’s 2009 interview with the artist at the Walker Art Center: “Today, everything is Double, Copy, Redo, Redone, Reload.” By drawing attention to what she calls ‘shifting mental structures’, the context of her own work must shift as well.

Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps is on view at the Serpentine Gallery in London through August 26, 2013.