Art, we’re told, offers us new and different ways of seeing and thinking about contemporary issues. We are better for having it in our lives. This mantra pays great dividends to many of us working in the art world; while poor, at least we love what we do. That love, though, can sometimes blind us. In our desire to share our love for art, we may fail to ask: who are our exhibitions serving? Does the public benefit from them? What will they learn?
How Much Do I Owe You?, an exhibition launched by the nonprofit No Longer Empty, shows the dangers of not considering these questions seriously enough. Situated in a Long Island City building that once housed Bank of Manhattan and its subsequent incarnation as Chase, the show centers on the theme of money, continuing curator Manon Slome’s interest in creating shows that respond to the history of the buildings they take over.
If the show’s theme is money, the building is the first exhibit. Its high ceilings cradle views of the passing 7 train, creating a sense of movement and elegant grandeur only architecture can afford. The building is a find, and a credit to No Longer Empty’s credo for filling disused spaces with art. It’s the sole element in the show that represents the upper class, and undoubtedly the most effective metaphor for money in the show.
Everything else is a disaster. The curator and the artists share the blame: much of the art is shoved into the bays of the building, and nearly all of it is poorly considered. Even the first works you see, Keiko Miyamori’s typewriters cast in resin, have little or no connection to the show’s theme.
In the context of this show, that might not be so bad; it’s certainly better than the show’s endless reminders that the rich have more power than the poor. The wall label, though, is having none of this; instead it attempts to connect the work to banking deregulation, with the argument (if you can even call it that) that these objects look like they are from another era, and banks now use state-of-the-art technology.
The space is overrun with wall labels. They vary in accuracy—Slome gets confused anytime she encounters formalism—and tell viewers exactly how to interpret the work. In most cases, they simply serve as an analogue to the work, which is generally so simplistic that there’s no need to see the piece.
Good examples are Ghost of a Dream's labor-intensive mosaics made of lotto tickets—which look like and communicate exactly what you’d think—and Jen Dalton’s trademark polling stations. Dalton encourages visitors to consider situations in which they had either received more than they had given or vice versa, and make a record of it on the pad provided by the artist. Once the form is filled out and submitted, we get a pin telling us whether we’ve been naughty or nice. Try this at home and save yourself a bit of time.
If that sounds tiresome, there're two more floors where that came from! The worst comes from Orit Ben-Shitrit, who gets the prized location of the bank vault. In her 15-minute video examining our “love/hate relationship with money,” we watch a clown sitting alone in the corner, a pair of two scantily clothed female dancers in white paint slamming themselves against a wall expressively, and a soliloquy about Louis XIV. The piece is an unwitting parody of what video and performance art look like.
This is not an isolated case. Given that, it’s hard to determine exactly how anyone thought this show would benefit the public. How Much Do I Owe You? probably won’t connect with audiences, but it will certainly give them a false impression of how art functions and what it means. Art isn’t best understood as a medium to educate audiences on a specific topic, but rather as a language that combines visual components to create harmony or discord. This is what offers us new ways of seeing and thinking, and what is so sorely lacking in the show. Those who want to learn about money would be better off spending five minutes wandering the halls of Gagosian.
Photo Art Fag City