Why am I Walking Through a Gallery Full of Tires?

10/15/2009 11:23 AM |

A viewer’s first response to art will vary from exhibition to exhibition, but it typically begins at the art’s materials and placement. When I first entered the new Hauser and Wirth space uptown the question I asked myself was, “Why am I walking through a gallery full of tires?” As it turns out, this is exactly the sort of inquiry intended by William Pope.L, one of three artists commissioned by the gallery to recreate the 1961 Allan Kaprow piece Yard (Josiah McElheny and Sharon Hayes will recreate the public work in Queens and downtown Manhattan respectively). As Pope.L well knew, when the piece was first conceived, people didn’t question why they were moving around the tires, as the act was seen as a means of blurring life and art. In other words, the bulk of Kaprow’s audience were cohorts working toward the same end, as opposed to many of the casual viewers looking at contemporary art today.

In part because gallerygoers are often far less personally invested than those working in the field, artists frequently seek to create works that make people think. As such, Pope.L makes his audience question the meaning of materials and space, particularly in relationship to themselves. There’s no short interpretation to this piece, but given that the work is a recreation of Yard, we can understand the tires in terms of Kaprow’s original intent for the piece&#8212an act meant to stake out the artist’s unique claims for art as Happenings and Environments, outside the gallery space. Pope.L wants the audience to find a newer meaning in his recreation, so the installation necessarily has more components: A web of sparsely dispersed, tiny red lights hang over the piled car wheels at the back of the dimly lit gallery; a video tracking the progress of the simulated decay of bodies in Vaseline-smothered bags screens above the gallery’s front desk; and a robust voice overhead orates a manifesto of Pope.L’s and Kaprow’s combined writing. In the blackened front window of the gallery, Pope.L adds a screen running live footage of the installation for the public to see.

There’s a bleak sci-fi, futuristic feel to the exhibition space; the tires themselves are dirty. The subject of the piece can in large part be told by the history of its materials. Pope.L intentionally leads his audience to think about the effects of industrial materials on the human psyche. Fake decaying bodies nobody wants to deal with because they’re covered in Vaseline certainly suggest a rather dim situation, albeit overstated.

Meanwhile, the voice orating over top of the installation rings through the space. “Formal art must be made of a substance that is at once unstable and general in meaning,” a man recites, slowly and deliberately. Intended to be that of Obama, the voice only occasionally sounds like him, in part because he’s not speaking as himself, but reciting Pope.L and Kaprow. On the one hand, this inconsistency may simply re-enforce Pope.L’s belief stated above&#8212don’t make art that’s too obvious&#8212but if no one can identify the voice without the press release, its signified power will be lost on many.

Although the meaning of each passage in the speech isn’t always clear, consistent orders to rearrange the tires, paired with gloomy sentiments about the moral fabric of the country, suggest that change may be just as much an illusion of reality as the impersonator himself. After all, what good does it do to move a bunch of tires around? No matter what you do to them, they’re still there and they’re still tires. They still do all the harmful things garbage dumps do. This sentiment doubles as a statement on art itself, at least as Kaprow defined it. You can work outside of the gallery, use whatever weird-ass materials you like, but art lives in answering real age-old questions like, “Why am I walking through this gallery of tires?”