Hammer Time: An Exhibition of Institutional Critique

08/31/2011 4:00 AM |

In Nietzsche’s 1889 treatise Twilight of the Idols—whose subtitle curator Raúl Zamudio borrowed for this exhibition at White Box (though September 10)—he criticizes Christianity and many foregoing philosophers for denying the primacy of lived experience. Artists in this group show direct similar critiques at institutions of all stripes, from corporations and political parties to entire governments and, of course, museums—entering the gallery, visitors have to walk around Istvan Kantor‘s jumpy video “No More Dead Boring Museum Art” (2011). Many of the 27 works included follow Nietzsche’s lead and undermine Christian iconography. Pasha Radetzki‘s “Slit Ma” (2007-09) features a generic statuette of the Virgin Mary on a cutting board with a circular saw blade slicing between the figure’s legs. Meanwhile Joaquin Segura‘s “Battle of Hamburger Hill” (2011), a pile of McDonald’s hamburgers topped with a small American flag, takes aim at nationalistic myth-making. Wim Delvoye also subverts ubiquitous brands in “Cloaca,” a mashup of Mr. Clean, Ford’s blue oval and the Coca-Cola typeface peddling the artist’s machine-made feces. Such blunt and explicit works have a gratifying instant legibility, but the exhibition’s most interesting pieces are more ambiguous or multi-pronged in their attacks.

The best work on view does feature an object that resembles a crucifix, but nonetheless remains polysemic and completely mesmerizing. New York-based Pole Wojtek Ulrich‘s curiously titled eight-minute video “The Dog” (2011) shows a butchered pig strapped to a vaguely cross-shaped wooden support as it’s devoured by innumerable sharks. On one side of the gallery’s rear room it’s shown in color, which creates a distancing, nature documentary-like effect; but on the other side of the room “The Dog” plays in black and white, and from slightly closer angles. One can’t help identifying with the porcine sacrifice, its sympathetic face jerking back and forth as the sleek fish glide past, each time biting off chunks of the pale, frayed and bloodless flesh. These images’ incredible potency recalls another shark artwork—by Damien Hirst—whose capacity to inspire awe has been nullified by knowledge of its absurd price and complex maintenance requirements. Ulrich’s video keeps the viewer entranced, audio of a diver’s breath providing the only reminder that this act of slow, irrevocable and primal pulling apart had to be orchestrated and recorded.

Two of the exhibition’s other highlights look very specifically and critically at artistic practice and art history. In Brooklynite Daniel Davidson‘s “My Corporation” (2009), a Sim Tower-esque cutaway view inside an eight-story building reveals a factory-sized studio with workshops, galleries, an auction house, offices, a classroom, a seedy bar and a grotesquely catered banquet hall, like all the artist’s discreet routines translated into a unified architecture. Its caricatured inhabitants and Where’s Waldo?-like complexity amount to a funny yet empathetic and critical self-examination. Facing Davidson’s architectural avatar, Zhou Wendou‘s untitled 2006 photo triptych is very differently unsentimental. The first photograph shows the same model of urinal that Marcel Duchamp appropriated for his famous 1917 “Fountain” readymade; in the second image it’s been smashed into a dozen large shards; for the last photo the pieces have been glued into the shape of a vase that looks more like a Cubist painting of a vase. Wendou logs the exhibition’s most forceful critique of modern art history while keeping Duchamp’s cheeky sense of humor intact. It’s also the only piece that literally follows Nietzsche’s directive to philosophize with a hammer.

(Photo: Pasha Radetzki, “Slit Ma,” (2007-09). Courtesy White Box.)