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Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Big Picture 26

The term Conceptual Art strikes me as redundant. Isn’t all art conceptual? Even the most low brow acts of representation are fuelled by some sort of idea.

When curators today talk about “Conceptual practice”, what they are often doing is alerting you to the fact that you are about to see art about art, or art made within some sort of post-modern framework that privileges pastiche and reference over product and originality.

Fine. Originality is an illusion, and the world is already full of pretty things. However, the problem for the average visitor to a Conceptual show is that there is rarely much to actually look at, because the ideas and processes behind the work are more important than the finished pieces. Inevitably, such shows smack of in-on-itness and exclusion, of art made for other artists. And that’s no fun, even for the artists.

A new survey of recent Conceptual art at the Power Plant goes a long way to curing some of the genre’s worst in-house habits. Although there are definitely moments in this exhibition where one feels one is missing something, and the old brick barn does look a bit spare and grey in spots, Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening (now that’s a passive aggressive title!) is peppered with clever works that seek to break Conceptual art’s audience-maker disconnect and, gasp, entertain the viewer.

Dedicated To You is a very full exhibition, featuring works by fourteen artists from half a dozen countries, so let’s start with the good news.

The first thing most viewers will gravitate to is Scottish artist Dave Allen’s giant birdcage sculpture, the home of two starlings on loan from the Toronto zoo. Based, the brochure tells me, on French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 1959 piano works about birdsongs, the installation seeks to reverse the composer’s creative process by having the birds react to music. Beside the birdcage, a CD of Messiaen’s compositions plays over and over, with the hope that the starlings will eventually begin to mimic it and incorporate the music’s tones into their songs.

Depending on your views on Messiaen, this is either a great vacation for the birds or a form of torture, but there is nothing like art stocked with live animals to turn even the most hardened art watcher into a cooing tender heart. I’m not certain Allen’s menagerie is much more than a sweet one-liner, but I’ll take pleasure whenever I can, and the birds are the most lively things in the gallery.

Equally cute is Zin Taylor’s video projection The Allegorical Function of Dirt, a kind of compost pile tribute to the Eames’s famous marching toy film Parade. Taylor’s camera caresses clumps of brown stalactites and mini earth mounds as if he were filming a tray of jewellery for a commercial, or an especially scrumptious assortment of pastries. The gag, of course, is that the dirt forms resemble dollops of poop.

The chipper, nursery room ambient music that accompanies Taylor’s video only reinforces the sandbox silliness of the project – and yet, Taylor’s excremental landscape grows more and more dreamy, even inviting, the more you watch it unfold. Quirky and fun, the video has the same gentle appeal as Allen’s birds. Everybody, after all, knows from dirt.

The strongest work in Dedicated is, not accidentally, the work with the most to say. Jennifer Allora, an American, and Guillermo Calzadilla, a Cuban, have collaborated on a series of performances and works to protest the US military’s presence, and activities, in Puerto Rico. The resulting works are full of both conceptual cleverness and real-life content (a rarity in the over-academicized ivory tower of conceptual art).

At first glance, Allora and Calzadilla’s photographs of foot prints on sand are not much to look at – until you realize that the footprints are from specially made shoes that contain political slogans and cartoons. Although some of the actual text is hard to read, the general anti-military stance is clear enough. It is hard not to read these quiet acts of resistance as a commentary on the futility of dissent in Dubya’s America, on trying to fight tanks with sand castles.

But just when that gloomy thought slides in, Allora and Calzadilla present “Returning A Sound”, an exuberant video that follows a young man on a pimped-out motorcycle as he zooms across a plot of Puerto Rican jungle abandoned by the US army. The former tank roads and landing strips are littered with washed out warnings to the public not to enter the military grounds – warnings the cyclist cheerfully ignores – and the green jungle is gradually reclaiming the bunkers and shooting galleries. To celebrate the arrival of peace, the cyclist attaches a trumpet to his muffler and blasts the hills and valleys with joyful noise.

The urgency of Allora and Calzadilla’s art both helps and hinders the overall exhibition. Without these works, Dedicated would be too much of a wank off, a collection of largely meaningless, if sometimes fun, artist parlour games. The downside is that as soon as you realize Allora and Calzadilla are the meat in the sandwich, you begin to notice all the pale iceberg lettuce taking up space.

Andrew Dadson’s lacklustre photographs of a neighbour’s ugly hauling trailer are, well, about as attractive and alluring as they sound. Apparently, the photos are meant to record Dadson’s minor acts of suburban resistance (he moved the unwanted trailer slowly down the street over a period of days), but when compared to images of successful anti-war actions, Dadson’s minor vandalism doesn’t amount to much. And, without the information I just provided, you’d be hard pressed to know why you were looking at these boring pictures of a trailer in the first place.

UK artist Jeremy Deller’s wall sized mural delineating the connections between 1980’s British popular music and key political events is equally unimpressive. Deller has done some solid political work before, such as restaging key protests and strikes, but this inflated nerd’s guide to underground music and civil strife trivializes the events Deller seeks to highlight and turns living history into a doodle (which, granted, may be Deller’s point, but we already know we’re living in a dumbed down time). Rarely has so much space been used to say so little.

Similarly, Jonathan Monk uses the loaded terrain of Afghanistan to indulge in a bit of T.E. Lawrence-style romance, complete with postcard images of impoverished locals. Although this work comes with buried references to a dead Italian poet, and thus, indirectly, Eurocentric visions of the Middle East, Monk can’t overcome the flat truth that his project is about as visually interesting as a plate of beige hummus.

The Mexican collective Tercerunquinto contributes a door to the proceedings. Yes, a door. A standard glass door built into a side wall of the gallery. That must have taken, what, a minute and a half of thought?

Another collective, G.L.N., offers a video record of a series of performances wherein the artists sat outside and made cheesy electronic music to accompany their surroundings. I guess they had fun. Too bad the music sucks.

Despite the show’s brighter moments, too much of Dedicated is taken up by works like those above - thin jokes that engage the viewer for about 15 seconds.

While viewers will undoubtedly walk away (sometimes very quickly) from this show with a partial realization that conceptual art doesn’t have to be dour and overly theoretical, they will also realize that, too often, time spent with conceptual art is time wasted waiting for something to happen.