Yesterday, throngs of high society New Yorkers appeared to be flocking to 24th Street to see Damien Hirst’s spots and Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, while the young and hip popped into C24 to see the group show “Campaign” curated by Amy Smith-Stewart. Chelsea is maddening if you disdain the commercial art world. I wanted to stop everyone before stepping foot in Gagosian where some of Hirst’s spot paintings live, and tell them that they don’t need to see the work. Spots are spots, and they are made to be as pleasing and universal as possible. It is unimportant what one glimpses in the presence of the paintings—it is only important that one either tours the spots or refuses, as one’s presence in the gallery serves to raise the price tags of the work. Like much of Hirst’s work, the spots exploit the economic whim of the bored, dim-witted commercial art world, and that makes all of us rubberneckers (and even scornful writers who refuse to hyperlink, for that matter) mere pawns.
While I didn’t step foot in Gagosian, I did venture into Mary Boone to see Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, only to feel a sense of embarrassment. I love Ai’s work, and I very much love this piece. I longed to go to the Tate and push a rake through the seeds bare-footed, as if meditating in a Zen garden. To hell with the health risks of inhaling porcelain dust. And it was touching to know that Ai sent individual sunflower seeds to any of his Twitter followers who requested as much. Stepping into Mary Boone, I could not mentally get past the well-groomed crowd camped out around the work, staring vacantly into the equally well-groomed sea of porcelain objects. I recalled a particularly shallow review in a listing in The New Yorker—“Were it not for Ai’s extraordinary political courage, would his art be famous? … What it’s about, who knows? Maybe think of it as world performance art, for everybody.” Well, I happen to know “what it’s about” because I watched this video (and you can, too!).
The idea that all art, especially high art, must be seen and felt in person is a myth. No longer do you need to be in the same room with a work of art, intentionally avoiding any prior knowledge of it, with the purpose of pulling a deep, personal connection out of thin air. So much of a work’s aura is online, in the form of professional visual documentation, the high level of discourse flying around Twitter, blogs, and large online publications that is now standard for any decent show or work of art, and, of course, spin-off art works. By no means do I suggest that we should all stay inside our homes, surfing the internet, because the art in person doesn’t live up to its online profile. There is a joy in going out and seeing art in its intended context, especially when it means mingling with the artists, curators, and critics who enliven the conversation. But today, this joy is only one facet of the full experience of a work, and no one has any excuse for the lack of understanding of a work or it’s social, historical, formal or political context. With all of this information at our finger tips, we should be interrogating our reasoning and desire to see art in person. In the case of Hirst’s spots, we must be cognizant of how our wandering into the gallery affects the work before we are standing in the thick of it, implicated. Conversely, one might feel a sense of duty flocking to Mary Boone and basking in the pristine, international idolatry of the artist whose national government alternates between ignoring and harassing him.
Eventually I found myself across the street at C24. I came to see “Campaign” because I was intrigued by the list of participating artists and the reputation of the former P.S.1 curator, Amy Smith-Stewart. While I have opinions galore (I felt like I was walking into Urban Outfitters, minus all the clothes), I regret to say that I don’t feel comfortable fully reviewing the show, as I was not present on opening night to see the performances. In this case, and in the case of every show that includes performances on opening night (or any chance of being shut down or restricted for health or safety reasons like the Sunflower Seeds at the Tate), physical presence is a time-sensitive must. If only I were well-enough connected in the art world to have marked my calendar in advance for this one… I should get out more!