Robert Fulford's column about conceptual art

(The National Post, August 8, 2000)

In a room at the Vancouver Art Gallery, some live crickets sit in a little enclosure while a microphone picks up their chirping and broadcasts it through amplifiers to the people touring the gallery. The crickets are a crucial element in The Monsters of Rock Tour, which a Swedish artist, Henrik Hakansson, has contributed to Mirror's Edge, a big international show of conceptual art.

Mirror's Edge started out last fall at the Swedish city of Umea, moved from there to Vancouver (where it closes on Sunday) and will soon go to Turin and then Glasgow. The catalogue, written in the precise manner beloved by art curators, identifies the type of cricket used (Acheta domestica) but fails to specify whether the same colony of crickets is appearing in all four cities.

These little creatures and their accompanying sound equipment were chosen for inclusion in Mirror's Edge by Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-American curator who put together the exhibition. Enwezor is no fool. He's a figure of significance in international art, now renowned (and much courted) as the artistic director of Documenta XI, to be held at Kassel, Germany, in 2002.

Every five years, Documenta, a gigantic art exhibit, helps define current ideas in art. Artists go there to have their work ratified by international opinion; success at Documenta can lift an artist from obscurity to a place among those who matter. Dealers and collectors go there to find out what's happening -- and even those who find it disappointing never question its importance.

Hakansson's The Monsters of Rock Tour is what I think of as "curator's art," meaning that it requires an official interpretation. Here is Enwezor's explanation: "Hakansson's quasi-investigation of nature through the translocation of a piece of the natural habitat into the museum, which is then magnified through a live and continuous broadcast of sounds from that habitat ..." That's either incredibly simple or entirely meaningless. No one knows which, and no one needs to know. Art audiences have long since become reconciled to incomprehensible art and the incomprehensible prose that goes with it.

Another item, Carousel 1996 by Ceal Floyer, consists of a 45 rpm record that runs perpetually, emitting through attached speakers a series of clicks and bumps. Of this work, Enwezor remarks: "As for Floyer, the works have such strong conceptual tightness that sometimes it's easy to miss it or the point of it," a comment with which few will entirely disagree.

Long ago, a cynical poet in Paris remarked, "Everything changes but the avant-garde." The most remarkable fact about the Vancouver show is that almost everything it contains could have been made in 1975. Conceptual art itself is now ancient, by the standards of modern culture. It began in the 1960s, spread widely in the 1970s, and has flourished ever since.

Never in the history of art have so many been baffled by so much for so long. Consider, by comparison, that Cubism lasted no more than 20 years, Fauvism (which introduced Matisse) only three years, Pop Art a decade at most. But conceptual art rolls on and on. It long ago outlived many of the prominent people who dismissed it as a silly fad.

Conceptual art lacks critics who are at once skeptical, coherent, informed and friendly. In this way it resembles Freudian theory. As any Freudian will tell you, it's impossible to understand the main issues without being immersed in the subject through psychoanalysis. But once you are so immersed, you are, permanently, a Freudian -- and cannot see the subject except from inside.

So with conceptual art. Talk to someone committed to it and you realize you might as well be talking to the adherent of a faith-based religion. A follower of conceptual art cannot imagine that current art could or should take another form. Those who laugh at its pretensions, or for that matter at its crickets, are considered ignorant and unsophisticated savages, their ideas clearly not worth discussing.

This is not to condemn all of conceptual art or even all of Mirror's Edge. Enwezor has included several items I enjoyed, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs of American movie theatres in which the screen is a blank white rectangle. It's an ironic comment on -- well, forget that, it doesn't much matter, but it's a cute little series. (On the other hand, I can't imagine wanting to see it a second time.) I found a film piece by Lisa Roberts, pretentiously titled to "derive an approach," charming -- though not more than that.

Enwezor has said the inspiration for the show came from Las Meninas, the great and wonderfully complex Velázquez painting in the Prado. That remark may be the most outlandish aspect of the whole show. It's true that a mirror plays a large role in Las Meninas, and there are reference to mirrors in this show, but no other characteristic links that masterpiece with the minor gestures now filling the Vancouver gallery.

Strangely, a museum exhibiting conceptual art often manages (as in this case) to be less interesting than the world outside. Mirror's Edge may stimulate a thought here and there, but it's rather less stimulating than certain things to be found a few blocks away -- the wonderful chaos of items in a dollar store, for example, or the social history that opens itself to any thoughtful patron of a Goodwill Store, or the mad, awe-inspiring variety at Home Depot. These are culturally rich environments, beside which a conceptual art exhibit is thin gruel. Conceptual art deals less in concepts than in notions, hints and inklings.

It would be impossible to speculate on why Enwezor included any particular piece. In conceptual art, the total disdain for standards disarms serious discussion. No one can say that one piece works and another doesn't, or why one piece rises above all others.

In the show at the Vancouver gallery, a visitor's only basis for agreeing or disagreeing with the curator's choice is personal whim. Sometimes the work seems attractive to me, sometimes meaningless, sometimes blindingly simple-minded. And at the end of a searching tour of Mirror's Edge, essential questions remain. Why in the world would anyone want to spend time making this stuff? Why would anyone want to exhibit it? Its admirers will say it is an art of mystery; but the central mystery is why it persists.

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