I visited Ocean of Images at the Museum of Modern Art with some trepidation – for me, any foray into the museum is a challenge given the mobs of tourists and the pervasive sense that we are all there on a sort of obligatory pilgrimage. It’s been that way for a long time, so nothing new about that.
As a working artist myself, I am of two minds about going to museum survey shows that present contemporary work. On the one hand, I want to know what is going on, or what is perceived as representing the zeitgeist. On the other hand, I want to protect and cultivate my own process of working and seeing, which sometimes requires keeping blinders in place, staying focused on one’s own path. Knowing the risks, I usually go.
DIS. A Positive Ambiguity (beard, lectern, teleprompter, wind machine, confidence). 2015
Ocean of Images is the latest installment of the photography department’s New Photography series, which attempts to target the most interesting or innovative work of the present. Although the curators assert that their selection for the current show was driven by the work of the artists rather than fitting into some preconceived idea – “post-internet,” e.g. – let me just say, it has been observed by others, that very little in the show consists of what might be called recognizable photography. Actually, there are plenty of pieces that utilize photography in a fairly direct way, but when they do, they are displayed as components of installations. The whole exhibition is itself a kind of installation of installations. A simulacrum of an exhibition, if you will.
I lasted about five minutes in there. My ability to think was overwhelmed by a loud humming. Like a lizard’s brain. Or the sound of an ocean of images roaring from a conch shell. For a brief moment I entertained the notion that I was hopelessly out of step, and that I hated installations, even though, truth be told, I am presently working on a large installation piece making use of photographs from my World Trade Center project.
Anyway, I wandered into another gallery, this one an exhibition called Endless House about the concept of “house” using drawings, photographs, models, and films, and I was enthralled by all of it. I watched, mesmerized for ten minutes, Gordon Matta-Clark’s grainy super-8 film documentation of his piece Splitting, in which he physically cuts a house in two with power tools and his own sweaty brawn.
And I was momentarily thrown for a loop by a drawing by Thomas Schütte of a glassy modernist house entitled Vacation House for Terrorists, which sent a shiver through me as I contemplated the dissonance between the bourgeois comforts of modernism and the destructive violence of terrorism, and the idea that terrorists might want or desire a vacation house. There was also an immersive and disorienting photo environment by Annett Zinsmeister, a repeating window pattern of a highrise housing project that could be walked in, and on.
And then I saw the Jackson Pollock exhibition, which is spectacular, and I felt all right again. Art can be exciting, groundbreaking, thought provoking, moving, even beautiful.
Back to work.