“Without You I Am Nothing: Art and Its Audience”
Museum of Contemporary Art
November 20, 2010–May 1, 2011
It is a well-worn cliché: the aloof artist, creating in solitude,
purposefully ignoring the critics and the hoi polloi, seeking not
accolades but only the purest expression of his or her singular
inner vision. This exaggerated stereotype may make for an
entertaining Hollywood biopic, but, as most artists know, their
work needs to engage an audience. British artist Liam Gillick
puts it this way: “Without people, it’s not art—it’s something
else—stuff in a room.” Art broadcasts ideas through visual and
other sensory media. The work is completed when someone else
absorbs the message.
In this spirit, the artists of “Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Its
Audience,” an exhibition now on view at Chicago’s Museum of
Contemporary Art, casts the viewer as an active participant in an
artwork’s full meaning. Some works invite sensory engagement:
enter, sit, touch, or listen. Others, despite being for a viewer’s
eyes only, are less effective at tweaking perception, intellect,
or emotion. In both cases, the artworks become catalysts for a
reassessment of preconceptions.
The show spans two large galleries: one dedicated to
“engagement” (no touching, please) and another that encourages
viewers to “activate” the art. It is in the latter that visitors find
a few “Romper Room” moments, as in Andrea Zittel’s crawl-
through-to-experience A-Z Cellular Compartment Units (2001).
Have you ever wanted to lounge inside an enormous clamshell?
Vito Acconci did, and now you can too, thanks to his fiberglass
Convertible Clam Shelter (1990).
Robert Heinecken’s Man Dealing the Four Elements (1998) and
Woman With Cats (1998)—life-sized cardboard cutouts of Pamela
Anderson and Michael Richards as Seinfeld’s Kramer used as
vehicles for Heinecken’s signature brand of cultural criticism—
bring grins of recognition as visitors are invited to pose with the
figures. Despite these and other dashes of levity, the somberness
of Chris Burden’s The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991) fills the room.
Beautiful and massive, the symbolic monument resembles a
Rolodex turned on its side; etched on the huge copper panels are
three million names representing the citizens of Vietnam who
perished during that conflict.
In the “engagement” gallery, visitors touch with their eyes, not
with their hands. The opening of “Without You I’m Nothing”
coincides with Chicago’s descent into another icy gray winter,
so one can forgive the many visitors lingering before the radiant
orange light of Olafur Eliasson’s Eye see you (2006). Ringed with
bulbs, the massive dish beams light throughout the gallery. The
light is from the same monofrequency bulbs commonly used in
street lamps—bulbs designed to suppress our ability to see colors
beyond yellow, black, and white. The sculpture’s duplicity (I
happily basked in light I found perceptually pleasing when, in
fact, I was being stripped of perception) was a vibrant reminder
that both emotion and sensory interpretation—the cornerstones
of our individual reality—can be manipulated.
Eliasson’s sculpture is not the only work engaging viewers
through light, optical perception, and reflections. One can see
everything in the gallery reflected in the flawless surface of Jeff
Koons’s greatest hit, Rabbit (1986). Liam Gillick’s Untitled (“The
What If? Scenario” Discussion Platform) (1996) uses aluminum
poles and colored plexiglass squares to create a shelter under
which people may gather to discuss and interact, as light falling
through the plexiglass projects gentle colors onto the wall and
floor below. Robert Irwin’s painted convex disc, Untitled (1968),
is brightly illuminated by white spotlights; perception of the disc
changes as one moves around the gallery—jutting out from the
wall when viewed at an angle, and disappearing almost entirely
when faced head-on. Visual perception is once again revealed
as highly unreliable.
In the “engagement” gallery, one might be surprised to find
that there is no organized flow or intended path to follow
through the numerous displays of art. Such a designed layout is
a subtle reminder of art as a singular and personal experience.
The placement of these works in a single, divisionless gallery,
however, makes the one-on-one experience of any individual
piece difficult—especially when every so often, a quiet-shattering
“KLONG” from Dennis Oppenheim’s An Attempt to Raise Hell
(1974) fills the gallery, and the light of Eliasson’s sculpture
affects every other piece in its vicinity. Canadian artist Andrew
Dadson’s The End Is The Beginning (2009) features dozens of
fluorescent tubes hung side-by-side to form a large, flat rectangle.
A thick layer of opaque black paint slopped over the whole piece
is scratched, allowing slivers of illumination to escape. The mass
of electric light emits a palpable physical warmth. The potent
combination of repressed light, radiant heat, and bulky mass is
deeply engaging—yet the glossy finish of the paint reflects the
orange of Eliasson’s Eye, so Dadson’s black monolith sports an
undulating orange stripe across its middle.
With all these interactive, loud, bright, and shiny artworks vying
eagerly for my ears, eyes, and fingertips, I found myself most
entranced by Tony Oursler’s comparatively staid Guilty (1995).
Ousler is well known for his video sculptures featuring googly
eyeballs and ghastly green-skinned faces, but compared to the
trademark visual weirdness of his better-known work, Guilty is
particularly plain. A female “figure” (actually an empty pink
dress with a pillow for a head) lies on the gallery floor—her
“head” trapped beneath a dingy mattress. Onto the pillow we see
a video projection of a woman’s face, angrily sneering and vocally
accusing the viewer, yet never alluding to what horrors we may
have actually committed. Instead of aggressively grabbing for my
senses, as many of the other works in this exhibition do, the subtle
fear and anxiety inspired by Guilty evokes the real and imagined
fears of our psyche, making it a relatively quiet standout in an
exhibition of artwork pleading for attention.
Luke Strosnider is a Chicago-based artist, arts writer, and educator.
For more of his writings and projects visit www.lukestrosnider.com.